Talks are underway between Palestinian prisoners and Israeli officials to end a mass hunger strike that began last month to protest jail conditions, and both sides expressed optimism that a resolution may be reached shortly.
“The next 24 hours are crucial," said Palestinian Minister of Prisoners Issa Qaraqi on Palestinian radio Saturday morning. He said Egyptian mediators were assisting with negotiations.
More than 1,600 prisoners launched a hunger strike beginning April 17 to demand an end to solitary confinement, an increase in family visits and the restoration of privileges that were stripped in 2006 following the capture of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, such as the right to study. Shalit was released last year.
Two other prisoners who have refused food since Feb. 28 and are believed to be in serious condition, are demanding Israel end their administration detention, a practice in which Israel holds Palestinians indefinitely without charges or trial.
Qaraqi said he expected their cases to be included in any settlement.
The talks come amid rising public frustration among Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and inside Israel.
On Friday night, thousands of Arab Israelis attended a rally near Nazareth organized by the Northern Branch Islamic Movement to express support for the prisoners. Rallies continued Saturday in several locations in Israel and the West Bank.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement Saturday that there was an “important development on the issue of prisoner demands.”
Several international organizations have called for Israel to resolve the standoff or hospitalize the prisoners, including the World Health Organization, the U.N., the European Union and the International Committee for the Red Cross.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Palestinians participate in a rally supporting inmates on a hunger strike outside the International Red Cross offices in the West Bank City of Ramallah on Thursday. Credit: Issam Rimawi / APA Images / Zuma Press / MCT