Palestinian Prisoners Used Forbidden Mobile Phones to Plot Terror Attacks

Trial shows security prisoners got cell phones due to illicit connection with Israeli cell phone company; phones came from leading Israeli cell providers but no evidence firms knew who clients were.

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A recent trial before the Samaria Military Court revealed a startling connection between Palestinians and the employee of at least one Israeli cell phone company − a connection that resulted in Palestinian prisoners obtaining working cell phones, even though they are forbidden to have them.

The cell phones, it emerged in court, were used by the prisoners to manage terror activity, to coordinate positions between prisoners in different prisons and to maintain contact with their families.

What still isn’t clear, even to the court, is why, even after the ring was exposed, the people who headed it were never even questioned, while the Palestinian merchants were arrested, and in one case, convicted.

According to the testimonies and documents presented to the court, the Shin Bet security service ignored evidence linking Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Qaraqe and Pelephone security director Aryeh Karko, who received cash payments in return for providing phone lines for the Palestinian prisoners.

Pelephone refused to say whether Karko was working in cooperation with the security forces, but said that any attempt to present a Pelephone official as aiding hostile activists is delusional.

It should be noted that while Palestinian prisoners also received Cellcom phone lines, there is no evidence that anyone in that firm knew that the lines were being used by security prisoners.

The case began last year, during an operation conducted by the army and Shin Bet, in which raids were conducted on West Bank cell phone stores. One of the central figures arrested was Nadr Salah, a storeowner in El Khader, near Bethlehem. The security forces confiscated numerous cell phones, computers and documents. They also questioned Salah for two weeks.

During his interrogation, Salah explained that his prisoner-phone sideline began in 2006, after he had started buying phone lines from Cellcom that he sold to Palestinians. He would register the line in his name, then sell it to a third party, paying the bill each month in addition to an NIS 50 handling charge.

At some point in 2008, he noticed particularly high bills on three of his lines, and noticed lots of short calls made at unusual hours. He shut down the lines, but soon began getting calls from prison inmates, asking him to open the lines again for the benefit of the prisoners.

Formal contract

At that point he realized who many of his “end clients” were, and decided to make some money on the deal. He met with Qaraqe and the two drew up a formal contract in which Salah agreed to handle cell phone lines for prisoners. It began with 50 lines that he sold to the Prisoners Affairs Ministry for NIS 1,850 shekels a month, of which Salah kept 25 percent. Salah paid Cellcom 17.4 agorot per minute, and each line was kept open 14 hours a day. Over the years, Salah would get various requests from the Palestinian Authority, asking for more lines, or asking him to close lines when the phones were confiscated by the Prisons Service. Once in a while, he would meet with a Preventive Intelligence officer, who would ask for itemized lists of calls so the traffic could be monitored.

The documents Israeli security forces confiscated included references to the closing and opening of lines, and the “phone book” of all the Palestinian prisoner numbers, some 200 numbers in all. Among those listed as having phones were Raad Sheikh, the Palestinian policeman who in 2000 led IDF soldiers Yossi Avrahami and Vadim Nurzhitz to the police station in Ramallah where they were lynched; Nasser Awis, the head of the Tanzim in Balata, who was convicted of 14 murders; and Ahmed Barghouti, Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti’s right-hand man.

Also among the documents was a letter Qaraqe sent to Palestinian Communications Minister Mashhour Abu Daka, asking him not to apply the law against doing business with Israeli companies to this cell phone arrangement.

Another person arrested in the West Bank raids was Walid Salami of the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Salami, who speaks Hebrew very well, worked in a cell phone store and served as the link to Pelephone. During his interrogation, he explained that he was in direct contact with Pelephone’s Karko, and would pay him in cash for phone lines.

He began working in the store in 2008, and because his Hebrew was so good it was his job to liaise between his employer, Abdullah, and Pelephone. Abdullah obtained about 40 lines from Pelephone in this fashion that ended up with Palestinian prisoners.

Sometime in 2008, he says, Karko called Abdullah and told him that unless he paid him NIS 60,000, he would shut the lines. Abdullah sent Salami to Givatayim, where he met Karko and gave him the NIS 60,000.

Salami was tried in Samaria Military Court for his part in the arrangement, but during the trial his lawyer, Merav Khoury, demanded he be acquitted based on selective enforcement. She noted that Salami was the small fry here, while more senior people like Karko and Qaraqe were never even questioned.

A member of the Shin Bet investigative team, called “Adi,” said that material regarding the two had been given to the Israel Police, since they had committed a criminal offense, not a security offense. But Adi had a hard time explaining why a minor merchant is considered a security offender, while the people who paid all the bills are considered criminal offenders.

In the end, Salami chose to confess to the charges, but the military judge, Maj. Shahar Greenberg, accepted Khoury’s arguments about selective enforcement and sentenced Salami last December to time served, which was 10 and half months.

Judge scores Shin Bet for laxity

Greenberg also castigated the security forces for their strange laxity in dealing with the others involved in the case, and said he planned to submit his ruling to the military prosecution and the Shin Bet to get an explanation.

This behavior is even more puzzling given an opinion submitted to the court by a Shin Bet investigator called “Matan,” who wrote that during the years in question, “We could point to an increasing involvement, primarily by Hamas prisoners but also those of other organizations, in efforts to advance terror attacks in Israel.”

According to Matan, each prison wing had between four and five phones, with about 20 prisoners having access to each phone, for about 10 minutes a day. Matan stated clearly that the presence of and access to cell phones “preserves their [the prisoners’] high operational ability.”

The IDF said: “The criticism expressed in the court ruling isn’t within the purview of the military prosecution and isn’t addressed toward it. The issue is in the hands of the Israel Police.”

Pelephone, as noted, vehemently denied that any of its executives was in cahoots with hostile individuals.

“The company acts in complete cooperation for many years with the IDF and the security services and any attempt to claim otherwise is slander. Pelephone serves nearly three million subscribers and doesn’t discriminate among them. It isn’t the company’s business nor can it know what use a customer makes with the phone in his possession.”

As noted, Pelephone did not respond when asked if Karko had actually been working with the security forces in order to obtain the prisoners’ phone numbers.

Israeli prison.Credit: Itzik Ben Malki
Shatta prison.Credit: Shimon Bitton

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