The deal which ended the Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike not only headed off a confrontation with Israel, but it also proved the growing success of their strategy of non-violent protest.
The agreement, signed just hours before Nakba Day when Palestinians mourn the “catastrophe” which befell them in the war that accompanied Israel’s independence in 1948, provided a happy ending for both local, regional and international players.
Not only did the prisoners manage to improve their lot through the deal, but Israel was able to avoid what could have been a potentially lethal backlash if any of the prisoners had died, in a move which saw all sides breathe a sigh of relief.
In a statement welcoming the deal, Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair said he had repeatedly pushed Israel “to resolve the crisis expeditiously in order to avoid a tragic outcome which had the potential to destabilize conditions on the ground.”
And Gaza’s Hamas rulers and the radical Islamic Jihad movement had warned Israel it would face dire consequences if any of the 1,550 prisoners died.
Most of the detainees refused food for four weeks, but two of them, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla, both from Islamic Jihad, went 76 days without eating, setting the record for a hunger strike among Palestinian prisoners.
“If anything had happened to Thaer or Bilal, for example, it would have pushed Islamic Jihad to react immediately by firing rockets at Israel from Gaza, which Hamas would not have wanted because it wants to keep the peace there,” a Palestinian official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In a bid to resolve the standoff, Hamas had last week dispatched a delegation of former prisoners to Cairo to participate in negotiations, which were mediated by Egypt.
The explosive potential of the strike had also worried officials in Ramallah.
“Like Israel, some Palestinian circles were worried that the strike could deteriorate into a new intifada (uprising), which would be run by leaders of the first and second intifadas, but this time from inside Israeli prisons,” said political analyst Khalil Shahine.
On Sunday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas described the situation as “extremely dangerous” and warned it could spark a “national disaster” if any of the prisoners died while on hunger strike.
The subject of the mass hunger strike played a major role in his talks on Saturday night with Israel’s chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, who had travelled to Ramallah to hand Abbas a letter on the peace process from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Shortly after news of the deal broke on Monday, Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev said Israel had backed the agreement “in response to a request by President Abbas” in the hope that it would “build confidence between the parties and further peace.”
But, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR) said it was unacceptable that the prisoners were forced to endanger their own lives in a bid to secure basic rights.
“We regret that Israel’s authorities had for years violated inmates’ rights, so they had to risk their lives in their struggle,” said Anat Litvin, head of prisoners and detainees at PHR.
But she hailed the detainees for their use of a non-violent campaign to achieve those rights.
“The Palestinian inmates proved that a non-violent and just struggle can bring important achievement and raise international awareness,” she said in a PHR statement.
Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi also hailed the peaceful protest as a “victory” for the entire Palestinian people.
“They have truly demonstrated that non-violent resistance is an essential tool in our struggle for freedom,” she said in a statement issued on Monday evening.
“Our new heroes are Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King,” Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath has repeatedly said, alluding to three giants of peaceful popular resistance who have inspired the current Palestinian strategy, which was even publicly approved by Hamas in 2011.
In a report published on Tuesday, Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki noted that “a majority of Palestinians oppose a resort to violence as a means of resisting Israeli occupation.”
Even so, he said the numbers of those engaging in such activity remained low.