Media focuses on prisoner release, as hunger strike enters danger zone on 20th day

The prisoner exchange in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in late June 2006, by Palestinian fighters from Gaza in a cross-border raid near the Kerem Shalom crossing, and presumably held in Gaza since then, is to be exchanged for some 1027 Palestinian prisoners in two installments, with the first group of 477 of what the Israeli Prison Services called “Security Prisoners” to be released by tomorrow [Tuesday] — is going on over the heads of between 100 and 300 other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails.

There has been no independent medical visit — and no lawyers visits, either — to the Palestinian hunger-striking prisoners, who are now in their 20th day of an open-ended fast.

This is entering the danger zone. By the 21st day, a hunger strike can be life-threatening.

UPDATE TWO: Ma’an reports Tuesday here that prisoners gathered in one Israeli prison had only suspended their hunger strike for 3 days. An SMS from Ma’an just reported that although PFLP leader Ahmad Saadat was moved out of isolation into a regular cell at Ramle prison, he is continuing his hunger strike. Earlier reports, yesterday, were that Ahmad Saadat was moved to the Ramle prison hospital…

UPDATE: This evening [Monday], the Palestinian Authority Minister for Prisoner Affairs, Issa Qaraqaa, reportedly announced that the hunger strike was ending, as the Israelis have agreed to end the policy of solitary confinement… On Sunday, one of the more senior Palestinian prisoners, PFLP leader Ahmad Saadat, was moved to a prison hospital as his health reportedly deteriorated. Reuters reported that Qaraqaa “said that inmates not being released had ended a hunger strike as part of the deal after Israel agreed to return their conditions to what they were prior to Shalit’s abduction”. This is reported here.

A PLO briefing about the Palestinian prisoner’s hunger strike was held last week, in response to public restiveness over the hunger strike, which has barely, if at all, made it into the Israeli or mainstream Western media.

At this PLO briefing, the mainstream media (2 or 3 French journalists, actually) only wanted to know whether Hamas won and Abbas lost, in the prisoner exchange deal that is expected to bring Shalit back home to Israel.

In his five+ years in captivity (Shalit was 19 when he was seized), he has had no visit from any independent outside observer, including the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], and had only two long-delayed exchanges of letters with his family.

Haaretz reported this evening here that “Shalit, now 25, was captured in 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades … Israel’s Prison Service has bused the 477 Palestinian prisoners under heavy guard to two holding facilities ahead of their release. On Tuesday, some of the Palestinians will be brought to Egypt’s Sinai desert, where the exchange for Shalit will take place. Some of those prisoners will be taken to the Gaza Strip and others will be exiled abroad. Shalit will be flown to an air base in Israel to be reunited with his family. A smaller group of prisoners on the release roster will be taken from Israel to the West Bank, where they will be welcomed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival, and their families. In the second stage, expected to take place in about two months, the remaining 550 Palestinian prisoners will be freed, officials said”.

At the PLO press conference in Ramallah last week, Palestinian human rights attorney Sahar Francis [Director of ADDAMEER] said that since a deal has been made to release Gilad Shalit, there is no reason for Israel to continue the punitive reprisal measures instituted in recent months against Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails (instituted as retaliation for Shalit’s isolation and continued captivity).

Sahar Francis said that the ICRC should in principle have access — but she added that the ICRC has told ADDAMEER that they have only one — one! — medical doctor here, who can hardly visit all 22 prisons in Israel where Palestinians are being held.

So far, Sahar said, the ICRC doctor has only gone to the medical offices at the Israeli prisons where Palestinian hunger-strikers are being held, and merely reviewed the medical records provided by the Israeli Prison Service, without any physical examination — or even seeing the patients… On top of that, the ICRC has not revealed what it found, on the basis of its usual practice of “confidentiality”, which helps the Swiss organization to maintain its neutrality, and [it believes] its access.

Some prisoners have been moved to formerly empty prisons, to isolate them during their hunger strike, she added.

A day later, ADDAMEER issued a statement of extreme concern about the condition of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike during 3-day shut-down from Thursday 13 October, for Jewish holiday of Sukkot + Jewish Shabbat weekend, saying that “until at least Sunday 16 Oct, there will be no independent monitoring of, or contact with, hunger striking prisoners”, and that until Sunday at the earliest “it will be impossible to verify if salt has been returned to prisoners”. ADDAMEER therefore urged “the ICRC to intervene with the Israeli Prison Service to allow them to visit prisons during the Sukkot holidays”. That apparently did not happen.

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel said they had tried without success to make medical visits to Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, and that 26 Israeli physicians + 16 interpreters volunteered to examine Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, but their formal request [submitted 4 October] to enter prisons was denied [on 11 October] — but will be resubmitted. “We call on the Israeli Prison Service [IPS] to refrain from causing further harm to prisoners participating in hunger strike” + closely monitor their medical conditions. PHR-Israel said that the Israeli Prison Service should provide professional medical assistance to hunger-strike prisoners “as needed + as agreed by the individual”. According to PHR-Israel: over 300 Palestinian prisoners are now on open hunger strike with no fixed end date, who will continue “until demands are met or lives are lost”.

These are strong and dire warnings from ADDAMEER and from Physicians for Human Rights-Israel about the situation of Palestinian prisoners now on hunger strike in Israeli jails.

PHR-Israel noted that hunger strikes bring ethical dilemmas, including the issue of force-feeding shackled prisoners, and dual loyalty of physicians employed by the Prisons Service. Dr. Ruhama Marton, who founded PHR-Isr, said the organization was trying to ensure there won’t be force-feeding of Pal prisoners on hunger strikes. She added that “Though hunger strikes contrarary to our principles as MDs dedicated to saving lives, we respect patients will”…

Yesterday (Sunday), the first day of the Israeli work week, PHR-Israel said they were still being denied access to the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike.

The demands of the Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike were for a repeal to the punitive reprisal measures, in particular an end to solitary confinement, strip searches, use of force [including tear gas and beatings] against prisoners, and a return of the prior conditions (meaning to be allowed again to pursue educational studies, have books and reading materials, etc.)

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