Hamas Prisoners Stab Two Israeli Prison Guards Amid Heightened Tensions

12 prisoners also injured in an incident that follows months of tensions and violence, which 'shows they're willing to go all out in their fight against the Israel Prison Service,' according to one prison official

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

Two Israel Prison Service guards were stabbed on Sunday by Hamas prisoners at the Ktzi'ot Prison in southern Israel, a prison service spokesman said, amid heightened tensions between Hamas prisoners and prison guards following installation in another prison of devices that block cellphone service.

According to a prison service source, the incident occurred while prisoners were being transferred from two Hamas wards. The prisoners apparently used makeshift knives to stab two guards.

One guard, who was airlifted via helicopter to Soroka Medical Center in critical condition, has stabilized and is in moderate condition. The other guard was lightly injured and was treated at the prison.

At least 12 prisoners were also injured in ensuing clashes and were taken to the hospital, with two of them in serious condition and the rest with light-to-moderate injuries, according to the Soroka Medical Center spokesperson.

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IPS spokesman Assaf Liberati said following the incident that "the situation at the Ktzi'ot Prison is fully under control by staff." The agency's special forces deployed to wards housing Palestinian prisoners serving sentences for security-related offenses following the stabbing to prevent any further riots.

The fact that special forces who had been stationed at Ktzi'ot "for fear of attacks against personnel prevented a larger attack," Liberati said. "We have raised alert levels in all security wards in prisons throughout the country, and are expected to take further action."

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

A prison service source said the two prisoners who initiated the attack are both in the final year of their sentence. "The choice of these two, who are on the brink of release, to carry out the stabbing is some sort of a message from the Hamas leadership, which shows they're willing to go all out in their fight against the Israel Prison Service."

The Islamic Jihad organization said it is "following closely what's happening" in Israel's prisons, calling the incident "dangerous aggression" by Israel's security forces, "who are working to oppress the prisoners."

"We support the prisoners' legitimate struggle," it said, arguing that they had to resort to violence "after all international organizations and human rights groups didn't do their part in helping them in face of the IPS's oppression."

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On Tuesday, following previous incidents, acting IPS Commissioner Asher Vaknin recommended moving prisoners serving sentences for security-related offenses from the Ktzi'ot and Megiddo prisons to security wings designated for Hamas prisoners in other Israeli prisons.

The Hamas prisoners' administration warned last week that the dispersal of prisoners would heighten tensions in the prisons. The prison service said in response that it was preparing for clashes that it feared might erupt between the inmates and the prison guards in light of Vaknin's decision.

The Israel Prison Service then started on Tuesday the transfer of over 100 Hamas prisoners to various security wings in Israeli jails, a day after Palestinian prisoners burned mattresses in Ramon Prison to protest the installation of a system to prevent prisoners from making calls from personal cell phones.

According to an initial investigation into Sunday's incident, the prison service had received intelligence concerning prisoners' intention to set tents ablaze in their Ktzi'ot Prison ward, following which it was decided to transfer some of them to a different ward.

In the last stage of the operation, conducted under heavy security, two prisoners attacked two officers. Prison forces, who fired no shots during the altercation, then moved to disarm the attackers and at that stage the prisoners were injured.

The stabbing marks a new zenith in tensions between Hamas prisoners and the prison service. In the past few days, Hamas leadership said it is planning to declare a mass hunger strike of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners, which would start on April 7, two days before the Israeli election.

Over the past few weeks, the IPS has launched a pilot project to install devices that disrupt cellular signal to prevent prisoners from using cellphones to communicate with hostile elements outside the prison. The pilot is scheduled to last several months, and is expected to be implemented in all the wings housing security prisoners.  

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In February, Palestinian security prisoners held in Israel announced that they were dismantling the prisoner representative councils, meaning the end of formal leadership for prisoners.

In Israeli prisons' security wings, each wing has a head and a spokesman, who are selected in democratic elections held by the prisoners (in Hamas, every four months; in Fatah, every six months). Those who hold these positions enjoy status even outside of jail: Their role is a status symbol that uplifts their families' reputations as well.

It is the job of the spokesman to maintain contact with the IPS personnel running the prisons, but the head of the security wing has more power: It is he who manages the affairs of the inmates and is entrusted with contact with the leadership of the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – conducted by means of family visits, attorneys and cellphones. The latter are forbidden, but it is clear to all that their presence is widespread.

Tension arose following violent clashes between Islamic Jihad prisoners and guards at Ofer Prison in January, a result of searches conducted for unauthorized cellphones. During the clashes, twenty prisoners were taken for medical treatment.

In January, clashes broke out in three security prisons across the country, in protest against a snap search in prisoners’ cells. The search, in cells occupied by Islamic Jihad members, yielded weapons, mobile phones, SIM cards and written material held in violation of the rules. Guards used tear gas to quell the violence in Ofer, Nafha and Gilboa prisons. Three guards and six inmates were slightly injured, three of the latter requiring medical treatment.

Jack Khoury contributed to this report.