Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have agreed to halt a weeks-long hunger strike in exchange for promises of better conditions, ending a standoff that left several participants clinging to life and drew thousands of Palestinians to the streets in shows of solidarity.
The Palestinians won key concessions in a deal mediated by Egyptian officials, including more family visits and limits to a controversial Israeli policy that can imprison people for years without charge. In return, Israel extracted pledges by militant groups to halt violent activities and prevented the potentially explosive scenario of prisoners dying of hunger.
The fate of the prisoners is deeply emotional for Palestinians, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Hundreds of Palestinians have been taking to the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip daily to show solidarity with the inmates.
In Gaza City, Palestinians on Monday cried for joy and praised God over blaring loudspeakers upon news of the deal. “God is great! To God is our thanks!” they chanted. Thousands waved the colorful Palestinian flag, distributed sweets and prostrated themselves in thanks.
The deal ended one of the largest mass strikes of Palestinian prisoners. Two men launched the strike on Feb. 28, refusing food for 77 days, becoming the longest-ever Palestinian hunger strikers. At least 1,600 other Palestinian prisoners, more than a third of the prison population, joined the strike on April 17, fasting for 27 days.
“The prisoners have proved to the whole world that empty stomachs are more powerful than any ruler or oppressor,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Israel agreed to allow about 400 prisoners from Gaza to receive family visits for the first time since 2006, according to terms of the deal as confirmed by Israeli and Palestinian officials.
“We were on strike for a simple right: To visit our children. My dream was that Ali would be freed — but at least now I can see him,” said Nidal Sarafiti, a 64-year-old Gazan, speaking of his son, who has served seven years of an 18-year sentence for involvement in militant activity. He said he had not seen his son since he was imprisoned.
About 20 prisoners were released from solitary confinement back into the general prison population. Those included Hamas member Abdullah al-Barghouthi, serving 67 life sentences for helping to plan a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of civilians. He has been in solitary confinement since 2003, Ehteram Ghazawneh of Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer said.
Israel also agreed to ease its policy of “administrative detention,” in which prisoners are held for months, even years, without charge.
Palestinian Minister for Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe said the 300 detainees held without charge would have their files reviewed after six months.