A Palestinian hunger striker who his family says has refused food for the past 160 days and is wasting away in an Israeli jailhouse infirmary has suddenly been thrust into the center of efforts to firm up a Gaza cease-fire.
Khalil Awawdeh is in the spotlight because the Islamic Jihad group sought his release as part of Egyptian-brokered talks that ended three days of fighting between the Gaza-based militants and Israel over the weekend.
In an attempt to win the militants’ agreement to halt their fire, Egypt had assured them it would also try to win the release of their West Bank leader and of Awawdeh.
The 40-year-old father of four girls, gaunt and weakened, is protesting his detention without charge or trial by Israel. He is one of dozens of prisoners who have staged hunger strikes in Israeli prisons.
Prospects for his release are uncertain. But his case highlights the plight of hundreds of Palestinians who are being held by Israel under a system that critics say denies them the right to due process.
Israel can hold so-called administrative detainees indefinitely, without showing them the alleged evidence against them or taking them to trial in military courts. Many turn to hunger strikes as a last recourse to bring attention to their situation.
Awawdeh’s lawyer, Ahlam Haddad, said her client is “moving between life and death” and that it makes no sense to keep him in detention. “He looks like a pile of bones,” she said. “How much of a threat can he be?”
His family says he not eaten for 160 days, and has only been drinking water, except for a 10-day period when he also received vitamin injections.
Israel is currently holding some 4,400 Palestinians, including militants who have carried out deadly attacks, as well as people arrested at protests or for throwing stones. Around 670 Palestinians are now being held in administrative detention, a number that jumped in March as Israel began near-nightly arrest raids in the West Bank following a spate of deadly attacks against Israelis.
Awawdeh hails from a small town in the southern West Bank and worked as a driver. In his current condition, he uses a wheelchair, and is showing memory loss and speech difficulties.
Haddad said he was arrested in December, accused by Israel of being a member of a militant group, a charge she said he denies.
Dawood Shihab, an Islamic Jihad official, said the group demanded his release as part of the truce talks because it supported his struggle for freedom, not because he is a member.
“This is a matter that continues to be a disgrace to all of humanity,” he said, referring to the hunger strike and detention.
Haddad said she doesn’t know why Islamic Jihad chose to include him in the cease-fire deal, along with a senior West Bank commander Israel arrested last week. She is currently appealing his detention in court.
The arrest of the commander had sparked the weekend fighting, with Israeli launching what it said were preemptive airstrikes at Gaza and Islamic Jihad firing hundreds of rockets at Israel. Dozens of Palestinians were killed during the fighting.
The Israeli Shin Bet security agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel says administrative detention is needed to prevent attacks or to keep dangerous suspects locked up without sharing evidence that could endanger valuable intelligence sources.
Israel says it provides due process and largely imprisons those who threaten its security, though a small number are held for petty crimes.
Palestinians and human rights groups say the system is designed to quash opposition and maintain permanent control over millions of Palestinians while denying them basic rights.
Prisoners like Awawdeh have looked to hunger strikes as their only means to protest their detentions. Dozens of prisoners have staved off food for weeks to draw attention to their detention without trial or charges.
“The tools detainees have to challenge the unjustness of detention are very few. Hunger strikes are an exceptional measure, a tool for the weakest people who have no other way of advocating for themselves,” said Jessica Montell, the director of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights group, who said Israel had turned its system of incarceration of Palestinians into an “assembly line.”
Lengthy hunger strikes draw international attention and stoke protests in the occupied Palestinian territories, putting pressure on Israel to meet the prisoners’ demands. Amid that pressure, Israel has at times acceded to hunger strikers’ demands.
As hunger strikers’ health deteriorates, they are transferred to Israeli hospitals under guard. They drink water, and medics encourage them to take vitamins, but many refuse.
Haddad said she is hoping to convince a judge that Awawdeh’s condition is so life-threatening that he must be released. She said a prison doctor has so far disputed that diagnosis.
No Palestinian in Israeli detention has died as a result of hunger strikes, but doctors say prolonged vitamin deficiency can cause permanent brain damage.
In Awawdeh’s home in the occupied West Bank town of Idna, his family was anxiously following the latest cease-fire developments, now that his fate was suddenly linked to international diplomacy.
Awawdeh’s wife Dalal told The Associated Press that her husband’s release as a result of such efforts would be “a victory for the entire Palestinian cause.”