RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Fears are growing about the worsening condition of two Palestinian prisoners who have refused food since Feb. 28, and leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are warning of an unpredictable public backlash should either man die in Israeli custody.
The men are part of a hunger strike that now involves more than 1,600 Palestinian prisoners who are protesting Israel's detention policies and prison conditions.
The International Red Cross says that a total of six prisoners are at "imminent risk of dying" and has urged Israel to transfer them to civilian hospitals.
The two most serious cases are Thaer Halahleh, 33, of Hebron, who was arrested in June 2010, and Bilal Diab, 27, of Jenin, who was arrested in August 2011. Both men are suspected members of the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and are being held in administrative detention, a legal remnant of the pre-1948 British Mandate period that Israel uses to keep Palestinians in prison indefinitely on charges not known to the prisoners or their lawyers.
Diab was transferred to a hospital near Tel Aviv earlier this week but returned on Tuesday to a prison clinic where Halahleh is also being treated, Israeli prison officials said. Both have lost more than 50 pounds, according to prisoner advocate groups that based their reports on information from attorneys and independent doctors who were able to visit the prisoners.
Since April 17, hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners have joined in the hunger strike, demanding Israel stop using administrative detention and improve jail conditions, including halting solitary confinements and allowing more family visits.
There are currently 320 prisoners being held in administrative detention, some for as long as 10 years.
-- Maher Abukhater
Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Photo: Palestinian schoolgirls in the West Bank village of Kufr Rai, near Jenin, chant slogans during a protest Sunday in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. Credit: Mohammed Ballas / Associated Press