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Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel agree to end hunger strike
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) ' Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners agreed Monday to end a weekslong hunger strike after winning concessions from Israel to improve their conditions, the two sides announced.
The deal ended a strike in which prisoners had gone without food for up to 77 days, leaving several prisoners in life-threatening condition. It was the longest strike ever staged by Palestinians in Israeli custody.
With the Palestinians set to hold an annual day of mourning on Tuesday, both sides were eager to wrap up a deal to lower tensions. The Palestinians are marking what they call the "nakba," or "catastrophe," the term they use in describing the suffering that resulted from Israel's establishment 64 years ago.
The Palestinian minister for Prisoner Affairs, Issa Qaraqe, said that Palestinian prisoner leaders signed the deal on Monday afternoon at an Israeli prison in Ashkelon. Israel's Shin Bet security agency and Palestinian militant groups confirmed the deal, which was brokered by Egyptian mediators.
Two men launched the strike on Feb. 27, and were joined by hundreds of others on April 17.
Among their demands: permission to receive family visits from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, an end to solitary confinement and a halt to an Israeli policy of "administrative detention," under which suspected militants are held for months, and sometimes years, without being charged. Israel has defended the policy as a necessary security measure.
According to a Palestinian negotiator, Israel agreed to allow prisoners from both the West Bank and Gaza to receive family visits. The visits from Gaza were halted in 2006 after Hamas-linked militants in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier. After the soldier was released in a prisoner swap last October, the Palestinians said the ban should be lifted.
He said Israel also agreed to halt its punitive policy of placing prisoners in solitary confinement, would allow prisoners to make phone calls to relatives and permit prisoners to pursue academic studies.
He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
There was no word on any change to the administrative detentions.
The Shin Bet said in return, the prisoners pledged "to absolutely stop terror activity from inside Israeli jails." It also said militant group's commanders outside the jails made a commitment "to prevent terror activity." It did not elaborate.
Israel said some 1,600 prisoners, or more than a third of the 4,500 Palestinians held by Israel, joined the hunger strike. Palestinians said the number was closer to 2,500.
The fate of the prisoners is an emotional issue in Palestinian society, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. As the strike dragged on, hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrate in solidarity.
For families of the prisoners, any deal that did not win their freedom fell short.
"Will they release Bilal? Is it over?" asked Missadeh Diab, the elderly mother of Bilal Diab, one of the prisoners who refused food for 77 days. "May God give your demands and freedom."