Jodi Rudoren writes for The New York Times:
The newest heroes of the Palestinian cause are not burly young men hurling stones or wielding automatic weapons. They are gaunt adults, wrists in chains, starving themselves inside Israeli prisons.
Each day since April 17, scores of Palestinian prisoners have joined a hunger strike that officials say now counts more than 1,500 participants. And on Thursday, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of detainees said that if Israel did not yield to their demands for improved prison conditions, the remaining 3,200 would soon join in.
The two longest-striking prisoners, who have gone without food for 66 days, appeared in wheelchairs before Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday morning, pleading for their release from what is known here as administrative detention — incarceration without formal charges. One of them, Bilal Diab, 27, fainted during the hearing.
“I am a man who loves life, and I want to live in dignity,” the other man, Thaer Halahleh, 33, testified, according to an advocacy group that had a supporter in the courtroom. “No human can accept being in jail for one hour without any charge or reason.”
As the strike has swelled, the prisoners’ names and faces have been plastered on protest tents in villages throughout the West Bank. With the peace process stalled and internal Palestinian politics adrift, many analysts here see nonviolent resistance as a critical tactic for the Palestinian national movement, and the hunger strike as a potential catalyst to bring an Arab Spring-style uprising to the West Bank.
While the revolutions around the region have helped elevate support for the Palestinian cause, they have also undermined the leadership it has long relied on, and until now the streets here have largely remained quiet.
Prisoners play a crucial emotional and political role in Palestinian culture. Virtually every family has been touched by incarceration, experts say, and there is a visceral sense of allegiance to people viewed as suffering for the broader community’s rights. The prisoners are highly organized, and influential even on the outside.
On Thursday in Ramallah, 300 women marched to Al Manara Square, chanting, “Yes for hunger strike, no to submission” and “Down with the olive branch, long live the rifle.” By late afternoon, hundreds of protesters carrying Palestinian flags had gathered outside Ramle Prison, where many of the strikers are held, near Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, and scuffles broke out between the police and demonstrators. Several people were arrested.
“There’s a real transformation in the way the prisoners are working — this time, people are willing to die,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in a recent interview. “Look, the Palestinians may be quiet for a while, but they may erupt. There’s a sinking-in of the idea that nonviolent resistance gets results.”