Israel bowed to the demands of thousands of Palestinian prisoners who staged a weeks-long hunger strike to lobby for better jail conditions, with Egypt helping to mediate the breakthrough.
The deal will end a 77 day fast that had stoked local and international concern about the potential for Palestinian unrest if one of the hunger strikers had died. Some 2,000 prisoners had joined the fast in late April, encouraged by a hunger striking prisoner who won release from Israel in March.
The involvement of Egypt’s intelligence service as a go-between highlights the ongoing trust with Israel even as uncertainty rises about the future of Israeli-Egyptian ties after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime and the strength of Islamist parties in subsequent elections.
The Palestinians reached out to Egypt because a large chunk of the prisoners who are participating in the hunger strike are loyal to Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza Strip and does not have relations with Israel.
"[The Egyptians] were very helpful, they were the only mediators,” says Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian parliament member who confirmed reports about the deal being finalized. “They got involved at the request of many [Palestinian] political groups.”
Mr. Barghouti adds that Egyptian representatives travelled to an Israeli security prison in Ashkelon to seek the final approval of prison leaders of the various Palestinian political factions.
Late last year Egypt mediated a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel to free the Israeli soldier Sgt. Gilad Shalit after five years in captivity. Egypt has also been active in mediating cease-fires between the Islamic militants and Israel.
"We have to praise Egypt," says Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo. "Playing a role between Israel and Hamas – or anyone else – is in the Egyptian interest and keeps Egypt in a pivotal position in the Middle East, which is very important for the Egyptian prestige."
The deal will reduce the practice of keeping Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement, and expand the ability of families from the Gaza Strip to visit relatives in jail inside Israel.
The hunger strikes highlighted the predicament of more than 300 Palestinian prisoners being detained without trial under Israeli “administrative detention,” an emergency provision in force for decades that allows military tribunals to continually reapprove terms of detention even if there are no charges.
Like the deal reached in early March with Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan who refused food for 66 days, at least 5 prisoners held without trial, including those who fasted 77 days, will be released at the end of their period of administrative detention.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal was meant as a gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renew peace talks.
Israel also feared that the deaths of some of the hunger strikers would spur protests in the West Bank and undermine its image abroad.
The spotlight on the practice of administrative detention could prompt a review of a practice that until now has been seen as a necessary evil in the fight against Palestinian militants. In recent weeks, Israel’s public security minister said that Israel needs to do a better job of limiting the use of administrative detention.
“It's an nondemocratic tool,” says Yossi Alpher, co-editor of an Israeli Palestinian opinion website Bitterlemons and a former security official. “There was a lot of pressure within the Israeli system, particularly the foreign ministry, to end this strike quickly before anyone dies.”