Dozens of Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Jails Join Hunger Strike Over Cellphone Jamming

Hamas and Islamic Jihad-affiliated prisoners also demanding senior Hamas members be allowed to teach in wards designated for minors

The Nafha Prison in Israel.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Dozens of Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails joined Monday a hunger strike launched by Hamas members over cellular jamming devices in prison wards.

The devices were installed in the Ramon Prison in southern Israel by the prison service in order to prevent the use of smuggled phones, but prisoners claim they emit high radiation and are detrimental to their health.

Initially launched by just over 20 prisoners, the strike has now expanded to as many as 88 Hamas and Islamic Jihad-affiliated prisoners, encompassing a number of prisons across Israel. 

Phones installed in Maasiyahu Prison in  in Ramle, in central Israel, December 2018.
Moti Milrod

Protestors are refraining from eating and drinking. The Israel Prison Service released a statement calling the strike "the result of incitement from a few individual prisoners with no direction or organization" and said the the majority of those striking were "dragged into it" and are protesting "out of identification only and not personal will." They added, "We will not be intimidated by the strike," and said that those protesting were being punished with solitary confinement, in which they are given only a mattress and blanket.

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At this stage there has been no contact between Hamas and the Israeli Prison Service, which is trying to persuade the prisoners to end the strike.  A power struggle between different groups of Hamas prisoners is also playing out in the wings: The initiative for the strike was taken by prisoners from East Jerusalem, rather than the organizers of the 2002 Netanya Passover massacre, who are considered to be the prison's Hamas leadership.

On Wednesday, 23 Hamas security prisoners in Ramon Prison began the strike, and another 13 prisoners joined them over the weekend. On Saturday, the prisoners claimed that prison authorities agreed to remove the jamming devices and to ease up on prisoners using the public phones that were installed in the wards, but the Israel Prison Service denies this. The striking prisoners said that their demand to raise the number of days in which they can use the public phones - from three to five - was met.  

They also claim that in addition to removing the jammers, the prison service agreed to paint the boards hiding them green, the color associated with Hamas. The cells closest to the blockers, prisoners in the Yiftach Ward said, have also been emptied. But prisoners also claim that their request that female prisoners at Damon Prison not be filmed by security cameras during their recess was rejected, as was the request that senior Hamas members be allowed into wards designated for minors to teach the children. Until their demands are enacted, the organizers decided, the strike will continue. 

A prisoner told Haaretz that Hamas leaders in Ramon, Nafha, Eshel, Ktziot and Rimonim prisons held a meeting on Wednesday and coordinated their next move. They are threatening to expand the strike and involve Hamas leaders in Gaza.

The strike began about a week after Israel started operating public telephones in the prisons' wards. At its helm is Ramadan Mashahra, a Hamas operative serving 20 life sentences for involvement in a Jerusalem suicide bombing, and one of the Hamas leaders of Ramon Prison. Among the protestors' demands are entry into the minors' wards and a transfer to Ketziot prison, which is considered to have nicer facilities.

Israeli security officials estimate that Hamas believes Israel is interested in avoiding widespread unrest in Gaza before the election and will agree to their demands.

A source close to the prisoners told Haaretz "There is no doubt the Israeli Prison Service will surrender to Hamas, because Hamas now understands that Israel only responds to force." According to the source, the Israeli Prison Service is "managed by Hamas leaders, Mohammad Arman and Abbas Al-Sayed," both of them convicted of violent attacks against civilians in Israel.

In April, a mass hunger strike ended with an agreement to install public phones in wards.