Up to 7,600 Palestinian political prisoners in four different prisons have begun an open-ended hunger strike in protest against the appalling conditions of their detention.
Among their demands are: an end to collective punishments such as indiscriminate beatings; improved visiting rights and the easing of restrictions on communication with lawyers; and the improvement of health facilities. The Israeli authorities have begun lighting barbecues outside the prison walls to torment the prisoners. 'The prisoners can... starve to death...' said Hanegbi, Israeli public security minister, rejecting their demands.
Palestinians are routinely arrested and held for years without charge on 'security' grounds, which means involvement in any kind of political activity. Since the occupation began in 1967, more than 650,000 Palestinians have been detained, amounting to 20 percent of the population - the highest rate of imprisonment in the world.
At the same time, Israeli prime minister Sharon has finally killed off last year's 'road map' peace plan by presenting plans to construct up to 5,300 new houses in the West Bank. This includes 600 new homes in the Ma'ale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem, extending it eastwards. Israel's housing spokesperson claimed that the construction would be within the boundaries of existing settlements and that the boundaries allowed for expansion.
However, the road map imposed a freeze on all new settlement construction. Moreover, a plan to construct a new settlement linking Ma'ale Adumim to Jerusalem was recently revealed. This expansion and the new settlement would complete the encirclement of Palestinian East Jerusalem and effectively cut the West Bank in two, finally destroying the possibility of an independent, viable Palestinian state. Israel has, in addition, reneged on a pledge to dismantle 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank.
The unseemly haste with which new housing projects are being initiated in the West Bank is in sharp contrast to the slow pace of Sharon's much-vaunted plan to pull out of Gaza, evacuating the 8,000 settlers living there. Last April, Bush promised Sharon US support for Israel's annexation of most of its West Bank settlements (containing 240,000 illegal settlers and amounting to some 58 percent of West Bank territory), in exchange for unilateral 'withdrawal' from Gaza. However, quite apart from the opposition to an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza within Sharon's Likud party, and the fact that no instruction has so far been issued to evacuate a single settlement, what would such a 'pullout' mean?
All the evidence indicates that in the event of an Israeli 'withdrawal' Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will remain under tight siege, with Israel continuing to maintain control over the movement of goods and labour. Since the intifada broke out in September 2000, Israel has cut the number of Palestinian day labourers working in Israel (previously some 100,000) by two thirds. According to recent reports by the World Bank and the UN, in mid-2003 2 million Palestinians were living on less than $2.1 a day, a poverty rate of 63 percent, with unemployment in some areas reaching 70 percent. Food consumption was down by 86 percent.
Apart from its borders, Israel will undoubtedly retain control over the Gaza Strip's electricity and water supplies, as well as its territorial waters and airspace. Hence Israel's 'pullout', if it happens, will be a vast smokescreen concealing the consolidation of its hold over the West Bank, a process designed to secure international legitimacy for the occupation.
But Palestinians continue to resist. Thousands from across the Gaza Strip marched in solidarity with the hunger strikers. Solidarity tents have been erected throughout Palestine and on 18 August thousands took part in a 24-hour mass hunger strike in support of the prisoners.