As Rumors Fly of Prisoner Swaps, Israel's Hamas Prisoners Turn on Their Wardens

Calls from Gaza to target wardens, raids of cells and other moves also spark recent unrest and violence among inmates at Israeli facilities.

Palestinians demonstrate in solidarity with prisoners jailed in Israel in the West Bank city of Jenin, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011.
AP

Tensions have been escalating in the last week between the Israel Prison Service and the Hamas leaders held in its jails.

This situation, which has escalated to physical clashes, is apparently related to efforts by the Islamic movement's people in the Gaza Strip to stir up the inmates at a time when rumors are circulating about negotiations for a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. In recent days, two wardens were slightly injured in attacks by inmates, following which the IPS collectively punished Hamas prisoners in jails in southern Israel.

The problems at the prisons began on January 29, when members of the special IPS unit Masada raided and thoroughly searched the wing where Hamas prisoners are incarcerated at Nafha Prison near Mitzpeh Ramon.

Two Israelis believed held in Gaza, a third who crossed the border but his whereabouts unclear, and on the left, the two Israeli soldiers killed in a 2014 war whose remains have been held by Hamas.

Searches of cells have become rare in recent years, and the locked-up leaders apparently saw the raid as a violation of the status quo.

Three days later, on February 1, there were two incidents of violence in the Hamas wings of Nafha and at Ketziyot, in the Negev. One involved the stabbing of a warden with a makeshift screwdriver; he warden was very slightly injured and managed to overpower the prisoner. In the second incident, a prisoner scratched a warden in the face with the serrated lid of a tin can. Again, the injuries were mild.

In response, the IPS has banned visits to Hamas inmates in the southern jails, relocated some of them to different facilities – including Mohammed Arman, the leader of these prisoners, who is serving a lengthy term for dispatching suicide bombers in the second intifada – and imposed some restrictions on prisoners' rights.

Senior IPS staff told Haaretz that the Masada unit would continue its searches of Hamas wings, in contrast to a statement by Issa Karaka, head of prisoner affairs on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, to the effect that an agreement had been reached for the raids to stop.

The two attacks on the wardens followed a wave of calls on Hamas websites and social media outlets to target wardens and commanders at Israeli prisons. One site promised to elevate any prisoner who attacked an IPS guard to the top of the list in the next prisoner exchange.

For its part, the IPS attributes the escalation in tension in the jails to a variety of factors, including the calls for violence coming from Gaza (probably in the hope that tension will spread to the West Bank, which is controlled by PA); the power struggle between the Hamas leaders in jail and the IPS because of the searches in cells; and anxiety among the prisoners in anticipation of a possible swap.

Specifically, on Sunday, Voice of Israel radio reported that Hamas recently rejected an Israeli proposal to swap one of the two Israelis missing in Gaza – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – with a Hamas prisoner who has mental problems. However, the report quoted a Hamas source as saying the organization told the mediator that it rejects a one-on-one arrangement and wants a “whole deal or nothing.”

Hamas suggested involving Egypt as a broker, the same source said.

Last month Hamas leaders in the Strip held a series of meetings with Egyptian security officials. According to reports in the Arabic press, some of the discussions were about prisoner negotiations.

Hamas has never negotiated a swap on humanitarian grounds (as part of which, for example, it would agree to return the civilians Mengistu and Sayed, and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed in Operation Protective Edge in 2014). It is not clear whether Hamas is holding another young Israeli who crossed the border from Israel into Gaza, Juma Abu Ghanima.

Last week Haaretz reported that, for the last two months, Israel has been detaining a Hamas activist named Bilal Razaina, the brother of a high-ranking security official in that organization in Gaza.

According to his family, Razaina, 24, suffers from mental problems. He was arrested on November 27 last year, after crossing the border from the Strip into Israeli territory, on his own volition. He was indicted on December 28 based on information gleaned during his questioning by the Shin Bet security service. A Shin Bet statement said that Razaina was active in the military wing of Hamas, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and was involved in digging the tunnels that pass underneath the border between Gaza and Israel.

Razaina's brother is Mustafa Razaina, head of internal security (the Palestinian equivalent of the Shin Bet) in the northern Gaza Strip. The Israeli security service says Bilal acted as an "escort" for his brother.

Neither the Shin Bet statement or the indictment note that Bilal Razaina suffers from serious mental problems. Following his arrest, his family claimed that he does not belong to the Hamas military wing, and said he had been in treatment for mental problems until recently. They accused Israel of extracting the admission of involvement with Hamas by torture.

On January 26, the Be’er Sheva District Court held a hearing, at which a psychiatric opinion was presented on behalf of the state. It said that in his current condition, Bilal Razaina is not fit to stand trial and needs hospitalization for psychiatric care; he was subsequently taken to a local hospital.

A hearing was due to take place Monday following a motion by his defense attorney to drop the case against him.