Israel's Palestinian detainees suspend mass hunger strike

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JERUSALEM — Scores of Palestinian detainees in Israel have suspended their mass hunger strike after more than two months without food, Israeli and Palestinian officials said Wednesday, removing one source of friction in a volatile period following the recent kidnapping of three Israeli youths in the West Bank and a subsequent Israeli military crackdown.

All 75 detainees who remained on the hunger strike as of Tuesday, and who are hospitalized, agreed to suspend their protest against Israel's practice of administrative detention, in which suspects are held without charge or trial, without securing any change in that policy, according to representatives of both sides.

Instead, representatives said, detainees received commitments that they won't be punished or fined for strike participation, and that a dialogue on broader issues tied to administrative detention will continue among prisoner committee representatives, Israeli prison authorities and security officials.

The Palestinian Authority minister for prisoner affairs, Shawqi Al-Aissa, and the nongovernmental Palestinian Prisoners Society announced the end of the hunger strike at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Israel Prison Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman said the 75 would remain under supervision in the hospital, where they had been taking water and nonfood supplements, until they were fit enough to go back to prison.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his internal security minister and prison authorities for their "determined" effort to end the strike. He added that Israel was introducing additional methods to deter future prisoner strikes -- a reference to contentious draft legislation that would allow the courts to authorize force-feeding of hunger strikers in cases where their lives were deemed to be in danger. The Israeli parliament is expected to vote on the bill next week.

But Palestinian Prisoners Society president Qadura Fares said in a phone interview from Ramallah that the strike had ended through dialogue, and that "neither side broke."

Israel had feared that the death of a hunger striker would set off widespread unrest in the prisons and beyond.

On the Palestinian side, Mr. Fares said, motivation for the strike had waned, despite widespread sympathy among the Palestinian population, because it was largely overtaken by events on the ground. The strike, he said, had dropped from the headlines in the aftermath of the Israeli teenagers' kidnapping. Mr. Fares added that the approach of Muslim holy month of Ramadan, due to start this weekend, also contributed to the decision to end the strike.

At the hunger strike's late May peak, more than 300 administrative detainees and convicted prisoners were participating.

The strike's suspension came as Israel began scaling back its West Bank military operation, an intensive campaign that Palestinians and human rights groups have denounced as collective punishment. Israel had set itself two goals: to find the missing youths and to weaken the West Bank infrastructure of Hamas, the Islamic militant group that Israel blames for the abduction. While the first has not been met yet, the second appears in large part to have exhausted itself.

Since the June 12 kidnapping, 371 Palestinians have been arrested, 282 of them suspected Hamas operatives, according to the Israeli military. Among those detained are 57 former prisoners freed in 2011 as part of an exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas in Gaza for five years.

The military has searched nearly 2,000 locations and has acted against 64 institutions suspected of supporting Hamas, seizing equipment and funds. Movement around Hebron, where Israel has centered its search for the abducted teens, was restricted for about a week.

The toll of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire during the campaign rose to five Wednesday. A Palestinian man died at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, according to a hospital spokeswoman, six days after being shot in the head by Israeli troops during a clash in the Qalandiya refugee camp near Ramallah. The man, identified by Palestinian health officials as Mustafa Aslan, 22, was brought to Hadassah hospital hours after he was shot early Friday morning, and had been in critical condition since.

It was questionable how long Israel could maintain the pressure on the Palestinian population given the mounting tensions and the approach of Ramadan. Palestinian resistance to the Israeli forces has been on the rise, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has come under growing domestic pressure because of his unpopular pledge to help find the abducted Israelis. Israel has come under increasing international scrutiny, and rocket fire from Gaza against southern Israel has risen, along with retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.

Israeli officials have pledged to continue the intensive search for the teenagers -- Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also holds U.S. citizenship. But the restrictions on movement in the Hebron area have eased in recent days, and there has been a significant drop in the number of arrests.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday that the easing was not the result of a political decision, but that the military operation against Hamas' infrastructure and support system had largely run its course.

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