Gridlock in Talks Between Israel, Hamas Prisoners Over Using Phones in Jail

The Israel Prison Service will not put the newly-installed public phones to work unless prisoners give up completely on cellphones

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

The Israel Prison Service is not operating public phones recently installed in cellblocks where Hamas prisoners are housed because some prisoners have refused to commit not to smuggle in cellphones, sources said. The prison service installed the phones in the Ketziot and Ramon facilities as part of an agreement to end a hunger strike that started in March.

Prisoners in Ketziot Prison recently agreed to sign a commitment on the matter, but in Ramon Prison, where senior Hamas convicts are housed, they have refused to sign.

Four public phones have been placed in each wing where Hamas prisoners are housed and disrupters were installed to prevent cellphone reception in an attempt to end the tug of war over cellphones.

The document that the Hamas prisoners are being required to sign states that if warders find cellphones in prisoners’ possession, the public phones will be disconnected for an unlimited time and those responsible will be punished. The prison service is demanding that prisoners give up any cellphones they have before the public phones are connected.

A sign directing toward Israel's Ramon Prison and  Nafha Prison, which are next to each other, close to Mitzpe Ramon in southern Israel, January 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

According to sources, the agreement to end the hunger strike stated that prisoners will be allowed to make three calls a week, but senior Hamas prisoners Mohammad Arman and Abbas al-Sayed have recently demanded that the limit be raised to five calls.

A source close to the security prisoners said: “In reality, Arman and Sayed are the ones in charge of the prison service, and they’ll get what they want.” But according to a source in the security services, Hamas has apparently given up on this demand.

In the pilot stage of the use of the public phones, each Hamas prisoner will be allocated a total of 15 minutes to five approved phone numbers of relatives. The Israel Prison Service initially objected to the installation of the public phones, which was an initiative of the Shin Bet security service and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – but now it wants to launch the pilot.

Some security officials have expressed doubts as to Hamas’ interest in the operation of the public phones, because incarcerated Hamas leaders now control lower-ranking prisoners by allocating phone time on cellphones they control. According to sources, at present prisoners are able to use cellphones to make calls to the outside despite the disrupters.

A dispute among security officials and the upcoming election in Israel could be factors explaining why the public phones have not been connected, an individual close to the Hamas prisoner leaders told Haaretz. “Some people are trying to take advantage of the upcoming election to increase tension in the prisons and use the prisoners for internal political purposes in Israel," he claimed, adding, “The prisoners have no problem signing the commitment this very day."

Emergency forces at Ktzi'ot Prison in southern Israel, March 25, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At the same time that talks are underway between the sides, cellphones continue to be smuggled in by the prisoners. Last month warders found 11 cellphones in Ofer Prison, and the security prisoners in Ketziot Prison are threatening to renew their hunger strike because the disrupters installed in one wing are affecting adjacent wings. In addition to the Ketziot and Ramon prisons, disrupters have been installed in the Damun Prison where Palestinian minors are housed for security offenses.

The Israel Prison Service commented on the on-going stand-off in a statement: “In the framework of the war against cellphone smuggling into the prisons, The Israel Prison Service continues to install cellphone disrupters in the security wings until full disruption is achieved.

The Israel Prison Service is not deterred by any threat and works precisely according to the decisions made in the past on the matter, and any other report is mendacious. The public phones are being installed, as will be recalled, according to the position of the Shin Bet, which is the authorized agency in this matter, and in full coordination with it."