Asylum Seekers in Israel's South Cut Off From Mobile Network for Over a Week

Prison disrupting Palestinian hunger strikers' communications, while also blocking mobile access in nearby detention center

The Holot detention center in southern Israel.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Some 1,700 asylum seekers being held in the Holot detention center in the south have been cut off from cellular and internet service for more than a week. Many of them have been walking several kilometers to be able to use their cell phones.

To prevent the hunger-striking security prisoners from being interviewed in the media through smuggled cell phones, the Israel Prison Service began operating frequency-blocking devices. The operation of these devices disrupted communications in the communities near the Ketziot Prison, where there are security prisoners incarcerated, as well as in the Holot facility, which is nearby.

In response to complaints from area residents, the method of blocking access was changed. Instead of interrupting cellular frequencies, the cell phone companies disconnected all the lines in the region, and then began reconnecting subscribers based on lists given them by the various authorities, including the Israel Defense Forces, the Ramat Negev Regional Council, the prison service and others. This change was meant to restore service to residents and the asylum seekers.

Most area residents have been reconnected. Over the weekend, the prison service collected the phone numbers of the asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan being held in the Holot facility, but their phones still aren’t working. Last week dozens of them protested the cutoff by marching on Route 40 adjacent to the detention center. Most of the detainees did not show up for dinner that same day.

In a letter to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, attorney Roni Peli of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote, “Cutting off the cellular networks is disproportionate and unreasonable. The grave harm both to Israeli residents and the asylum seekers in the region is serious and draconian.” In response, Ron Rosenberg of the state prosecution informed her Sunday, “The assessment of the professionals at the Israel Prison Service is that within a few days the obstruction will be removed from all the mobile phone numbers given by residents to the center’s administration.”

Area residents noted that the blockage had made daily life difficult and had caused economic damage to those working in tourism and agriculture. Sharon Cherry, a resident of Be’er Milka in the Ramat Negev region and a Magen David Adom paramedic, said the disruption made it difficult to deal with calls in the region.

MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) called the developments “criminal negligence that joins the continuous lack of basic conditions at the Holot facility, whose very existence is a sin.”

The Israel Prison Service said it was aware of the problem and was dealing with it, but could not say when phone service to Holot would be restored.