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The rocks thrown by a few anonymous detainees were directed at the projector-like boxes scattered throughout the tent areas at the Ketziot prison (Ansar III) near Nitzana. It happened late Saturday night, February 2. The equipment was installed less than a month ago, say the prisoners, on poles alongside the guard towers or on pillars encircling the tents, and along the barbed-wire fence that encloses the perimeter. These metal boxes have two eyes, the prisoners told their lawyers (attorneys are not allowed in the tent area): When one eye lights up, the other is dark; 24 hours a day. The prisoners know very well what these "projectors" are: They jam the prisoners' cellular phones. A senior military source in the Southern Command confirmed that plans were laid for these jamming devices beginning about three months ago, with installation at Ketziot starting about a month ago - though the devices are still without appropriate protection.

At the end of last week, there were 1,149 Palestinians imprisoned at Ketziot: about 900 administrative detainees and another 240 who had been tried in a court. At Ketziot, as at all the other prisons in Israel, mobile phones are prohibited. Yet despite searches and bans, prisoners there still have phones and still talk to relatives and friends. The prisoners say these phones are their only link with their families. Visits to prisons within Israel by Palestinian families from the West Bank were discontinued in April 2002. Ketziot, the biggest prison facility from the first intifada, was reopened in April 2002, and since then no visits to prisoners there have been permitted. Likewise at the Ofer prison west of Ramallah, opened about a month before that. The senior source at the Southern Command claimed, in a conversation with Haaretz, that the prisoners "give directions via mobile phones for hostile terror activities in Judea and Samaria and from there to Israel." The detainees and people close to them reject this explanation. They say there's nothing simpler than to listen in on their phone calls, and that if the claims about sending people on terror missions were true, the Shin Bet could track the instructions and the perpetrators, arrest those involved, and have a documented case against the people giving the instructions.

About 120 mobile phones were confiscated in recent months. They were discovered, among other places, in packages sent by families and in platters of cooked chicken. "We told the people running this place: Allow our families to visit and set up regular telephones, and we won't need mobile phones," one of the administrative detainees at Ketziot told Haaretz, in a conversation conducted on a cellular phone, a few days after yet another confrontation between prisoners and soldiers.

Goodwill gesture

After rocks were thrown at the jamming devices (the Communications Ministry calls them "blockers"), the prison authorities declared a state of emergency. The prisoners say their electricity was immediately cut off, along with the water supply to the tent areas. The prisoners contend that, lately, cutting off the electricity and the water has become an accepted mode of punishment. The army source says the water and electricity are cut off "during an incident" to prevent their being turned to pernicious uses - such as throwing bottles and metal containers full of boiling water at the soldiers, or using electricity cables to electrify the fence. The army source said that, as a goodwill gesture and "confidence-building measure," the prison commandant, Lt. Col. Yuri Bronstein, instructed that electricity lines be run to the tent areas so the prisoners could watch television for allotted periods of time. Therefore, said the source, cutting off the electricity when there's a disturbance is a safety measure, but also a signal to the prisoners that what the prison commandant "gave, he can also take away."

One of the prisoners says on Sunday morning, February 2, their designated spokesmen approached the authorities and asked that the electricity and water be turned back on. Nothing happened, he says, suggesting that the cut-off of water and electricity were more the cause of the escalation than a means of avoiding it.

The prisoners' version goes like this: In the afternoon, the inmates in D Section began protesting: shouting, banging pots, throwing rocks and other objects all over the place. One of the soldiers stationed there, they say, threw a tear gas grenade at them. The prisoners responded by shouting louder. Prisoners in the other sections heard the shouting and joined the protest. At about 2:30, the soldiers began shooting tear gas and stun grenades into all the sections and between the tents. The prisoners - choking, coughing, covering their faces with cloths, with no escape from the tear gas or stun grenades - went on throwing stones at the soldiers.

At about 6 or 6:30 in the evening, the soldiers stopped shooting tear gas and stun grenades, and about 60 wounded prisoners were taken for treatment. Most were choking, some had injuries from the stun grenades. Most who required medical treatment were already ill or had been shot by soldiers prior to their imprisonment. That night, the prisoners counted about 1,200 empty tear gas canisters. One for each prisoner. "Luckily for us, there was a strong wind that day, and all the gas dispersed quickly," said one of the prisoners. "Otherwise, more people would have been injured."

`Non-lethal' methods

The senior army source's version: During a period of about two weeks, the prison authorities tried not to respond when rocks were thrown periodically at the jamming devices. On that Sunday, however, at 3 P.M., a massive disturbance erupted in the prison area. The prisoners and detainees threw chunks of asphalt and rocks dug out from underneath it - the soldiers later discovered half-meter-deep holes in the ground. The rock-throwing, in which nearly all the inmates participated, was accompanied by cries of "Allahu akbar" ("God is great"). The authorities decided to respond with "non-lethal" means: stun grenades and tear gas. This went on for about four hours. "We could have wound it up in half an hour, if we had shot rubber bullets and live ammunition. But Lieutenant Colonel Bronstein preferred not to use those methods," explained the source. The prisoners continued throwing rocks all that time and began burning things - bed platforms and tin cans and blankets - generating a lot of smoke. They threw bottles of boiling water and coals at the soldiers. Twelve soldiers were wounded. Contrary to the prisoners' assertion that their wounded were evacuated only four hours after the disturbances began, says this army source, casualties were taken to the infirmary throughout the entire incident.

On Monday, February 3, communication was renewed between the authorities and the prisoners' spokesmen. One of the administrative detainees, talking on a mobile phone a few days later, said things had quietened down and that the authorities had listened to the prisoners' grievances and appeared willing to resolve the main cause of all the tension - in other words, to permit family visits.

Now, when the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel is steadily increasing, their living conditions and their rights are once again becoming a source of additional tension in Palestinian society and between the Palestinian public and the Israeli authorities. The terrible conditions of incarceration in the IDF and security services' prison facilities have prompted the IDF to plan on moving about 1,200 additional Palestinian prisoners to a new section at Ketziot that is slated to open in April, restoring it to its pre-Oslo dimensions. Meanwhile, the senior source says, the prison authorities are continuing with the phone jamming project. He preferred not to address the claim that the need for mobile phones arises because there are no visits by families.

The Red Cross also has the impression that the authorities at Ketziot, as with all the prisons in Israel, would like to see the visits reinstated. The Ketziot inmates have numerous complaints: There is hot water only two or three days a week; newspapers come late; there's a perceptible lack of basic supplies (soap, for instance). The cold in the tents, on sleeping platforms near ground level, is penetrating. But nothing has the impact of no contact with families, a state of affairs that has lasted 10 months now.

In April 2002, during the Defensive Shield campaign, the Red Cross stopped organizing and coordinating travel for family members of prisoners from West Bank cities to prisons in Israel. Since the outbreak of the intifada, these visits have been intermittently stopped: The buses hired by the Red Cross and their passengers have received transit permits from the army authorities, but more than once they have come up against soldiers at some of the many checkpoints scattered throughout the West Bank who have not honored the permits, or else the army had not coordinated with them in advance. The monotonous negotiations at one checkpoint after another have made the journey one long torture and the cause of countless delays.Visits by prisoners' families from the West Bank are slated to resume on March 9 of this year. To begin with, visits will be reinstated for families from Qalqilyah, Ramallah and Jericho: three cities from which travel to Israel is relatively easy, from the standpoint of the number of checkpoints en route.

Every prisoner has the right to a visit once every two weeks by four members of his immediate family: spouse, parents, grandparents or children up to the age of 13. When visits resume, even if only three family members per prisoner are authorized to visit, a minimum of 20,000 people will be traveling during any two-week period from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel. The visits take place five days a week. On any given day, in other words, between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors will be traveling to see prisoners in Israeli jails.

Attorney Tamar Peleg, of Hamoked, the Center for the Defense of the Individual, notes that international and Israeli law mandate family visits, and that the military commander has a clear duty to see that they take place, with no connection to the willingness of the Red Cross to assist with logistics. Peleg, who has already submitted two petitions to the Supreme Court against the IDF and commanders at the Ketziot and Ofer prisons demanding that family visits be permitted, claims the IDF authorities are trying to sidestep their obligations. In the wake of her petition in October 2002 to permit visits to Ketziot by residents of Israel whose relatives are incarcerated there, the Supreme Court ruled that the authorities are obliged to enable family visits and instructed the state to see that special structures are set up for such visits. The lack of such structures was the excuse for not permitting visiting. The authorities at Ketziot then put up the buildings, which have been utilized since October by relatives of about 100 prisoners - some from Gaza, others residents of Israel. In Peleg's second petition, on February 16, the judges heard about the arrangements for reinstating family visits, but decided to leave the petition pending and demanded a further examination in another three months to see whether the travel arrangements have been extended to other cities on the West Bank, as the IDF has undertaken to do. Meanwhile, prisoners at Ketziot continue to find their various ways of talking with their families - a poor replacement for visits.