Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners hold hunger strike

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel launched a hunger strike, officials say, protesting their conditions and demanding an end to detentions without trial.

About 3,500 prisoners refuse meals on 'Prisoners' Day'

Palestinian children take part in a rally in front of the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza City on Tuesday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel launched a hunger strike on Tuesday, officials said, protesting their conditions and demanding an end to detentions without trial as the Palestinians marked their annual day of solidarity with the inmates.

Some 3,500 prisoners refused meals on "Prisoners' Day," and 1,200 of them said they would continue with an open-ended hunger strike, according to Israeli prison service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman.

Palestinian PM pulls out of meeting

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad pulled out of a planned meeting with Israel's leader on Tuesday, torpedoing what was set to be the highest-level talks between the sides in nearly two years.

The meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attended by two lower level Palestinian officials, lasted less than an hour and ended with a brief joint statement pledging to seek peace.

"Israel and the Palestinian Authority are committed to reaching peace," the statement said. "The two sides hope that this exchange of letters will help find a way to advance peace." 

The hunger strike is one of the largest on record, said Sahar Francis of Addameer, a prisoner rights group.

Although it remained unclear how many will continue with the protest, they join 10 other Palestinian prisoners already on hunger strike, including two who have been hospitalized after refusing food for more than 40 days, she said.

The days' activities, which included protests throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, coincided with the scheduled release of the longest hunger striker in Palestinian history.

Khader Adnan, who didn't eat for 66 days, was set to be freed later Tuesday as part of a deal reached with Israel.

Adnan, a spokesman of the Islamic Jihad group, called his strike to protest Israel's policy of "administrative detention," in which Palestinians can be sentenced to months or years behind bars by military courts without being charged. In February, Israel agreed to release him at the end of his detention in exchange for ending the hunger strike.

"He began the first step for the rest of the prisoners," said his wife, Randa, referring to Tuesday's hunger strike.

In his West Bank hometown of Arrabeh, well-wishers decked posters of Adnan on the streets, and the family prepared to slaughter a sheep in his honour.

Israel-U.S. rift on Iran exposed

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday his country has never promised the United States it would hold off from attacking Iran while nuclear talks were taking place.

The comments, in which Barak said that a diplomatic push to reach a compromise with Iran was a waste of "precious time," further exposed a rift between Israel and the U.S. over how to deal with the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.

The fate of the prisoners held by Israel is one of the most emotional issues in Palestinian society. Their crimes range from throwing stones to deadly militant attacks. They are generally seen as heroes — even when their crimes have involved killing Israeli civilians.

In demonstrations in the Palestinian areas, hundreds of people held framed pictures of their loved ones in prison and waved the flags of different Palestinian political factions.

At a military prison near Jerusalem, Palestinian youths hurled rocks at Israeli forces, who fired back rounds of tear gas and pellets. No injuries were reported.

There are some 4,000 Palestinians currently in Israeli jails, said Francis, including some 300 in administrative detention. The striking prisoners are demanding an end to such detentions, solitary confinement and to allow Gaza families to visit prisoners held in Israel.

The largest Palestinian prisoner strike was in 2004, when some 10,000 prisoners refused food, many of them for 17 days, Francis said.