IDF, Shin Bet Oppose Plan to Crack Down on Security Prisoners Over Fear of Unrest

Minister Gilad Erdan’s move to end separation between Hamas and Fatah prisoners and worsen their conditions could heat up tensions in prisons, West Bank and Gaza, security services warn

Security prisoners in Nitzan prison in Ramle
Nir Kafri

There is wide opposition in the security establishment to Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s plans to worsen the prison conditions for Palestinian security prisoners. In a debate this week, representatives of the various security organizations warned about the possible consequences of such a move, saying it could escalate tensions within the prisons and agitate the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Last July, Erdan appointed a committee to review the conditions of security prisoners, under the leadership of two former senior officers of the Prison Service and police, retired warden Avi Vaknin and retired district commander Shlomi Kaatbi. The committee recommended removing the customary division in various branches between prisoners identified with Fatah and those identified with Hamas, reduction in family visits for prisoners from the West Bank, prohibiting purchase of food items from outside the prison and revocation of privileges to make purchases at the prison canteen.

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Under the direction of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a discussion was held Monday on the recommendations of the committee at the National Security Council, with the participation of representatives from all the branches of the security establishment. The discussion was intended to assist the chairman of the NSC, Meir ben Shabbat, in consolidating the council’s position before passing a final recommendation to Netanyahu.

In the course of the discussion, representatives of the IDF, Shin Bet and, to a lesser degree, the police raised reservations regarding implementation of the panel’s recommendations. Their argument, accepted by most of the relevant organizations, is that the conditions in the prisons are sufficiently harsh and that making them worse, and removing the separation between prisoners of different movements, will exacerbate the tension between Hamas and Fatah and the atmosphere in the territories, given the important status of prisoners in the eyes of the Palestinian public.

The Prison Service representative to the committee expressed no objections to implementing the recommendations. In the organization, they expect Erdan’s decision on the appointment of a new prisons commissioner in the wake of Ofra Klinger’s resignation from the post at the end of the year.

In the background, negotiations are currently being conducted to reach a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, and it seems that those close to the prime minister are concerned that these moves regarding the prisons could undermine efforts for a Gazan arrangement. The Shin Bet and IDF warned about potential immediate consequences if Erdan’s proposals are implemented in the prisons in the near term. They suggested implementing some of the less dramatic recommendations, but only in a staged process.

Some 5,500 Palestinian security prisoners are currently in Israeli prisons. About 3,200 of them are serving sentences, while the rest are being held without charges. Some 49 percent are affiliated with Fatah, and about 25 percent with Hamas. The rest are divided among smaller organizations like Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. About 10 percent of the security prisoners are not affiliated with any organization, and about 1 percent identify with ISIS or with extreme Salafist organizations, whose activities are focused outside the territories. Eighty-four percent of the prisoners are residents of the West Bank.

The senior intelligence officer in the Prison Service, Subcommander Dr. Yuval Bitton, said last September at a conference at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya that “between each of these groups sitting in jail there is a burning loathing and hatred. The internal Palestinian conflict serves our interests and we penetrate precisely these seams and cracks.” Bitton spoke highly of the separation between prisoners of different organizations: “Our job is to deepen these ruptures, not to allow them to connect because when there is a common enemy, this is the factor that unifies the Palestinian people.”