Ketziot Prison
Ketziot Prison Photo by Alberto Denkberg
Text size

The Prison Service has agreed to pay NIS 1.2 million to the family of an Islamic Jihad member shot fatally by guards during a riot touched off by a controversial 2007 search at Ketziot security prison.

However, the State Prosecution's Office closed the case against the guards involved in the search, which ended with a dead prisoner, 15 injured prisoners, 15 injured guards and a burned section of the jail.

The Tel Aviv District Court recently authorized a compensation agreement between the Prison Service and the wife and young son of the prisoner killed, Mohammed Ashkar, 30, of the village of Tzaida. The agreement has not been officially published, however, and it does not include the state accepting responsibility for the events that led to Ashkar's death.

On October 22, 2007 the Prison Service carried out an operation meant partly to boost the morale of the elite guard unit Masada. The operation included a surprise search of prisoners in Ketziot's Section 12B.

The operation's four goals, listed in the Prison Service's investigation and reported in Haaretz in 2009, were to carry out a surprise search with the intention of "creating deterrence," to "increase morale and motivation" among prison guards, to sharpen the guards' skills and to seize objects that could be used to breach prison security.

In his briefing before the search, Ketziot Prison Commander Shlomi Cohen said told the guards: "If we manage to surprise the prisoners, all the better. If any of this leaks out [beforehand], there will be a lot of noise."

Four minutes after the operation began as planned at 2 A.M., riots broke out, spreading from section 12B throughout the compound. Prisoners reacted violently, throwing things and setting the cell section on fire, the report said.

At 2:12 A.M., Cohen ordered the Masada unit into the section, where the prisoners live in tents. The team commander said he encountered "a large number of prisoners" who threw things at him. "The team commander opened fire according to the rules of engagement, at prisoners' legs. A prisoner who entered the line of fire was shot in the head," the report says of Ashkar's death.

The report also said a Masada officer recommended raiding other wings of the prison in the near future "to make the Prison Service's policy clear to the prisoners."

Ashkar had been jailed nearly two years before the incident for membership in Islamic Jihad. The authorities first told the family that Ashkar had been shot while trying to escape, his father, Seti Ashkar, told Haaretz. Afterward they said he had accidentally been shot during the riot.

The family said Ashkar was shot due to a series of severe failures and negligence on the prison guards' part, including the unnecessary and unjustified use of firearms, contrary to orders.

The Masada unit has built an international reputation for riot control since it was organized in 2003 to replace army and police units in quelling prison disturbances. It has developed a variety of controversial, so-called "no-kill" weapons such salt bullets that burn the skin and cloth bags with metal balls, intended to injure rioters but not kill them.

About two months ago a legal battle waged by the Ashkar family to investigate the circumstances of the prisoner's death ended after the family obtained most of the video footage of the incident.

The State Prosecutor's Office told Haaretz it decided to close the case after a "thorough study of the investigation material and testimonies of Prison Service officers in court. ... The guards acted under real, tangible threats of physical injury and despite this, used the means at their disposal with restraint."

In recent years the Prison Service has paid millions of shekels in compensation agreements with prisoners' families. Last year it paid almost NIS 2 million to the estate of prisoner Yoni Alzam, who died in mysterious circumstances in his cell about six years ago, hours before he was due to testify in another prisoner's trial.

Read this article in Hebrew