Palestinian prisoners begin a hunger strike

JERUSALEM – Palestinian prisoners launched a hunger strike Sunday, but an Israeli Cabinet minister said he’d rather let them starve. Prison officials imposed more sanctions, including banning all family visits and the sale of cigarettes and candy.

The estimated 1,500 Palestinians want more family visits and phone access, and they sought to halt frequent searches of cells and strip searches of inmates.

Israeli officials said the prisons serve as hubs for planning and directing suicide bombings and other deadly attacks against Israelis.

About 3,800 Palestinians are held in 20 Israeli civilian prisons, Israeli prison officials say. The hunger strike is centered in three of those prisons and is expected to spread.

Israeli peace activists say an equal number of Palestinians are jailed in military facilities. Strike supporters say they hope the hunger action extends to the military jails, as well.

Meanwhile, the most prominent Palestinian prisoner is working on a smooth transition in the Gaza Strip after Israel’s planned withdrawal next year.

Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, has presented an 18-point plan for Gaza to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the leaders of the two militant groups responded “positively, in principle,” reported a source close to Barghouti.

Barghouti proposed that after the Israeli withdrawal, militant groups be given a role in running Gaza, but insisted that they halt attacks on Israel from that territory – though not from the West Bank.

Militants would stop parading armed in public, and within three months of the withdrawal would have to sell their weapons to the security forces. Gunmen could join the security forces, but would have to cut their ties with the militant groups.

Under Barghouti’s plan, Arafat’s Palestinian Authority would be the sovereign in Gaza, but a “monitoring committee” with representatives from all groups would have considerable say.

Barghouti, seen as a possible successor to Arafat, is serving five consecutive life terms for a role in attacks that killed five people, and, his daughter said, is taking part in the hunger strike.

Early today, Israeli helicopters fired four missiles at an industrial area northeast of Gaza City, witnesses said. Israel often targets workshops in missile strikes, charging that militants use them for making weapons, including rockets.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Associated Press

Palestinians wear chains during a protest Sunday demanding the release of prisoners in Israel.

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