Palestinian ends hunger strike in Israeli jail

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A Palestinian prisoner who refused food for eight months ended his hunger strike on Tuesday after a deal was reached with Israeli authorities for his early release, his lawyer and the military said.

Samer Issawi began refusing food in August in protest over his re-arrest last July. His strike became a rallying cry for Palestinians who saw the 33-year-old from Jerusalem as a symbol of their struggle against Israel, and Palestinian rallies over Issawi’s case turned violent on occasion.

Israeli officials worried that wider unrest could break out if anything happened to Issawi, whose weight plummeted and who was hospitalized several weeks ago as his health deteriorated.

Attorney Jawad Bulous said Israeli military prosecutors agreed early Tuesday to release Issawi after he serves another eight months, which would mean he would be released by the end of the year.

The lawyer said the deal was signed and that Issawi ended his hunger strike in the presence of his sister and uncle. The Israeli military confirmed the deal but had no further details.

Issawi was sentenced in 2002 to 26 years in prison for his role in a series of shooting attacks targeting police cars and students at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. He was released as part of a 2011 deal that freed hundreds of Palestinians - many of them militants involved in deadly attacks - in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.

Under the terms of his release in the prisoner exchange, Issawi was banned from entering the West Bank but travelled there three times. He also tried to convince an eyewitness to lie to Israeli security forces about his location, but later confessed to violating the terms of his release, said another lawyer, who has overseen the case. That attorney spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be seen as contradicting Issawi’s supporters.

He said security forces accused him of planning to kidnap Israeli soldiers and trying to amass weapons, but he has not been charged with those offenses. He was arrested again in July and was expected to serve out the rest of his original sentence.

Issawi had been hospitalized in recent weeks as his health deteriorated. To pressure Israeli authorities to come to a deal, Issawi gambled with his life, refusing infusions of vitamins and minerals, his attorney said.

“No doubt, this is a big victory for Samer,” Bulous said. The hunger strike “forced the Israeli side to reverse their position.”

The prisoner issue is deeply sensitive for Palestinians, many of whom have had a loved one behind bars. There are some 4,500 Palestinians in Israel jails for sentences ranging from throwing stones to killing civilians in deadly attacks, according to figures from Israeli prison authorities in February.

Palestinians widely see the prisoners as heroes in their struggle for statehood; Israelis view them as terrorists.

Over the past years, the prisoners have turned to hunger strikes to pressure Israel for better conditions, to try end indefinite detention without charge and to end sentences they see as unjust.

Ayman Sharawneh, another Palestinian prisoner who was rearrested for violating his release conditions last year, went on a hunger strike until he was released in March in a deal that saw him exiled to Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Another two Palestinians on hunger strike halted their 92-day fast in February in exchange for an agreement with Israel’s military that they would be released from their imprisonment in May.

The two were held under a procedure called “administrative detention,” which Israel uses to hold suspects for indefinitely renewable periods of time on the basis of secret evidence that is only seen by the prosecutor and the judge, not the accused or the attorney. Israeli officials say it’s necessary when publicizing evidence would threaten the safety of their informants and intelligence gathering networks. Grievances over administrative detention have been at the heart of many Palestinian hunger strikes.

Another Palestinian prisoner, Younis Hroub is in hospital following a 64-day hunger strike to demand an end to his administrative detention, which began in February, said Ehteram Ghazawneh, a researcher from Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer.

Another Palestinian militant who was initially released together with Issawi in the prisoner exchange but later also re-arrested, Ayman Abu Dawoud, has been refusing food for the past 10 days, demanding he be set free. Ghazawneh has said that Israeli authorities accuse him of violating his release conditions.