Palestinian prisoners portraits underscore absence

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For the thousands of Palestinian families who have a relative in Israeli detention, a photograph is the only real contact with their loved ones.

In homes, the images are usually decked in elaborate frames alongside the portraits of dead ancestors, marking the conspicuous absence of the prisoners.

The fate of the prisoners, always an emotional issue in Palestinian society, has become an especially poignant rallying point over the past month as more than 1,000 men imprisoned by Israel have staged a hunger strike. It is one of the longest and largest hunger strikes that Palestinians have ever undertaken.

About 1,600 prisoners have refused food for nearly a month. A smaller core of 10 have refused to eat for 50 to 76 days. Many of the longer-fasting strikers are receiving liquid infusions to keep them alive.

The hunger strikers form at least a one-third of the Palestinian prisoner population. Among them are 300 people being held in open-ended detention without charge, a policy called "administrative detention." Israel uses the policy to hold Palestinians they believe pose an immediate risk to security.

Israel says that many of the hunger strikers have been convicted of deadly attacks on Israelis or other violent crimes.

Still, the hunger strike seems to reflect a shift of sorts. While Palestinian militant groups refuse to renounce violence, they have begun to adopt nonviolent tactics, saying they are inspired by the success of mass protests during the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East over the past year and a half.

Officials on both sides say negotiations are under way to end the strike.

Large crowds gather in the West Bank and Gaza Strip nearly every day in support of the hunger strikers. Activists and relatives hoist large photos of their imprisoned loved ones.

Palestinian mothers and wives carry the heaviest burdens. They head single-parent households in the absence of their husbands.

Mothers, often poorly educated from rural villages in the West Bank, struggle to secure jail visits.

Families from Gaza, ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, are prohibited from entering Israel entirely to visit their loved ones. For them, the photographs are even more meaningful.

Every week in Gaza, dozens of Palestinian women clutching large portraits of their sons protest at the local Red Cross office, demanding to visit their imprisoned children.

Some Palestinian families have a series of siblings in prison. In those living rooms, there are often a string of portraits of men who resemble each other, gazing into space. The portraits are often twinned by handicrafts that the prisoners make in jails.

The importance of these photographs is underscored in the demands of the hunger-striking prisoners. Their chief demands are an end solitary confinement and administrative detention, and to allow families from Gaza to visit their loved ones.

They also want the right to be photographed with their families.