The Ministerial Committee on Legislation decided yesterday that the government will back two bills that would toughen prison conditions for Hamas members. This comes in response to the conditions under which the group is holding abducted soldier Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip.
If passed, the bills would strip prisoners of their right to family visits. They would also no longer be able to watch television and receive newspapers and books, and they would lose the right to acquire a university education in prison.
The bills also want prisoners to be allowed to be held in isolation for unlimited periods of time.
However, a review of the bills shows that many of their stipulations have a limited effect. For example, during the past three years, Hamas prisoners were not able to receive family visits from the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the Israel Prison Service has the authority to strip Hamas prisoners of benefits without the need for new legislation, and some steps to that effect have been taken.
For example, security prisoners may no longer have cable television in their cells, and are not allowed to wear civilian clothes.
The bills, initiated by MKs Danny Danon (Likud ), Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Yoel Hasson (Kadima ), will be brought to a preliminary reading before the Knesset this week.
The committee's approval of the bills is designed in part to convince Hamas and the prisoners' families that they must proceed with a prisoner-swap deal.
However, it seems that the bills' final form will be substantially softer. Cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser has agreed with the MKs who backed the bills that after they pass in a preliminary reading, they will be adopted as government legislation.
At the Prime Minister's Bureau, sources said that in the past, Hagai Hadas, the Israeli negotiator in the prisoner-swap talks, had asked to delay the vote on a similar bill because of the negotiations over Shalit's release. However, due to the impasse in that process, a decision has been made to push the new legislation through.
Sources close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say that because the bills will be adopted as government-proposed legislation, many of their articles will be altered or removed. The main focus will be preventing family visits.
The sources said that Hadas did not oppose the bills and that making the prison conditions tougher may help speed up the negotiations for a prisoner swap.
Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said during the cabinet meeting that it was Hadas who had convinced him to support the bills.
Arab MKs harshly criticized the decision, with MK Ahmed Tibi saying that "even a complete siege on the entire Gaza Strip, which is the biggest prison, will not bring about the change that this government is hoping for. This is a bombastic measure that will damage and be of no use to the Shalit case, which has only one solution - a prisoner exchange in which Palestinian prisoners are freed in return for Gilad Shalit."
Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, declined to comment on the proposed legislation. But Shimshon Liebman, who heads a group lobbying for Gilad Shalit's release, said that "as early as the first year, we had talked to [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert on the conditions for the Hamas prisoners. And to say now, nearly four years later, that this constitutes pressure on Hamas is a bit too little, too late."
For its part, Hamas said yesterday through its spokesman in the Gaza Strip, Sami Abu Zuhri, that the Israeli government's decision aims to blackmail Hamas and pressure the group to give up Shalit with nothing in exchange.
He added that the "Zionist occupation" would not succeed in achieving its aims and pressure Hamas, but would spur the group to toughen its stance.
Egypt's intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, will visit Jerusalem today for talks that include the efforts to free Shalit. The Egyptian official will meet Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and other senior figures.
Egyptian sources said that the German mediator and Egyptian intelligence officials have been working for a number of weeks to resume the indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas on a prisoner-exchange deal.
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