GAZA - Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails agreed on Monday to an Egyptian-brokered deal aimed at ending a mass hunger strike that challenged Israel's policy of detention without trial and raised fears of a bloody Palestinian backlash if any protesters died.
Most of some 1,600 prisoners, a third of the 4,800 Palestinians in Israeli jails, began refusing food on April 17 although a few had been fasting much longer - up to 77 days.
Their protest centred on demands for more family visits, an end to solitary confinement and an easing of so-called "administrative detention", a practice that has drawn international criticism on human rights grounds.
An Egyptian official involved in the talks said that under Monday's deal to end the strike, Israel had agreed to end solitary confinement for 19 prisoners and lifted a ban on visits to prisoners by relatives living in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Israel also agreed to improve other conditions of detention, and to free so-called administrative detainees once they complete their terms unless they are brought to court, according to the official.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri confirmed the deal, telling Reuters that "the prisoners signed the deal after their demands were met. The deal was brokered by Egypt."
Israel also confirmed an accord had been struck. "An agreement has been signed to bring about the end of a 28-day hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners," the Israel Prisons Authority said in a written statement.
It said the prisoners were to sign a commitment "not to engage in actions contravening security inside the jails".
In exchange for such guarantees, Israel would grant these prisoners easier terms including a lifting of solitary confinement and a possibility of primary relatives visiting them from Gaza, the statement said.
Palestinian officials said Egypt had drafted an agreement in Cairo with representatives of the Palestinian prisoners, and that inmates met during the day to sign off on it.
The talks, held in Israel's Ashkelon jail, south of Tel Aviv, between senior prisoners and Israeli authorities, had hit a snag earlier, but an Egyptian mediator apparently managed to break the deadlock.
sraeli authorities had balked at the agreement's call for the release of any inmate whose detention term, usually a six-month period that can be renewed by a military court, has ended, according to officials involved in the talks.
Relatives' visits from Gaza were suspended after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants and taken to the Hamas-ruled territory in 2006. He was released last October in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israel says the detentions are necessary because some cases cannot be brought to open court for fear of exposing Palestinian intelligence sources who have cooperated with Israel.
Palestinians jailed by Israel are held in high esteem by their compatriots, who see them as heroes in what they term a struggle against occupation.
The hunger strikers included militants from Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject peace with Israel, as well as members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah group.
Two inmates who helped to launch the strike, Bilal Diab and Thaer Halahla of Islamic Jihad, were in the 77th day of their fast on Monday.