RAMALLAH: Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike Monday following a call from leader and prominent prisoner Marwan Barghouti, a movement that could mark a serious challenge to Israeli authorities if sustained.
The hunger strike was called for in connection with Palestinian Prisoners Day, observed annually, but also ahead of commemorations this summer marking 50 years since the 1967 Six Day War and the start of Israel's occupation.
Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners occur regularly, but rarely on such a large scale. A series of protests were also being held in Palestinian cities in connection with prisoners day.
Barghouti's call for the strike has given it added credibility, with the 57-year-old serving five life sentences over his role in the violent second Palestinian intifada.
He is a popular figure among Palestinians, with polls suggesting he could win the Palestinian presidency. Graffiti showing the iconic image of his cuffed hands raised above his head flashing a peace sign while being led away by Israeli authorities can be seen in the West Bank.
"Decades of experience have proved that Israel's inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation," Barghouti wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
"In spite of such treatment, we will not surrender to it."
Issa Qaraqe, head of prisoners affairs for the Palestinian Authority, said that "around 1,300 Palestinian prisoners" were participating in the hunger strike and the number could rise.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club NGO put the number at 1,500.
- 'Freedom and dignity' -
Israeli prison service spokesman Assaf Librati said that some 1,100 detainees had announced their intention to begin a hunger strike across at several prisons.
"The prisons service has started taking disciplinary measures against the strikers and in addition a number of prisoners have been transferred to separate wings," he said.
"It is to be emphasised that the (prison service) does not negotiate with prisoners."
Some 6,500 Palestinians are currently detained by Israel for a range of offences and alleged crimes.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's office called on Israel to respond to the prisoners' demands for "freedom and dignity."
Barghouti's wife Fadwa told AFP at a demonstration in Ramallah that the demands were in line with "international law and recognised as part of human rights."
The last large-scale hunger strike was in February 2013, when 3,000 Palestinians refused to eat for one day to protest against the death of a fellow detainee.
Israel says it must be vigilant to prevent fresh eruptions of violence, particularly following a wave of knife, gun and car-ramming attacks that erupted in October 2015.
The violence has greatly subsided in recent months.
- 6,500 jailed -
For Palestinians, the prisons have become a stark symbol of Israel's occupation.
Those on hunger strike have issued a list of demands, including access to phones, extended visiting rights and better medical service.
Israeli public radio reported that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has ordered intervention units to be put on standby and that a field hospital be set up outside one prison to avoid having to take sick prisoners to civilian hospitals.
It quoted Erdan as saying that the demands regarding prisoners' conditions were unreasonable.
Some Israeli analysts have sought to highlight the rivalry between Barghouti and Abbas within their Fatah party, suggesting his call for a hunger strike was also related to internal politics.
Talk of who will succeed Abbas has intensified, but the 82-year-old has shown no sign of stepping down and a recent Fatah congress saw him shore up his base of support and sideline rivals.
He has not publicly designated a successor.
Of the 6,500 Palestinian detainees, 62 are women and 300 are minors. Some 500 are held under administrative detention, which allows for imprisonment without charges or trial.
Thirteen Palestinian lawmakers are also among the detainees.
Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts have been at a standstill since a US-led initiative collapsed three years ago. (APP)