Palestinian hunger striker reaches deal for release

Tuesday 23 April 2013 10.41
Layla Essawi, the mother of Samer Essawi, holds up his poster as she and others take part in a solidarity sit-in
Layla Essawi, the mother of Samer Essawi, holds up his poster as she and others take part in a solidarity sit-in

A Palestinian prisoner who refused food for months is to end his hunger strike after a deal was reached with Israeli authorities for his early release.

Samer Essawi began refusing food in August to protest his re-arrest.

His strike became a rallying cry for Palestinians who protested, sometimes violently, on his behalf, seeing the 33-year-old from Jerusalem as a symbol of their struggle.

Israel was worried there would be wide unrest if anything happened to Essawi.

The prisoner issue is one of the most sensitive for Palestinians, many of whom have had a loved one behind bars.

There are some 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails for sentences ranging from throwing stones to killing civilians in deadly attacks.

Palestinians widely see the prisoners as heroes in the struggle for statehood, while Israelis view them as terrorists.

Attorney Jawad Bulous said Israeli military prosecutors agreed to release Essawi after he serves another eight months in prison.

The lawyer said he expected the deal to be signed later in the day, after which Essawi will end his hunger strike.

In 2002, Essawi was sentenced to 26 years in prison for his role in a series of shooting attacks targeting police cars and students at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

He was released from prison as part of a 2011 deal that freed hundreds of Palestinians - many of them militants involved in deadly attacks - in exchange for the release of an Israeli soldier held in Gaza.

But soon after that, Essawi violated the conditions of his release and was arrested again.

Essawi had been hospitalised in recent weeks as his weight plummeted and his health deteriorated.

To pressure Israeli authorities to come to a deal, Essawi gambled with his life, refusing infusions of vitamins and minerals, leading doctors to warn he was at risk of death, his attorney said.

"No doubt, this is a big victory for Samer," Mr Bulous said. The hunger strike "forced the Israeli side to reverse their position".

Ayman Sharawneh, another Palestinian prisoner who was rearrested for violating his release conditions last year, went on a hunger strike until he was released in March in a deal that saw him exiled to Hamas-run Gaza.

Mr Sharawneh was arrested in 2002 for his involvement in a bombing in the southern Israeli town of Beersheba that injured 18 civilians, the attempted kidnapping of a soldier, and shooting at soldiers.

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