JERUSALEM (AP) — Dozens of Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday ended their 63-day-long hunger strike after reaching a deal with Israeli prison authorities, a Palestinian official said.
The development comes against the backdrop of a broad Israeli ground operation in the West Bank in search of three Israeli teens who went missing in the Palestinian territory nearly two weeks ago. There have also been near-daily rocket attacks from Gaza, prompting Israeli airstrikes in retaliation.
Earlier Wednesday, a rocket fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel exploded in the northern Gaza Strip, killing a 3-year-old Palestinian girl and wounding three other people, a Gaza health official said.
A Gaza security official said the militants' rocket exploded prematurely inside the coastal strip. Both Palestinian officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Since 2012, Palestinian prisoners have staged a series of hunger strikes, sometimes as individuals and sometimes in larger groups to protest "administrative detention," a policy that can keep some prisoners in custody for months without charges.
Israel has defended the practice as a necessary tool to stop militant activity, including attacks.
About 5,000 Palestinians are imprisoned in Israel for offenses ranging from rock throwing to deadly militant attacks. Of those, some 190 are administrative detainees, while another 143 Palestinians detained in recent raids have also been held under the policy.
The latest hunger strike was launched April 24 and involved 77 prisoners, according to Qadoura Fares, an advocate for Palestinian prisoners. It ended Wednesday after the deal was struck with Israel Prisons Authority, said Minister of Prisoner Affairs Shawqi Al-Aissa.
Fares said the agreement "states that the prisoners stay in hospital until they recover, and then they will be taken to the prisons they were in before the strike while Israel ends punitive measures against them." The measures included limited visits by family members as well as removal of televisions and other amenities from their jail rooms.
"This is not a big victory but it has shaken the administrative detention law," Fares said, adding that the prisoners will "continue their struggle for freedom."
Fares said the crisis over the missing teens "had a very bad effect on the strike," reflecting what some observers have said — that Palestinians can't expect Israel to make any concessions under such circumstances.
The three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, a 16-year-old with dual Israeli-American citizenship — disappeared on June 12 in the West Bank.
Since then, the territory has seen a spike in violence. Israel has accused the militant Palestinian Hamas group, which controls Gaza, of being behind the abduction. Hamas has praised the kidnapping, but has not taken responsibility for it.
The Israeli military said troops arrested 17 Palestinians in the West Bank overnight. It also said that since the operation to locate the teens and crackdown on Hamas began, about 370 Palestinian suspects have been arrested, including about 280 Hamas members.
In a related development, Israel's parliament earlier this week postponed a vote on a bill that would allow force feeding prisoners. Last week, Leonid Eidelman, the president of the Israeli Medical Association, told The Associated Press that Israeli doctors would "absolutely refuse" on ethical grounds to force-feed hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.
Under the bill, a judge could sanction force-feeding if an inmate's life is perceived to be in danger. The government argues that a death in custody could trigger violent unrest in prisons or the Palestinian territories and harm Israel's security.
Israeli hospitals have so far been successful in keeping Palestinian hunger strikers alive without having to resort to force-feeding. This includes offering hunger strikers supplements of glucose, vitamins or electrolytes.
The Israeli military said Gaza militants fired a total of five rockets at Israel late Tuesday. It said two were shot down by the "Iron Dome" rocket-defense system, while one fell in an open area and two landed inside Gaza.
The Israeli military responded early Wednesday with a series of airstrikes across Gaza, saying it targeted five concealed rocket launchers, a weapons-manufacturing facility and a "terror activity" site.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said Israel is "determined to act against those that strive to target Israel."
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.