(REUTERS) Israel declared psychological war on hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners on Monday, saying it would barbecue meat outside their cells to try to break their will. The 1,500 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.
But 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 revolt, and have vowed to fight their liquids-only fast to the end. The Prisons Service said it would draw on psychological tactics used against hunger strikes by Northern Irish militants in jail in the 1970s and 1980s which included depriving them of 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, without giving a timetable.
More than 7,500 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israel, their ranks swollen by recent sweeps for militants in the West Bank and Gaza.
In new violence, 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.
ARAFAT PRAISES PRISONERS
The hunger strike was praised by Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who has for months cast himself as a virtual prisoner of Israel, confined to his West Bank compound.
“The president … hailed our heroes in Israeli jails for being steadfast,” said a Palestinian government statement.
Issa Qaraqe, a prisoners’ rights activist in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, has said the hunger strike would spread from Israel’s main prisons to military detention camps.
“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.”
Palestinians have held mass rallies in support of the prisoners, and on Monday were called upon by their government to hold a one-day solidarity fast on August 18.
But Israelis remained largely unmoved by the threat of escalation by the prisoners, many of whom openly identify with Islamic groups sworn to the Jewish state’s destruction.
“As far as I’m concerned they can strike for a day, a month, until death. We will ward off this strike and it will be as if it never happened,” Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi said.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said in a statement on Sunday any progress toward peace with Israel was contingent on resolving “this central and sensitive” issue.
According to the Prisons Service, a special committee would consider force-feeding inmates who became critically emaciated.