By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian prisoners considered an Egyptian-brokered deal on Monday aimed at ending a mass hunger strike that is challenging Israel's policy of detention without trial.
Some 1,600 prisoners, a third of the 4,800 Palestinians in Israeli jails, began refusing food on April 17 in a protest that also included demands for more family visits and an end to solitary confinement.
The peaceful campaign has focused attention on so-called "administrative detention", a practice that has drawn international criticism, and raised fears of a violent Palestinian backlash if any of the protesters die.
Palestinian officials said Egypt had drafted an agreement in Cairo with representatives of the Palestinian prisoners, and that inmates would meet during the day to sign off on the deal.
But later they said that talks in Ashkelon jail, south of Tel Aviv, between senior prisoners and Israeli authorities had hit a snag, and an Egyptian mediator would try to break the deadlock. Israel's Prisons Service declined comment.
The officials said Israeli authorities had balked at the agreement's call for the release of any inmate whose detention term, usually a six-month period that can be renewed by a military court, has ended.
But they said Israel had agreed under the deal to renew family visits for prisoners from the Gaza Strip and end the solitary confinement of 19 inmates.
Relatives' visits from Gaza were suspended after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants and taken to the Hamas-ruled territory in 2006. He was released last October in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel says the detentions are necessary because some cases cannot be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources who have cooperated with Israel.
Palestinians jailed by Israel are held in high esteem by their fellow Palestinians, who see them as heroes in what they term a struggle against occupation.
The hunger strikers include militants from Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with Israel, as well as members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group.
Two inmates who helped to launch the strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 77th day of their fast on Monday.
Last week, Israel's Supreme Court turned down their request to be freed from detention without trial but said security authorities should consider releasing them for medical reasons.
The court said administrative detention "causes unease to every judge" but was a necessary evil because Israel was "constantly fighting terror".
A month ago, Israel released hunger striker Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad member, amid concern he would die. He agreed to end his fast after 66 days in exchange for a promise not to renew his detention.
On Monday, thousands of people held a rally in Gaza in support of the hunger strikers, chanting "We will give our souls and blood to redeem the prisoners".
(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Jihan Abdalla in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Kevin Liffey)