Israel Prison Service May Have Received Order Not to Film Zygier in His Cell

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The Israel Prison Service, at this stage, still isn't commenting in an official capacity on the Ben Zygier affair, but behind the scenes, it is preparing for the day in which all those involved will pin the blame on the Prison Service.

The service may be one of the most organized among Israel's security organizations, but it is also the weakest. In practice, the Prison Service provides services to all the state's other security organizations: the police, the army, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. As the national prison organization responsible for all those imprisoned in Israel, the Prison Service is essentially a subcontractor that receives those marked for imprisonment. But it doesn't have a part in the proceedings that send a prisoner or person under arrest to prison, and it cannot violate any requests made by the investigating body with respect to the conditions of imprisonment.

At present, many in the Prison Service suspect that the other parties involved in the Zygier affair who have more political leverage with government officials will do everything to pin the blame for the affair and its failures on the Prison Service. Prison Service officials believe that certain individuals are interested in diverting the attention of the affair to the question of how was it possible for Zygier to commit suicide in an observation cell.

Every person who arrives at the Prison Service is brought on their first day before a committee of doctors, psychologists and other professionals who are tasked with evaluating the dangerousness of the person and the likelihood that they will attempt to harm themselves.

In the case of Ben Zygier, no such committee is known to have met him and held such a risk assessment. The decision to skip this meeting was not made by the Prison Service, which stringently follows this regulation.

Prison Service employees are also refraining from discussing the level of observation assigned to Zygier while he was held in prison. Despite Zygier's confinement to an observation cell monitored by security cameras, it is already clear that he did not receive the monitoring given to other prisoners.

Prison Service employees had no idea who he was, and they were forbidden from engaging him in conversation. Guards would only check if he was present. Few in the Prison Service knew any details regarding the man and only a handful knew which government body was responsible for his arrest.

The big question that has yet to be asked and that is likely to reduce at least some of the blame being placed on the Prison Service is the level of observation that was maintained over Zygier's cell and whether the Prison Service had received instructions from the Mossad not to turn on the security cameras in the cell. The prison guards did not sit around watching Zygier every day like they did for Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when he was kept in the cell.

At this stage, the Prison Service is not accusing or denying that it received an order to turn off the cameras in Zygier's cell in order to prevent him from conveying messages to the prison guards or to explain why he had been arrested. Mossad employees remember nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who wrote on his hand details that informed the world that he had been kidnapped in Rome, and it is possible that the Mossad wanted to prevent the same thing happening with Zygier.

Even on the day that Zygier was found dead by the guards, none of them entered the cell when the medical team arrived. The guards who were on duty that day waited in a relatively distant wing of the prison and refused to enter even when they were asked by the medical team to help. Medical staff that arrived at the cell were surprised to find out that the prisoner who died only had one identifying detail listed: his name, Ben Alon. In any incidence of death, the Prison Service is required to give out details of the deceased such as identification number, age, and emergency contacts. One medic tried to inquire about the strange lack of information and claimed that the body cannot be evacuated without more identifying details, but he was then asked to continue the process. During his evacuation, medics and Prison Service officials were surprised to discover that Ben Alon's name was changed to Zygier, but it was already clear to everyone that no questions should be asked regarding the matter.

Should a thorough investigation be held into the Ben Zygier affair and the circumstances of his suicide, it appears that the Prison Service would be more than glad if the results of such a probe would be publicized widely. The fact that Zygier was held in an observation cell does not mean he was necessarily observed. The location of the cell – at the edge of the most secure wing of Ayalon prison – was likely the reason Zygier was jailed there, while the ability to observe him 24/7 and to prevent his suicide, were less significant. 

The isolation cell in which Ben Zygier, known as 'Prisoner X,' was incarcerated.Credit: Haaretz
The entrance of Ayalon Prison last year.Credit: Moti Milrod
The isolation cell in which Ben Zygier, known as 'Prisoner X,' was incarcerated.Credit: Haaretz

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