Islamic leaders in the Gaza Strip called on Friday for armed groups to kidnap Israelis and use them as bargaining chips to secure the freedom of thousands of Palestinians prisoners held in Israeli jails.
Human rights groups say up to 2,000 prisoners have joined an open-ended hunger strike to protest against jail conditions and thousands of Palestinians staged a rally in the Gaza Strip to support their cause.
“We should work hard to get (Israeli) prisoners in our hands in order to secure the freedom of our prisoners,” Khaled al-Batsh, a senior member of the Islamic Jihad, told the crowd.
“I say to all armed factions, the way to free the prisoners is through swaps ... An arrest for an arrest, and freedom for freedom. This is the way,” he said, according to Reuters.
Israel last year freed some 1,000 Palestinians in return for the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized in 2006 and held by the Islamist group Hamas in secret captivity for five years.
Human Rights groups say at least 4,700 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails, many of them convicted for violent crimes. Palestinian leaders say they should be treated as prisoners of war, something Israel rejects.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, said Palestinian armed factions would “never abandon” the prisoners.
“The swap deal was a message to the (Israeli) occupation that the resistance and the Palestinian people will pursue every difficult avenue to break the chains of these heroes,” he said.
“We are in a battle for the prisoners, and we will either win, or we will win,” he added.
Friday’s rally saw participants waving both the green and black flags of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad -- a sign of growing ties between the two groups, which share the same Islamist ideology and advocate the destruction of the state of Israel.
Prisoners are seen as heroes in their communities and the mass hunger strike is putting pressure on the leadership to respond. Israel struck deals with two prisoners earlier this year to end their hunger strikes, but is resisting demands for further concessions.
A mass hunger strike by at least 1,200 was launched on April 17 and the Addameer prisoners’ association has said a further 800 have since joined the movement.
On Wednesday, Israel’s Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a Palestinian prisoner who has been refusing food for more than seven weeks to protest being held without charge, his lawyer told AFP.
Hassan Safdi, 31, was arrested on June 29, 2011 and has been held without charge under a procedure called administrative detention, which means a prisoner can be held for renewable periods of up to six months.
He has been on hunger strike since March 5.
Safdi’s lawyer Osama Maqbul told AFP he had lodged an appeal against the administrative detention order with an Israeli military court last month but it had been rejected.
A second appeal, this time to the Supreme Court, was also rejected, Maqbul said, with the court urging Safdi to end his protest.
“The court advised him to eat because he will not be released.”
After 52 days on hunger strike, Safdi had lost 30 kilograms (66 pounds) and was “in critical condition,” Maqbul said, indicating that the prisoner was suffering kidney problems.
Safdi is one of eight Palestinian prisoners who have been refusing food for an extended period of time, with six of them now being held in the hospital wing of Ramle prison near Tel Aviv.
“Six prisoners who started their hunger strike several months ago have been placed in the medical ward of the Ramle prison and are on a drip,” Sivan Weizman, spokeswoman for the Israel Prisons Service said.
Five of them are being held in administrative detention, and two -- Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla -- are now entering their 57th day on hunger strike.
On Tuesday, their lawyer Jamil al-Khatib also filed an appeal at the Supreme Court after a military judge had on Monday rejected their appeals following a closed meeting with members of Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service.
A ninth prisoner, Ahmed Saqer, who had refused food for 32 days, was released last week after spending 43 months in administrative detention.