With Egypt's help, Israel strikes deal to end hunger strike

The deal to end a 77 day fast by Palestinian prisoners highlights ongoing trust between Israel and Egypt. 

Ammar Awad/Reuters
Palestinians wave flags as they celebrate the signing of a deal to end the Palestinian prisoners hunger strike, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 14.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.