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At least 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have launched a hunger strike. It's part of a building protest movement that has captured the imagination of the Palestinian public.

As Sheera Frenkel reports, daily demonstrations are occurring in the West Bank and Gaza in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: The protest outside the West Bank's Ofer Prison this past weekend was a now familiar scene. For the past two weeks, there have been daily rallies here and across the West Bank. Some joke that holding the protests close to the prison makes it easy for Israeli authorities to arrest and detain them.

So far, 10 of the jailed hunger strikers have been hospitalized, and two are listed in critical condition after maintaining their fast for 70 days. International organizations, including the U.N. and the European Union, have expressed concern that the hunger strikers are near death.

Bashir Idiab is the head of the Prisoners Association in the West Bank. He says that the hunger strikers have become a popular cause in Palestinian society because Israeli prison is a shared experience all Palestinians can relate to.

BASHIR IDIAB: (Through Translator) The imprisoned Palestinians occupy an important role in Palestinian society. We see them as political prisoners. Since 1967, 1.6 million people have served time in jail. That's one quarter of the Palestinians.

FRENKEL: Most Israelis aren't even aware of the issue, says Sarit Michaeli, a spokeswoman for the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.

SARIT MICHAELI: I think most Israelis aren't aware of how important the prisoner issue is in Palestinian society. You know, for Israelis, even understanding what Palestinians think about these issues is a very distant prospect.

FRENKEL: Idiab says hunger strikes have been used by Palestinians prisoners since 1968 and have proven an effective tool for pressing Israel to improve prison conditions. He says the current group on hunger strike has a list of demands that include more frequent family visits. But the key demand is an end to administrative detention or detention without trial.

The practice allows Israel to hold individuals for six months at a time without formally charging them or revealing evidence against them. Many are held for years, as the six-month term can be renewed indefinitely.

In February of this year, Khadar Adnan gained international attention when his 66-day hunger strike led to his release from prison. Israel says Adnan was deeply involved with Islamic Jihad, a banned militant group, which has carried out numerous terror attacks against Israeli civilians. But no evidence was presented to back up the allegation, and he was never formally charged.

Since his release, Adnan has made almost daily visits to a protest tent in Ramallah to rally support for the other jailed hunger strikers.

KHADAR ADNAN: (Through Translator) Since I have come out of jail, my only objective has been to preserve the dignity and safety of prisoners who are still in jail.

FRENKEL: As Adnan walks around the protest tent, several people clap, and all rise to shake his hand or kiss his cheek. He says he is pushing the Palestinian public to understand that the hunger strikers are part of a larger battle, to change Israel's policies towards Palestinians.

ADNAN: (Through Translator) The hunger strike has to be for freedom, not just for improving the life. I tell my colleagues who are still in jail: I came before you and gained freedom. I have a strong feeling you will follow me.

FRENKEL: Sivan Weitzman, a spokeswoman for the Israeli prison service, says a government committee has been formed to re-evaluate the prisoners' living conditions and rights. But she says that the hunger strikers are only harming themselves.

SIVAN WEITZMAN: (Through Translator) We don't directly negotiate with them. There are officials and a committee who deal with their requests and demands. And we hope in the coming days they will announce their findings.

FRENKEL: But most Palestinians are skeptical. At one recent protest in Ramallah, many spoke of Mahmoud Issa. He's a Palestinian prisoner whom Israel regards as a threat to the security of the state. He's only been allowed two family visits during the last 10 years he has spent in an Israeli jail. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.

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