IDNA, West Bank (AP) — A Palestinian hunger striker who his family says has refused food for the past 160 days and was wasting away in an Israeli prison infirmary has suddenly been thrust into the center of efforts to firm up a ceasefire -fire in Gaza.
Khalil Awawdeh is in the spotlight because the Islamic Jihad group demanded his release as part of Egyptian-brokered talks that ended three days of fighting between Gaza-based militants and Israel over the week -end.
In an attempt to obtain the agreement of the militants to stop their fire, Egypt had assured them that it would also try to obtain the release of their West Bank leader and Awawdeh.
The emaciated and weakened father of four daughters, 40, protests his detention without charge or trial by Israel. He is one of dozens of prisoners who have started hunger strikes in Israeli prisons.
The prospects for his release are uncertain. But his case highlights the plight of hundreds of Palestinians who are detained by Israel under a system that critics say denies them the right to due process.
Israel can hold so-called administrative detainees indefinitely, without showing them the evidence alleged against them or bringing them to trial in military courts. Many are turning to hunger strikes as a last resort to bring attention to their plight.
Awawdeh’s lawyer, Ahlam Haddad, said her client was “vacuuming between life and death” and it made no sense to keep him in custody. “He looks like a pile of bones,” she said. be?”
His family say he has not eaten for 160 days and has only drunk water except for a 10-day period when he also received vitamin injections.
Israel currently detains some 4,400 Palestinians, including militants who carried out deadly attacks, as well as those arrested during protests or for throwing stones. Around 670 Palestinians are currently being held in administrative detention, a number that jumped in March as Israel began near-night arrest raids in the West Bank following a series of deadly attacks on Israelis.
Awawdeh is from a small town in the southern West Bank and worked as a driver. In his current condition, he uses a wheelchair and has memory loss and speech difficulties.
Haddad said she was arrested in December on charges by Israel of being a member of a militant group, a charge she denied.
Dawood Shihab, an Islamic Jihad official, said the group asked for his release as part of the truce talks because he supported his fight for freedom, not because he was a member.
“This is a case that continues to be a disgrace to all humanity,” he said, referring to the hunger strike and detention.
Haddad said she did not know why Islamic Jihad chose to include her in the ceasefire agreement, along with a senior West Bank commander arrested by Israel last week. She is currently appealing her detention in court.
The commander’s arrest sparked fighting over the weekend, with Israel launching what it said were pre-emptive airstrikes on Gaza and Islamic Jihad firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in the fighting.
Israel’s Shin Bet security agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel says administrative detention is necessary to prevent attacks or to keep dangerous suspects locked up without sharing evidence that could endanger valuable intelligence sources.
Israel says it ensures due process and largely imprisons those who threaten its security, although a small number are detained for minor offenses.
Palestinians and human rights groups say the system is designed to crush opposition and maintain permanent control over millions of Palestinians while denying them their basic rights.
Prisoners like Awawdeh have seen hunger strikes as their only means of protesting their detention. Dozens of prisoners have avoided eating for weeks to draw attention to their detention without trial or charge.
“The tools available to detainees to challenge the injustice of detention are very few. Hunger strikes are an exceptional measure, a tool for the weakest people who have no other way to defend themselves,” said Jessica Montell, director of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group. man, who said Israel had turned its system of incarcerating Palestinians into an “assembly line”.
Protracted hunger strikes are attracting international attention and fueling protests in the occupied Palestinian territories, pressuring Israel to meet prisoners’ demands. Amid this pressure, Israel has at times acceded to the demands of the hunger strikers.
As the health of the hunger strikers deteriorates, they are transferred to Israeli hospitals under surveillance. They drink water and the doctors encourage them to take vitamins, but many refuse.
Haddad said she hoped to convince a judge that Awawdeh’s condition is so life-threatening that he should be released. She said a prison doctor had so far disputed that diagnosis.
No Palestinians detained in Israel have died as a result of hunger strikes, but doctors say prolonged vitamin deficiency can cause permanent brain damage.
At Awawdeh’s home in the occupied West Bank town of Idna, his family watched the latest developments in the ceasefire with anxiety, now that his fate was suddenly tied to international diplomacy.
Awawdeh’s wife, Dalal, told The Associated Press that her husband’s release following such efforts would be “a victory for the whole Palestinian cause.”
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Imad Isseid contributed to it.