Israel declared psychological war on hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners on Monday, saying it would barbecue meat outside their cells to try to break their spirit.
The 1,700 inmates, seen by Palestinians as symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation, want wardens to stop strip searches, allow more frequent family visits, improve sanitary conditions and install public telephones, supporters said.
Israeli officials call the protest launched on Sunday a ploy by the prisoners to secure easier communication with militant groups waging an almost four-year-old uprising, and have vowed to fight their liquids-only fast.
The Prisons Service said it would draw on tactics used in hunger strikes by jailed Northern Irish militants in the 1970s and 1980s, such as withholding basic amenities.
“Among the various methods we plan to employ is holding barbecues outside the walls of the affected prisons,” a Prisons Service spokesman said.
The hunger strike was praised by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, himself a virtual prisoner of Israel who has been confined to his West Bank compound for months.
Arafat told reporters the hunger strike was to protest against “this occupier and its racist and inhumane means”.
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says about 7,000 Palestinians, excluding common criminals, are being held in Israeli civilian prisons or military jails.
About half are either being detained without charge or until the end of criminal proceedings against them. The other half have been convicted of security-related offences.
Recent sweeps for militants in the West Bank and Gaza have swollen the prisoners’ ranks.
“We declare, in the name of God, our national decision to launch an open hunger strike,” the Palestinian Prisoners Society said in a statement. It accused Israel of “robbing us of all our rights, treading on our dignity and treating us like animals”.
In Gaza, about 3,000 Palestinians held a rally in support of the hunger strikers. Khaled al-Batsh, a leader of the militant Islamic Jihad group, said gunmen should kidnap “Zionist soldiers and settlers to be swapped for our prisoners”.
Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian during a confrontation with stone throwers in the West Bank city of Nablus, Palestinian witnesses said. The army had no immediate comment.
Israeli helicopters hit a rocket crew in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun overnight, military sources said. But locals said two Palestinians killed in the missile strike had no militant links.