JERUSALEM (AP) — Dozens of Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday ended their 63-day-long hunger strike over detentions without charges after reaching a deal with Israeli prison authorities, a Palestinian official said.
The development came against the backdrop of a broad Israeli ground operation in the West Bank in search of three Israeli teens who went missing in the Palestinian territory nearly two weeks ago. There have also been near-daily rocket attacks from Gaza, prompting Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.
Overnight Wednesday, a rocket fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel exploded in the northern Gaza Strip, killing a 3-year-old Palestinian girl and wounding three other people. A Gaza security official said the rocket was misfired and exploded prematurely inside the coastal strip. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Since 2012, Palestinian prisoners have staged a series of hunger strikes, sometimes as individuals and sometimes in larger groups, to protest "administrative detention," a policy that can keep some prisoners in custody for months or years without charges. Israel has defended the practice as a necessary tool to stop militant activity, including attacks.
About 5,000 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israel for alleged offenses ranging from rock throwing to deadly militant attacks. Of those, some 190 are administrative detainees, while another 143 Palestinians detained in recent raids have also been held under the policy.
The latest hunger strike was launched April 24, with 77 prisoners still participating before Wednesday's settlement, according to Qadoura Fares, an advocate for Palestinian prisoners. The deal was struck with Israel's Prisons Authority, said Minister of Prisoner Affairs Shawqi Al-Aissa.
Fares said the agreement "states that the prisoners stay in hospital until they recover, and then they will be taken to the prisons they were in before the strike while Israel ends punitive measures against them." The measures included limiting visits by family members as well as removal of televisions and other amenities from their jail rooms.
"This is not a big victory but it has shaken the administrative detention law," Fares said, adding that the prisoners will "continue their struggle for freedom."
Fares said the crisis over the missing teens "had a very bad effect on the strike," reflecting what some observers have said — that Palestinians can't expect Israel to make any concessions under such circumstances.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised prison officials for reaching the deal. "We took a clear policy and brought this result, and we will add additional measures that will lead to fewer prisoner strikes in the future," he said. Over the objections of Israel's medical community and human rights groups, Netanyahu's government has been pressing forward with a law that would allow force feeding to keep hunger-striking prisoners alive.
The three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship — disappeared on June 12 in the West Bank.
Since then, the territory has seen a spike in violence. Israel has accused the militant Palestinian Hamas group, which controls Gaza, of being behind the abduction. Hamas has praised the kidnapping, but has not taken responsibility for it.
The Israeli military said troops arrested 17 Palestinians in the West Bank overnight. It also said that since the operation began, about 370 Palestinian suspects have been arrested, including about 280 Hamas members. Among the latest arrests were two more Hamas lawmakers, the group said. In all, 21 Hamas lawmakers are in Israeli custody.
Even so, the operation appears to be winding down ahead of the Muslim Ramadan holiday, which begins this weekend. Israel appears to have scaled back the arrests, and is concentrating its efforts in the area of Hebron, where the teens disappeared. Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, acknowledged Tuesday that as time passes, fears are rising about the fates of the teens.
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old Palestinian, Mustafa Aslan, died of wounds sustained in clashes with the Israeli military on the outskirts of Jerusalem last Friday, his family said. Aslan had been in an Israeli hospital since he was shot in the chest. In all, five Palestinians have died in Israel's latest West Bank operation.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.