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Middle East

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners launch hunger strike in Israel

media A Palestinian flag during the first leg of the Palestine Cup final soccer match between Gaza Strip's Shejaia and Hebron's Al-Ahly at al-Yarmouk stadium in Gaza City, 6 August 2015. Reuters/Mohammed Salem

Hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails have launched a hunger strike following a call from imprisoned leader Marwan Barghouti. The call came as numerous protests were organised around the world for the Palestinian Prisoners Day organised anually.

Pro-palestinian NGOs say the strike is mainly aimed at obtaining better living conditions for the prisonners.

Those on hunger strike have issued a list of demands, including access to phones, extended visiting rights and better medical service.

"This is not the first time that they launched a hunger strike, but this time they have different demands," explains Laith Abu Zeyad, an international advocacy officer at Addameer Prisoner Support Network. "First, to end the policy of administrative detention, to stop isolation and to allow more family visits."

Some 6500 Palestinians are currently detained by Israel. According to the Palestinian Authorities, at least 1300 prisonners are taking part in the hunger strike.

While hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners occur regularly, it rarely happens on such a large scale.

What's different this time is that the call for strike was issued by Marwan Barghou. The 57-year-old is serving five life sentences over his role in the violent second Palestinian intifada.

He is a popular figure among Palestinians... and a rival of President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I believe the main goal of this hunger strike is linked to the internal Palestinian conflict for the leadership," says Abraham Diskin, an Israeli political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

However for Palestinians, the prisons have become a symbol of the Hebrew state's occupation.

"[By jailing Palestinians] Israel is controlling the political life in Palestine," says Laith Abu Zeyad. "It's also a tool of oppression on people and political life. They keep arresting political leaders, including Palestinian council member and children. This, of course, is destructive for the Palestinian society."

Israel says it must be vigilant to prevent fresh eruptions of violence, particularly following a wave of attacks that erupted in October 2015. The violence has since then receded but fresh protests could prove a cause of worry for the auhorities.

"We already had some demonstrations of support in several cities not far from Jerusalem. I know that there were riots... not too violent, but the police tried to stop all that," explains Abraham Diskin. "We don't know how it's going to develop."

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