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Israeli Court Suspends Detention Of Palestinian Prisoner On Hunger Strike


Israel's highest court today temporarily suspended the detention of a Palestinian prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for two months. The prisoner was held on suspicion of ties to a militant group but had not been tried. His health reach critical condition last week, and he awoke yesterday from a coma. The case highlights a debate over whether hunger striking prisoners should be force-fed, something newly legal in Israel, and it drew protests by Palestinians against Israeli laws that allow for extended detentions of prisoners without trial. We're joined now by NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. And Emily, tell us about the man at the center of this controversy. Who is he?

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: His name is Mohammad Allan. He's Palestinian. He's 31 years old. By profession, he's a lawyer. He's believed by Israeli security forces to be part of the militant organization Islamic Jihad, and he was detained on suspicion of his association with that group. He's been in prison since last November - so more than eight months. And today was the 65th day that he had been on a hunger strike.

SIEGEL: And what did he want to get from the hunger strike?

HARRIS: Well, basically, it was a message of, free me, or try me. It was a protest against being held but not charged with a specific crime.

SIEGEL: There are lots of prisoners in Israeli prisons. Why has he gotten so much attention?

HARRIS: You're right. There are more than 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. Mohammad Allan is part of a smaller group of about 300 or so who have been held without charges or trials for periods of six months at a time. These are renewable periods with the oversight of an Israeli military judge. It's called administrative detention.

Other prisoners have gone on hunger strike in the past, people in administrative detention in particular. This case, though, did get a lot of extra attention because, one, he appears to have come very close to death. And two, Israeli security officials have been worried that if he died, Palestinian protests would escalate, and that could mean more prisoners on hunger strike. It could be increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis. And then finally, this case got particular attention because Israel just last month passed a law allowing hunger-striking prisoners to be force-fed. And so this was watched as a first test case. He was not force-fed in the end.

SIEGEL: If Israel is so worried about ramifications if he had died, why didn't the government release him when he got so ill? Why did this go to the Supreme Court there?

HARRIS: You know, that's a very good point. And Israel has released hunger strikers in critical condition in the past. But basically, the state has a concern that releasing prisoners when they go on hunger strike rewards them when they are still, in Israel's view, connected to groups of terrorists or terrorist acts. But in this case, the state did make offers that officials hoped would avert his death and yet not give him unconditional freedom.

For example, in response to the legal petitions to the court to free Allan, Israel had offered to free him this coming November, which would be after his current term of administrative detention would be up. Israel had also offered to free him if he went into exile away from Israel or the Palestinian territories for four years. He, through his lawyer, refused both.

SIEGEL: Why did the court temporarily suspend his detention, and what does this change?

HARRIS: You know, one other offer that Israel made in court today was the release Allan if it was determined that he had suffered irreversible medical damage. And doctors did an MRI today and determined that there is neurological damage, but they said it wasn't clear yet if it was reversible or not - so not clear if it would meet the state's criteria.

But basically, this ruling, in the end, allows Allan to get medical treatment and not die. His lawyer says he's suspending his hunger strike. And it puts off the other decisions about releasing him until he's more stable. It's basically a punt that seems to be designed to let everybody save face but, you know, perhaps - we'll see - lower attention to this case and lower tensions.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Thank you.

HARRIS: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.