WEST BANK IDNA (AP) — A Palestinian hunger striker who has refused food for the past 160 days and was emaciated in an Israeli prison infirmary has suddenly been thrust into the center of efforts to consolidate a ceasefire in Gaza.
Khalil Awawdeh was in the spotlight as Islamic Jihad sought his release as part of Egypt-brokered talks that ended three days of fighting between Gaza militants and Israel over the weekend.
To get the militants to agree to stop firing, Egypt assured them that it would also work to free their West Bank leader and Awawdeh.
The 40-year-old father of four girls, emaciated and frail, is protesting his detention without Israeli charges or trial. He was one of dozens of inmates on hunger strike in Israeli prisons.
The prospects for his release are uncertain. But his case highlights the plight of hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel under a system that critics say denies them their due process rights.
Israel can hold so-called administrative detainees indefinitely without showing them so-called evidence against them or sending them to a military court. Many people go on hunger strikes as a last resort to draw attention to their situation.
Awawdeh’s lawyer, Ahlam Haddad, said her client was “on the verge of life and death” and there was no point in detaining him. “He looked like a pile of bones,” she said. “How much of a threat is he?”
His family said he did not eat for 160 days and only drank water, except for a 10-day period when he was given vitamin injections.
Israel is currently holding some 4,400 Palestinians, including militants who carried out deadly attacks and those arrested for protesting or throwing stones. Some 670 Palestinians are now in administrative detention, a number that jumped sharply in March as Israel began a near-night arrest raid in the West Bank following a spate 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 exhibits memory loss and speech difficulties.
Haddad said he was arrested in December and accused by Israel of being a member of a militant group, a charge she said he denies.
Islamic Jihad official Dawood Shihab said the group asked for his release as part of the truce talks because it supported his fight for freedom, not because he was a member.
“It remains a disgrace to all of humanity,” he said, referring to the hunger strike and detention.
Haddad said she did not know why Islamic Jihad chose to include him in the ceasefire with Israel, a senior West Bank commander arrested last week. She is currently appealing his detention in court.
The commander’s arrest sparked fighting over the weekend as Israel launched what it said was a pre-emptive airstrike in Gaza and Islamic Jihad fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the fighting.
Israel’s Shin Bet security agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel says administrative detention is needed to prevent attacks or keep dangerous suspects behind bars without sharing evidence that could jeopardize valuable intelligence sources.
Israel said it provided due process and largely imprisoned those who threatened its safety, although a few were held on misdemeanor charges.
Palestinians and human rights groups say the system is designed to crush the opposition and maintain permanent control over millions of Palestinians, while denying them their basic rights.
Prisoners like Awawdeh see hunger strikes as their only means of protesting detention. Dozens of inmates have gone weeks without food to draw attention to their detention without trial or charge.
“Detainees have few tools to challenge detention injustices. Hunger strikes are an extraordinary measure, a tool for the weakest, who have no other way to defend themselves,” said Jessica Montel, director of Israeli human rights group Hamoked , she said Israel had changed the incarceration regime for Palestinians into an “assembly line”.
The prolonged hunger strike has drawn international attention and sparked protests in the occupied Palestinian territory, putting pressure on Israel to comply with the prisoners’ demands. Under such pressure, Israel sometimes complied with the demands of hunger strikers.
As the hunger strikers’ health deteriorated, they were transferred to guarded Israeli hospitals. They drink water and doctors encourage them to take vitamins, but many refuse.
Haddad said she hoped to convince Judge Awawdeh that his condition was life-threatening and that he must be released. So far, a prison doctor has disputed the diagnosis, she said.
No Palestinians have died from hunger strikes in Israeli custody, but doctors say chronic vitamin deficiencies can lead to permanent brain damage.
At Awawdeh’s home in the occupied West Bank town of Idna, his family has been anxiously following the latest ceasefire developments as his fate is suddenly linked to international diplomacy.
Awawdeh’s wife, Dalal, told The Associated Press that her husband’s release as a result of those efforts would be “a victory for the entire Palestinian cause.”
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