Palestinians burn an American flag during a rally to demand better conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, in Nablus, West Bank, Saturday, May 12, 2012. (AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis and Palestinians are negotiating through Egyptian mediators to end a mass Palestinian hunger strike, officials said Saturday. Later, an Israeli envoy is set to meet with the Palestinian president about stalled peace talks.
Some 1,600 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails are on hunger strike to demand better conditions and to put an end to detention without trial. The Egyptian-brokered talks mark the first time that substantive negotiations have been reported to be under way to defuse the protest since it began weeks, and in some cases months, ago.
Palestinian officials say Egyptian mediators are trying to hash out an agreement between the strikers and Israel. An Israeli official confirmed talks were taking place but would not elaborate.
All requested anonymity, because of the matter's sensitivity. Egyptian officials weren't immediately available for comment.
Two men, Thaer Halahleh and Bilal Diab, have been on strike for more than 70 days. Both are members of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group that has killed hundreds in suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks.
It is not clear whether Halhaleh and Diab were involved in any militant activity because they are being held under "administrative detention," a policy that can keep some Palestinian prisoners for months — even years — without charges. Israel has defended administrative detentions as a necessary tool to stop militant activity.
According to prison officials, at least 1,600 of the 4,600 Palestinians held by Israel are refusing food. Palestinians say about 2,500 strikers are striking.
Israel is hesitant to clinch a deal with the prisoners, fearing it will encourage more strikes. Many of the Palestinians striking have been convicted of involvement in deadly attacks.
Israel's prisons service says the striking Palestinians are under constant medical supervision and are in stable condition.
Later Saturday, an Israeli envoy is expected to submit a letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the possibility of substantive peace talks, a senior Palestinian official said. The modest exchange is the highest-level communication between the two sides in months.
Yitzhak Molcho, a representative of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will meet with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinians' government.
Molcho will hand over a written response to a note that Palestinian negotiators gave to Netanyahu last month that sought to clarify their positions if talks were to resume, the official said. He spoke anonymously, citing the issue's sensitivity.
An Israeli government spokesman declined to comment.
The communication by note demonstrates how thoroughly negotiations to carve out an independent Palestinian state have collapsed. Four months ago, preliminary meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials in the Jordanian capital Aman also stalled.