RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Several thousand Palestinians rallied in a West Bank square on Wednesday in solidarity with hundreds of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Speakers called for a new campaign of civil disobedience against Israeli rule.
The prisoners launched the open-ended protest, now in its 17th day, to press for better conditions, including family visits.
The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a rare statement Wednesday, urging Israeli authorities to stop what it called the "systematic suspension" of family visits for the hunger strikers.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, protesters gathered in Nelson Mandela Square. They waved Palestinian flags and posters of Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the strike, bearing his quote: "Our chains will be broken before we are."
Addressing the crowd, Barghouti's wife delivered a speech on her husband's behalf, calling for "the largest campaign of civil disobedience" against 50 years of Israeli rule. Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Palestinians hope to establish a state in these lands.
"The freedom of the prisoners paves the way for the freedom of the entire nation,' Fadwa Barghouti said on behalf of her husband. "Therefore, the people and the leadership should support the strike."
Barghouti, a leader of the second Palestinian uprising, is serving five life sentences handed down by an Israeli court for directing two shooting attacks and a bombing that killed five people. Barghouti disputed the court's jurisdiction and didn't mount a defense. He has been in prison since 2002.
"This battle (the hunger strike) is part of our battle against the occupation and for independence and dignity," Fadwa Barghouti said.
Qadoura Fares, head of a Palestinian prisoners rights group, also told the crowd that Israel had no choice "but negotiate with the leaders of the strike and accept their demands."
The international community's silence "is encouraging the Nazi-like occupation," he said. He called for a "popular intifada (uprising) in support of the intifada of the prisoners."
The rally coincided with a White House meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and President Donald Trump. The two men said they were hopeful about reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, but did not say how they would get there.
About 6,500 Palestinians are currently held by Israel for actions related to the long-running conflict, including stone-throwing, membership in organizations outlawed by Israel and attacks that wounded or killed Israelis. Several hundred Palestinians are held without charges or trial.
Family visits are one of the issues at the heart of the hunger strike over conditions in Israeli prisons.
The ICRC's statement criticized Israel's cancellation of family visits to hunger striking prisoners in recent weeks, saying "the families are paying the price for this situation."
Israel Prison Service spokesman Assad Librati said around 850 Palestinian prisoners are still striking, down from about 1,300 last week.
He denied claims that Israel was violating international law, and accused the ICRC of helping create the crisis. Last year, the ICRC reduced the family visits it facilitates from twice a month to once a month, citing an increasing number of "no-shows" by Palestinian relatives of prisoners.
The ICRC said the responsibility for family visits rests on Israeli authorities, not the Red Cross. It said Israel's incarceration of Palestinians in Israel, rather than the West Bank, was a violation of international law.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.