Palestinians in Israeli jails begin hunger strike


Thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails began a hunger strike for better conditions today, but Israel's security minister said he didn't care if they starved to death.

The prisoners, seen by Palestinians as symbols of resistance to Israeli occupation, want wardens to stop strip searches, allow more frequent visits from their families, improve sanitary conditions and install public telephones, supporters said.

More than 7,500 Palestinians, including 4,000 jailed over violence against Israelis, refused breakfast at four prisons and declared they would live only on fluids until their demands were met, the Prisons Authority said.

Internal Security Minister Mr Tzahi Hanegbi, however, said Israel would not bow to the prisoners' demands.

"As far as I'm concerned they can strike for a day, a month, until death. We will ward off this strike and it will be as if it never happened," he told reporters.

Mr Ofer Lefler, a Prisons Authority spokesman, said privileges such as cigarettes, sweets and television were taken away from the prisoners after they began the strike, which he described as a "disturbance".

He said if a prisoner became too emaciated "an ethical committee" would decide whether to begin force feeding.

Israeli officials said they feared closer contact with the outside world through more visits and phone calls would enable prisoners to help militants at large plan attacks on Israelis.

In the latest violence, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli border policeman, who then shot and killed him outside Jerusalem's walled Old City, a police spokesman said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and Israel Radio said it appeared the attacker was mentally ill.