RAMALLAH, West Bank, April 17 (UPI) -- Some 1,200 Palestinian prisoners launched a potentially explosive hunger strike Tuesday, joining 11 others, some of whom have been refusing food for more than 40 days, to protest imprisonment by Israeli officials without charge and harsh conditions, the prison service said.
The protest began amid growing dismay among Palestinians over the foundering peace process and the dimming prospect of an independent Palestinian state that has stirred speculation of a new uprising against the 45-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The collapse in peace negotiations has been largely blamed on the intransigence of the hawkish right-wing coalition government led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Israelis continue to establish footholds in the West Bank, which Israel wrested from Jordan in the 1967Mideast war, while the government refuses to comply with Israeli court rulings that unauthorized outposts established by hard-line settlers.
This, one commentator observed, "suggests that the evacuation of thousands of Israelis who moved to the West Bank settlements under state encouragement and financial inducements is not on Netanyahu's agenda."
If any of the hunger strikers die there is a serious risk of widespread anti-Israeli violence erupting in the highly charged political climate that pervades the West Bank these days.
Palestinian officials said as many 400 other prisoners could join the mass hunger strike spread over several Israeli prisons.
There are around 4,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, Ramallah prisoners' rights and support group Adameer said.
More than 300 are held under "administrative detention," meaning they and their lawyers aren't informed why they are behind bars and have no access to evidence against them.
Such prisoners are never put on trial and their term of imprisonment is determined by an Israeli military judge. They can be held indefinitely through renewable, six-month periods.
"Historically speaking, the practice of hunger strikes has been used by the Palestinian prisoners to guarantee their rights under the Israeli prison authority; it's not something new," said Adameer General Director Sahar Francis.
Large-scale hunger strikes were carried out by Palestinian prisoners in 2000, 2004 and in September-October 2011. The biggest strike was in 2004 when some 10,000 prisoners refused food, many of them for 17 days.
These were modeled on protests conducted by the Irish Republican Army in British-ruled Northern Ireland, particularly in March 1980-81 when Republicans convicted of terrorist crimes demanded to be treated as political prisoners.
Ten activists starved themselves to death during the 217-day protest, with new men joining the fast as others died, before the British government substantially met the strikers' demands but without formally recognizing them as political prisoners.
In the 1980s, Turkish political prisoners developed a tradition of hunger strikes in which around two dozen men died. The Ankara government claims 189 hunger strikers have received presidential pardons since 2000.
The current Palestinian protest is clearly intended to heighten pressure on Israel at a time when Netanyahu's government is under growing international pressure to make concessions in the West Bank.
The Palestinians want to kick-start the moribund peace process on which critics say Netanyahu's government is dragging its feet while steadily consolidating Israel's grip on the territory, a tactic known as "changing facts on the ground."
The current hunger strike began in December, when Islamic Jihad member Khader Adnan, a 33-year-old West Banker, refused food to protest administrative detention. He ended his strike Feb. 23, after Israel agreed to release him at the end of a four-month prison term. Khader, who has spent half his life in Israeli prisons, went without food for 67 days.
He was freed Tuesday as the hunger strike escalated sharply.
The British Medical Association noted in a study of the 1980-81 IRA strike in the notorious H-Blocks of The Maze prison that "death generally occurred between 55 and 75 days."
Bobby Sands, the leader of the IRA prisoners in The Maze and the first fatality, died on the 66th day of his fast.
On Feb. 16, Hana al-Shalabi, another Islamic Jihad member who had spent two years under administrative detention, began a hunger strike right after she was arrested Feb.16. Shalabi, 29, ended her strike after 43 days when the Israelis agreed to deport her to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Among the 11 original strikers, two have refused food for 48 days.