The movie Midnight Express has a lot to answer for. The title became a synonym for hellhole jails with sadistic guards, brutal cellmates and mental torture. It’s probably still the image that springs to mind when talking about prisons anywhere in the Middle East. Israeli penitentiaries are certainly no picnic, but neither are they a Midnight Express-like nightmare.

Many years ago, police at a local station in the North asked me to serve as an interpreter when they were questioning a foreign volunteer who had been arrested for theft on the kibbutz where he was staying. The scene was occasionally close to farcical. The volunteer came from Scotland and had the strongest Glaswegian accent I had ever heard; at times I thought I’d also need a translator to turn what he was saying into something more recognizable in the London suburb where I was raised.

Adding to the confusion, his name was Hugh – hopelessly inconvenient when you’re translating between two languages in which the words “who” and “hu,” meaning he, are bound to feature a lot in an interrogation.

Most of the details escape me, but one memory has firmly stuck along with the recollection of the difficulties of simultaneous interpretation. The hapless burglar could not stand the food. It was Passover and the entire police station was in kosher-for-Pessah mode. The non-Jewish Scotsman clearly considered matza a cruel and unusual punishment and begged me to intervene and get him some “real bread.”

I have no doubt that today the incident would have headline-making potential – in the right hands. Imagine that, instead of being a young Scotsman who had carried out a petty theft, he had been a young Palestinian detained on terrorist-related charges – and then forced to abide by a Jewish-dictated diet while police were trying to extract a confession.

Sound absurd? So do many of the claims by Palestinian prisoners that were the official cause of their recent hunger strike.

If an Israeli prison conjures up an image of a scene from Midnight Express, then the term “hunger striker” has been granted a glamorous status through the posthumous global glory awarded to Bobby Sands, among others.

Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA who starved himself to death in a British jail as leader of the 1981 hunger strike protesting the removal of Special Category Status for Irish “political prisoners.”

The status of Sands was so elevated after his death that he became the subject of several songs and movies, including most recently Hunger, which won Steve McQueen a Cannes Film Festival award in 2008 as a first-time director.

Hunger-striking is automatically considered noble. It’s the bread and butter of civil protest, perfect for an age when Palestinian public relations clashes with Israeli public diplomacy.

And Israel, again, lost on the battlefield of psychological warfare. The country felt it could not risk a Palestinian prisoner dying and, in return for a promise to refrain from “any security activity inside Israeli prisons,” the committee on improving the conditions for the Palestinian prisoners began its deliberation on returning their lost “rights.”

These rights are like whipped cream in the prisoners’ world: Access to Arabic- language cable television stations, further education, family visits for prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza, and – on occasion – conjugal rights.

Consider the case of Samir Kuntar, given four life sentences in 1980 for his role in the deaths of a policeman and three members of the Haran family in Nahariya the previous year. (He was convicted of killing the father, Danny, and the four-year-old daughter, Einat, whom he bludgeoned to death; the other daughter, two-year-old Yael, died of suffocation while her mother tried to keep her quiet in hiding during the attack.) Kuntar, from a Druse Lebanese family, entered prison an uneducated, unmarried teenager and left with a degree from Israel’s Open University and an Israeli-Arab wife (whom he later divorced). He was released to a hero’s welcome in Lebanon in 2008 as part of a prisoner exchange in return for the bodies of kidnapped IDF reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

Take into account that the privileges of the Palestinian prisoners were removed in an attempt to place pressure on their leaders after years in which another abducted soldier, Gilad Schalit, was hidden in Gaza without access to visits even by the Red Cross.

Schalit did not see sunlight for more than five years, as became evident after he was released – pale and pathetically thin – in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

The recent hunger strikers are not innocents, even though the protest started over the controversial issue of administrative detention.

Khader Adnan months ago managed to gain world sympathy of the type reserved solely for Palestinian detainees, even members of terror organizations like Islamic Jihad – and to hell with the terrorized children of Sderot and elsewhere in the South struggling to grow and thrive amid the constant Kassam missile attacks.

Following Adnan’s taste of success, another Islamic Jihad member, Hana Shalabi, joined the struggle: Not only a hunger-striking Palestinian, but a hunger-striking Palestinian woman – what could be better? I’ll tell you what: 1,600 hunger strikers “languishing” in Israeli prisons, denied even Facebook access. I don’t know exactly which inmates participated in this peaceful protest, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the list included those prisoners released in the Schalit deal in October 2011 and recaptured after they returned to terror activities (in spite of their promises).

Many of these prisoners are not hungry for bread, they’re thirsty for more Jewish blood.

The hunger strike ended on May 14 but its specter continues to hover over the country. It will be back – in this form, or some other similarly headline-grabbing civil protest shape.

Resisting food as a means of resistance is almost irresistible, especially if it works.

Handling such a protest is a complicated matter. Administrative detention is problematic (ask the British, who even after the IRA hunger strikes did not do away with it). Israelis need to ensure they don’t automatically assume every case of administrative detention for a Palestinian is justified, the same way that it cannot be assumed that every jailed Palestinian is the victim of an Israeli injustice.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of Palestinian prisoners (like Jewish inmates) not only had their day(s) in court, they continue to have access to lawyers. Former Prisons Service chief Yaacov Ganot told The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz in 2005, for example, that Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti was running a political campaign from his cell with the help of his legal advisers.

Incidentally, Ganot also successfully brought an end to a hunger strike by thousands of Palestinian prisoners the previous year by releasing footage showing Barghouti surreptitiously eating in his cell.

Food for thought, indeed.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com

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