JERUSALEM - After 18 days, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails called off their hunger strike yesterday, and while Palestinian officials tried to put on a brave face, there was little doubt that they had suffered a significant defeat.
"We announce to you all that all prisoners in all prisons have ended today their open hunger strike," said the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, Hisham Abdel-Razek, speaking in Gaza. He said that "most of the demands" for improved conditions in prison had been met, an assertion Israeli officials quickly denied.
Issa Qaraqe, the leader of the Palestinian Prisoners' Association, said about 3,500 prisoners ended the strike early yesterday, but Israeli officials had said that the strike at its strongest involved about 3,000 prisoners, a number that they said was down to 2,000 by the end of last week. Of the other 4,000 prisoners jailed or detained by the Israeli military, few had joined the strike.
A Palestinian Cabinet minister, Qadoura Fares, asserted that serious negotiations had occurred between the Israeli authorities and the prisoners. "We consider the negotiations an achievement for them because the Israeli authorities announced from the first day that they wouldn't negotiate," Fares said.
Officials of the Israeli prison authority, however, insisted that no negotiations with the prisoners had taken place. Yaacov Ganot of the prison authority said: "We did not hold any kind of negotiation, and they did not achieve anything other than the following: our agreement to return to how things were the day the strike began."
Qaraqe said that position was meant for domestic consumption. "The Israelis are trying to pretend to their population that they weren't negotiating," he said in an interview. "But, of course, they were."
Israeli officials said that, with the strike over, they would restore prisoner privileges such as access to newspapers, radio and television, cigarettes and salt, and resume family visits. They clearly promised a fresh look at some of the prisoners' complaints, which include frequent strip searches, glass barriers between prisoners and their relatives, and irregular access to telephones.
Qaraqe, who conceded last week that the strike was badly timed and had produced little international attention, said that the prisoners called off the strike because they had already reached "many fundamental understandings" with the authorities.
But the strike was gradually cracking, and it is more likely that the Palestinians decided to call it off and declare victory rather than watch it collapse.