The prime minister's comments came as the protest fast, designed to highlight the inhumane treatment of prisoners by Israel, entered its third week.

"The blindness and silence that the world has been showing towards the Palestinian prisoners' hunger strikes which have been taking place for the last 15 days can only put question marks against the whole peace process," Quraya told reporters after a meeting of his cabinet here.

The estimated 8000 prisoners are continuing an open-ended strike in an attempt to get Israel to negotiate.

Around 3200 Palestinian prisoners in Ashkelon broke their hunger-strike on Friday due to concessions from Israeli prison services. They cited a halt to dehumanising strip searches and other insulting activities conducted by prison guards as reasons for the stoppage.

However, the prisoners' association said on Sunday that the protest in Ashkelon would resume on Monday after it was discovered authorities had not improved conditions.

A spokesman for the Israeli prison service had no information on the threat to resume the strike in Ashkelon but said that the authorities had not and would not bow to their demands "even if they die".

The prisoners are hoping their protest will lead to an across-the-board improvement in their conditions, including statutory visiting rights and an end to "humiliating" strip and cell searches.

Restrictions

Prisoners seek permits to allow their
families to get through checkpoints

Visiting rights for families with different colour ID cards, from the West Bank or other areas are made practically impossible due to the number of checkpoints and roadblocks Palestinian families face on a daily basis.

Prisoners say the Israeli authorities are aware of these difficulties and intentionally grant relatives permits which would not allow them to pass the long queues at checkpoints in time to make it for a visit.

Some relatives are forced to travel for up to 14 hours for a 45-minute visit, which makes it almost impossible for them to return home without being arrested at some checkpoints.

Collective punishment

Analysts say that the conditions in Israel are quite similar, and in some cases worse to what former South African president Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were put through on Robben Island, during apartheid.

UN special envoy to the Middle East Terje Roed-Larsen has urged the Israeli government to negotiate with the prisoners and called on them to guarantee basic human rights such as the inmates' health.

The Israelis have said they will not be pushed into concessions, with Public Security Minister Tzahi Hanegbi saying he is prepared to let prisoners die before meeting any of their demands.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops opened fire on a group of demonstrators in the West Bank, injuring two, medics said.