BETHLEHEM - A month after prisoners signed a deal to end their mass hunger strike in Israeli jails, prisoners groups warn Israeli authorities are not upholding their side of the bargain.
Mourad Jadallah, legal researcher for prisoners rights group Addameer, told Ma'an that the problem goes back to the Palestinian Authority's role in the deal, and its attitude to prisoners in general.
After approximately 2,000 Palestinian detainees joined administrative detainees on hunger strike on April 17, Israel pledged to provide "facilitation" on hunger strikers' demands -- namely ending solitary confinement, allowing family visits, and improving living conditions in jail.
A prisoners representative also said at the time that Israel committed not to renew detention without trial orders, although with the disclaimer -- providing there is no new information that requires their imprisonment.
Working around the terms
Jadallah said the deal fell short in two ways -- the language it used, and by not including the issue of administrative detention in the written agreement.
With this latitude, Israel has been able to dash hoped-for changes to the prisoners situation. On June 11, prisoners met the Israeli prison authorities in Nafha jail as the first stage of the "facilitation", Jadallah said.
Israel had agreed to form a delegation of prison officials and Israeli internal security service Shabak to negotiate with the prisoners committee. Now, they are telling prisoners only prison service representatives will meet with them to discuss demands, Jadallah said.
"But the prisoners do not believe in or trust the prison service. It is not usually the prison service that actually takes such decisions, as they say they have to do what is ordered by the Shabak."
According to Jadallah, at the first meeting Israeli representatives reneged on a commitment to bring the last prisoner in solitary confinement, Dirar Abu Sisi, into a normal cell, saying they want to keep him in isolation while they prepare a legal charges against him. He has been held since February 2011 without charge.
Regarding prisoners living conditions "they said they will do their best without giving any promises," Jadallah said.
On other demands, the Israeli delegates said they will await a High Court decision before allowing access to education, and while admitting to have renewed administrative detention orders, pledged that prisoners will soon see "progress" on the issue.
But Israel last week renewed the administrative detention of Hasan Safadi, who ended his 71-day hunger strike based on Israel's commitment not to keep him in detention without charge. Jadallah said there are more than 35 cases of administrative detention renewals since the agreement was signed.
Rushed and ambiguous 'like Oslo agreement'
Prisoners attribute the problem to a hasty and incomplete deal that ended their strike, Jadallah said.
"One prisoner said that what the Palestinian Authority did was like the Oslo agreement. The PA was looking for any victory or any role in the deal so it went fast and accepted this language. Prisoners say this is on the shoulders of the PA."
"Israel also does not want Palestinians to feel they reached something with the hunger strike or let the prisoners movement feel like they reached their demands. They want to say: We can control everything."
The 1993 Oslo Accords which established the PA are widely-regarded as a negotiations failure, splitting the Palestinian territory into spheres of Israeli and Palestinian control as a 5-year interim measure, but two decades on simply cementing Israel's military and settlement reach into Palestinian lands and the PA's impotence.
According to Jadallah, official indifference to prisoners dates back to this time. The first Oslo agreement did not mention prisoners, and only after angry letters did the second agreement include just five pages on the issue.
Today, with many groups working to support prisoners, there is a measure of coordination but without real organization, he said. This is a specific decision, because authorities are unable to set a coherent strategy for freeing prisoners, Jadallah continued.
"For example some of the lawyers refused to boycott military courts. But why should we pay for military courts in fees and fines?"
Jadallah estimates that such payments into the military court system amount to about $15 million a year, without adding financial support from the PA and political parties paid directly to prisoners.
"We are paying millions for our occupation. In Oslo we agreed to play inside the system, but this is a way to corrupt the prisoners movement."
Another source of confusion is that prisoners have their own lawyers, but during the hunger strike the lawyer for the influential Prisoners Society, Jawad Bolous, was dispatched to negotiate and speak on behalf of strikers.
"Some prisoners have their own lawyers but then others negotiate on their behalf. This is not professional," Jadallah said.
"You can hear prisoners question his (Bolous') role. They said their lawyer should be a human rights defender and not a negotiator," he added, while declining to comment further on the issue.
"The PA uses the prisoners issue to reach credibility, but they are not really interested. They use it as a way to buy loyalty and not for liberation."
"They say they have confidence in the prisoners movement and then on the ground the security forces threaten prisoners on hunger strike and arrest supporters of the hunger strikers in Ramallah, Jenin and elsewhere. There are two agendas - the political discourse and security forces policy."
The struggle for unity
But Jadallah said the hunger strikers were able to overcome serious obstacles to unite the prisoners movement in a single non-violent action for the first time.
"Some Fatah prisoners joined from the beginning, while others said bad things -- that the strike was an effort to cover up internal problems inside Hamas. This was not true -- Hamas was not the leader of the strike."
"Fatah prisoners were told if they participate in the hunger strike they will lose their salaries from the security forces. Some prisoners then played the counter-revolutionary."
A group of Fatah prisoners said in early May that they had secured half of their demands after negotiations with prison authorities. Jadallah said this group called to delay the mass hunger strike while they negotiated. "This was also the position of the PA," he noted.
But jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouthi disavowed this Fatah committee as unrepresentative, leading to the demise of the counter-revolutionaries, Jadallah explained.
"It put the ball back in the playground of the prisoners," he said.
The Arab Spring, Gaza attacks and ongoing hunger strikes
With hopes unraveling for the deal that ended the hunger strikes, Jadallah insisted the authorities and prisoners movement allow detainees themselves to continue to take the lead.
Popular protests for the hunger strikers in the West Bank, Gaza and around the world empowered the prisoners to persevere in their historic strike, he said.
"After seven or eight years of the prisoners movement, Israeli special forces succeeded to humiliate prisoners without any accountability. But with the Arab Spring and Palestinian demonstrations to support the prisoners, these were helpful factors in gaining their victory."
"Outside the prison (the people) want a hero. In prison they are the real heroes, fighting non-violently for their rights, because its hard to see this outside jails among the political class."
But there are fears that attention is waning while three detainees are currently on hunger strike, including sick prisoner Akram al-Rekhawi who entered his 75th day without food on Monday. Prisoners groups say due to al-Rekhawi's long term health condition -- he has been held in a prison clinic since his arrest in 2004 -- the two-month strike puts him at immediate risk of death.
Jadallah said al-Rekhawi "did not get what he deserves from the people and media attention. This is sad, he is in prison on hunger strike without anything happening on the streets."
"But we know people get tired on the individual cases. Each prisoner has his own situation, and the youth, human rights groups, PA all have their considerations."
Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip last week, killing at least 12 people, have also changed people's focus.
"Maybe we didn’t succeed to make the link between Gaza and al-Rekhawi," Jadallah said.
"That is: If you are not killed on the ground, you are killed in prison. (Al-Rekhawi) is defending against the death penalty in jail as the people are defending against it on the ground in Gaza."