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Palestinians Continue Hunger Strike Against Israeli Detention Policy


Israel has arrested more than 300 Palestinians over the last week after three Israeli teenagers were abducted while hitchhiking in the West Bank. Some of those Palestinians who are locked up now will likely be held under what's called administrative detention. It's a legal provision allowing people to be held for extended periods of time with no charges. Israel says this helps prevent acts of terrorism. But Palestinians say it's abusive. Scores of Palestinians already in Israeli custody have been on a hunger strike for almost two months trying to change the system. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Samer Issawi is celebrated among Palestinians for barely eating over most of eight months. He took water, vitamins and minerals, lost a lot of weight and was eventually hospitalized.

SAMER ISSAWI: (Through translator) After 40 or 50 days, you're dizzy. You can't walk. I was in a wheelchair. I could make it to the bathroom. That's it.

HARRIS: Issawi won early release from what could have been more than a decade in prison. His sister, Shireen, is in prison right now. She started a hunger strike, but after two weeks, their mother, Layla, asked her to stop.

LAYLA: (Through translator) It was harder for me with my girl. Because she's a girl, she has a weak body. In this case, I interfered. I sent her a message with a lawyer saying you know what I went through when your brother was on hunger strike. I can't handle it again. If you continue, you might come home. But you won't find a mother there.

HARRIS: Issawi had originally been arrested for shooting at Israelis and providing weapons for other attacks. He was first freed in a prisoner swap, then rearrested for traveling out of the territory allowed on parole. Issawi views hunger strikes as a weapon of war.

ISSAWI: (Through translator) The only weapon we have is our stomach. It's the only way we can fight the prison authorities.

HARRIS: Two months ago, several hundred Palestinians in Israeli prisons went on hunger strike, at least 80 have been hospitalized. They are trying to limit the use of administrative detention - a law that lets people be held indefinitely with no charges, just approval of a judge. Palestinian lawyer Fadi Qawasmi represents more than a dozen hunger strikers.

FADI QAWASMI: If you want to arrest someone, the maximum period should be six months. And then you either release the detainee or put him on trial in order for him to be able to defend himself.

HARRIS: Right now, each six-month prison term is renewable. Qawasmi says if administrative detainees are involved in terrorism, Israel's intelligence service ought to be able to unearth evidence to make and backup charges. But Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, says revealing evidence could be dangerous.

PETER LERNER: The disclosure of the evidence could, in many instances, alert other members of the terrorists cell, enable them to increase their effectiveness of their attacks, evade capture or relocate and shift their weapons and explosives.

HARRIS: Professor Hillel Frisch at Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies says there is no way Israel will give up administrative detention. And Israelis aren't paying much attention to the hunger strike. It's part of the repertoire, he says, in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship.

HILLEL FRISCH: Israelis don't get that excited about, you know, terrorist attacks unless they're very large and they're very recurrent. And in that sense, the hunger strikes are as ordinary as the terrorist attacks. I also should add that as far as I know, no one has died in a hunger strike so I think Israelis look at this as a propaganda ploy.

HARRIS: Palestinian lawyer Qawasmi says the hunger strikers he has been able to visit are determined to carry on even after two months of eating only water, sugar, salt and vitamins. But he said the kidnapping of three Israeli teens last week and the 300 Palestinians arrested since then change the dynamics.

QAWASMI: If two or three or four days ago, before this happened, all the media talked about - all the people talked about the strike. Now, no one really talks about it. I think it's going to be difficult to have any kind of success, especially because of the circumstances nowadays.

HARRIS: Israel has long debated a law that would permit the states to force-feed hunger strikers. Supporters argue it's a safety measure. If a prisoner died in custody, that could trigger anger and violence across Palestinian territories. The bill passed its first of three readings earlier this month. A final vote is due any time. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.