A hunger strike by more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails has inspired a wave of nationalist Palestinian demonstrations throughout the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As the prisoners endured their 16th day of fasting Thursday, the Israeli Army clamped curfews on two towns and two refugee camps on the West Bank where demonstrations were held in support of the strikers.
Though the prisoners' demands are aimed at improving living conditions for some 4,100 so-called security prisoners in overcrowded jails on the West Bank and in Israel, their supporters have seized the opportunity to register protest against Israeli occupation.
The hunger strike seems to have captured the imagination of Palestinian youth on the West Bank. Busloads of high school students now travel each day to the Arab East Jerusalem offices of the International Red Cross, where the mothers of hunger striking prisoners await daily reports on the condition of the strikers.
Seemingly well-organized demonstrations and commercial strikes have been held in a growing number of towns and refugee camps as the strike drags on and eight hunger strikers have been hospitalized by Israeli prison authorities. Observers say the actions in support of the fasting prisoners are the most sustained and widespread since a wave of unrest swept the West Bank in 1982.
Israeli prison service officials insisted that the number of hunger strikers has declined from 3,000 to less than 900. One prison service spokesman predicted the strike would end within days.
But Palestinian supporters said some 1,700 prisoners are surviving on a diet of water and salt, and said the strike will continue until demands for better food, more exercise times, and removal of asbestos sheets from cell windows are met.
A strike committee has handed out thousands of printed ``schedules of events'' in Jerusalem and on the West Bank to inform residents of upcoming marches, sit-ins, mosque and church sermons aimed at showing support for the prisoners.
``It is attracting more sympathy and support now because it is so sustained,'' said Penny Johnson, assistant to the public relations director at Bir Zeit University. ``There have been a lot of hunger strikes before, but they usually lasted three or four days. It took people a while to realize that this is going to continue. It has grasped people's imaginations.''
The last significant wave of demonstrations in the occupied territories erupted before Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon. That invasion led to the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon and to the PLO's split into feuding factions, a split that reflected itself in similar splits among the highly politicized Palestinians in the six West Bank universities.
Ms. Johnson and other West Bank observers said they felt it was no accident that the latest wave of unrest is occurring at a time when the PLO appears close to reunifying.
``Since 1982, people have just felt frozen,'' Johnson said. ``Now suddenly, you see them sort of mobilized.''
``Part of this is organized and part of it is spontaneous,'' said Samir Rantissi, a student at Bir Zeit who has participated in some of the demonstrations supporting the hunger strikers. ``Part of it is just the natural expression of a lot of frustration by people who don't see any hope of the situation changing soon on the West Bank.''
At the Red Cross offices in East Jerusalem, the scene rarely varies from day to day. Elderly Palestinian women dressed in traditional, floorlength embroidered gowns sat outside, surrounded by hundreds of chanting, clapping youths clad in T-shirts and jeans.
``I am the mother of a fedayi [fighter] and his name is Mahmoud,'' the mothers of the prisoners sing in Arabic. ``He carried out an operation inside the border. My son is a fedayi and he has bullets,'' they sing, the students joining in enthusiastically.
``I came today to be with these women because their sons are from our people and they have dared to resist,'' said a 17-year-old who identified himself only as Mohammad. ``We have no dignity here and they have given us dignity.''
Although the prisoners insist that their demands are humanitarian and not political, David Maimon, chief of the Prisons Services, said in an interview on Israel Radio Thursday that he has not worsened prison conditions. Mr. Maimon said that he only wants ``to put an end to the situation where prisoners' leaders were running the prisons.''
The prisoners claim that Maimon has rescinded priveleges won under his predecessor, Rapahel Suissa.
``It is no secret, we were organized in the prisons,'' said a former prionser, Jamil.
``Suissa would deal with us through our appointed spokesmen, or our committees. Maimon doesn't want that,'' Jamil continued. ``He wants to break the organization ofthe political prisoners. He laughed at their demands. He wants to take away all that we accomplished.''