GAZA Egypt has brokered a deal aimed at ending a hunger strike by 1,600 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, a Palestinian source close to the negotiations said on Monday.
One in three of the 4,800 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails began refusing food on April 17 in protest against detention without trial and to demand better conditions like an increase in family visits and ending solitary confinement.
The scope of the hunger strike has posed a new challenge to Israel, which has come under international criticism over detention without trial and could face a violent Palestinian backlash if any of the protesters die.
"Egypt has concluded a deal to resolve the prisoner crisis that included Israel's acceptance of prisoners' demands in exchange for ending the hunger strike," said the Palestinian source who is close to the talks in Cairo.
Asked about news of the deal, an Israeli Prisons Service spokeswoman said: "The strike is still on ... we are not commenting on the process."
Egyptian mediators have been meeting Palestinian officials negotiating on behalf of the hunger strikers, and the source said an official announcement would be made after prisoners sign off on the deal.
While Israel had signalled it was prepared to offer concessions on prison conditions, it has showed no willingness to end so-called administrative detention, where prisoners can be held indefinitely without charge or trial.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a senior official of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's mainstream Fatah movement, said prisoner leaders had been brought to a jail in the Israeli town of Ashkelon for discussions with Israeli officials on implementing the deal.
"We hope the agreement concludes today, barring any obstacles," Ahmed told Voice of Palestine radio.
Ahmed said that under the draft accord, Israel would release so-called "administrative detainees", prisoners held without trial, once their detention period was over. Israel usually holds such prisoners for six-month terms that a military court can extend.
A Palestinian official in Cairo said Israel also had agreed to renew family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip that had been suspended after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants and taken to the Hamas-ruled territory in 2006. He was released last October in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinians jailed by Israel are held in particularly high esteem by their fellow Palestinians who see them as heroes in what they term a struggle against occupation.
Defending its detention policy, Israel says some cases cannot immediately be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources that have cooperated with Israeli security organs against militants.
The hunger strikers include militants from Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with Israel, as well as Fatah members.
Two inmates who helped to launch the strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 77th day of their fast on Monday.
Last week, Israel's Supreme Court turned down their appeal to free them from detention without trial but said security authorities should consider releasing them for medical reasons.
The court said "administrative detention causes unease to every judge" but was a "necessary evil" because Israel is "constantly fighting terror".
A month ago, Israel released hunger striker Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad member, amid concern he would die. He agreed to end his 66-day-long fast in exchange for a promise not to renew his detention.
On Monday, thousands of people held a rally in Gaza in support of the hunger strikers. "We will give our souls and blood to redeem the prisoners," the crowd chanted.
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Writing by Jeffrey Heller, editing by Diana Abdallah)