Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners agreed to halt a weekslong hunger strike on Monday in exchange for promises of better conditions, ending a standoff that left several participants clinging to life and drew thousands of Palestinians to the streets in shows of solidarity.
The Palestinians won key concessions in a deal mediated by Egyptian officials, including more family visits and limits to a controversial Israeli policy that can imprison people for years without charge. In return, Israel extracted pledges by militant groups to halt violent activities, and prevented the potentially explosive scenario of prisoners dying of hunger.
The fate of the prisoners deeply emotional for Palestinians, where nearly everyone has a neighbor or relative who has spent time in an Israeli jail. Hundreds of Palestinians took to the streets of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip each day to show solidarity with the inmates, often holding pictures of their imprisoned loved ones.
In Gaza City, Palestinians cried for joy and praised God over blaring loudspeakers upon news of the deal. "God is Great! To God is our thanks!" they chanted. Thousands waved the colorful Palestinian flag, distributed sweets and prostrated themselves in thanks. The deal ended one of the largest mass strikes of Palestinian prisoners. Two men launched the strike on Feb. 28, refusing food for 77 days, becoming the longest ever Palestinian hunger strikers. At least 1,600 other Palestinian prisoners, more than a third of the prison population, joined the strike on April 17, fasting for 27 days.
With the Palestinians already planning mass demonstrations for their annual day of mourning on Tuesday, both sides were eager to reach agreement to avoid spreading anger over the issue. Palestinians use May 15 to commemorate their suffering that resulted from Israel's establishment 64 years ago, a day they call the "nakba" or "catastrophe."
"The prisoners have proved to the whole world that empty stomachs are more powerful than any ruler or oppressor," said a spokesman for Gaza's Hamas rulers, Fawzi Barhoum.
Israel agreed to allow some 400 prisoners from Gaza to receive family visits for the first time since 2006, according to terms of the deal as confirmed by Israeli and Palestinian officials. Israel halted the family visits after Hamas captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006. But the soldier was returned in a prisoner swap last October and Palestinians wanted the ban to end.
"We were on strike for a simple right: to visit our children. My dream was that Ali would be freed _ but at least now I can see him," said Nidal Sarafiti, a 64-year-old Gazan, speaking of his son, who has served seven years of an 18 year sentence for involvement in militant activity. He said he hadn't seen his son since he was imprisoned.
Roughly 20 prisoners released from solitary confinement back into the general prison population. Those included Hamas member Abdullah al-Barghouthi, serving 67 life sentences for helping to plan a series of suicide bombings that killed scores of civilians. He has been in solitary confinement since 2003, said Ehteram Ghazawneh of Palestinian prisoner rights group Addameer.
In another key demand by prisoners, Israel agreed to ease its policy of "administrative detention," in which prisoners are held for months, even years, without charge.
The Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Issa Qaraqe, said the 300 detainees held without charge would have their files reviewed after six months. The detentions could only be extended if Israel presents concrete evidence against them to a military court.
Israel had been reluctant to concede to the Palestinian demands, worried it would spark more collective action. Officials noted that many of the hunger strikers were convicted of perpetrating, or being involved, in attacks that killed civilians.
"This deal was a serious mistake, instead of making things tougher for the terrorists they are giving them gifts," said Danny Danon, an Israeli lawmaker from the ruling Likud Party.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency said the prisoners pledged to stop helping to plan and conduct attacks from inside Israeli jails via networks that enable contact with the outside world. It also said militant group's commanders outside the jails made a commitment "to prevent terror activity." It said militant violence or resumed prisoner strikes would "annul the Israeli commitment."
This action was sparked by a hunger strike by Khader Adnan, a spokesman for the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad, which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. Adnan fasted for 66 days this year to demand his release from incarceration without charge.
After days of negotiations, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Yasser Rida, personally presented the deal to a Palestinian strike committee that was gathered in an Israeli prison in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, officials said.
The two longest strikers, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahleh, had said they would not start eating again until their administrative detentions are lifted. They have survived by occasionally taking infusions of nutrients.
Diab has been held without charge since last August, and Halahleh has been in administrative detention since June 2010, and spent an additional six and a half years in administrative detention last decade. Both men are Islamic Jihad members, but Israel has not said what they were suspected of doing.
For families of the prisoners, any deal that did not win freedom for their loved ones fell short.
"Will they release Bilal? Is it over?" asked Missadeh Diab, the elderly mother of a hunger striker. "May God give your demands and freedom."
Haitham Hamad in Ramallah, West Bank and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report. Follow Hadid on twitter.com/diaahadid