The lights stayed on in Wing 3 of Ketziot Prison that night. One after another, about 55 Palestinian prisoners in restraints were thrown to the floor. Security cameras filmed prison officers gathering around them, beating them with batons and kicking the prisoners, who were bent over with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The prisoners were ordered not to move or speak, remaining there for hours.
Dozens of prison officers were in the wing for Hamas members that night, in what became one of the most violent events to ever take place in an Israeli jail, according to a senior Israel Prison Service official. At least 10 officers were filmed beating the prisoners, but only four were questioned by the Israel Police unit that investigates prison personnel before the investigation was closed. The official reason: “unknown offender.”
The incident took place on March 24, 2019. Tensions peaked between the guards and the security prisoners in light of the authorities’ decision to install a system designed to prevent prisoners from making calls using smuggled cellphones. Earlier that evening, a Hamas militant in the facility stabbed two officers, wounding one of them seriously. After they were taken to a hospital, other guards burst into the wing.
The security camera footage shows several guards punching, kicking and beating prisoners with batons, without any provocation. Later the prisoners were gathered together, placed in restraints and thrown into the yard, among the tents where the prisoners live, and beaten with batons. At the time, the prison service said in a statement to the media, that guards had to restore order after riots erupted in the wake of the stabbings. But the security footage shows no rioting, only horrific violence on the part of the officers. About 15 prisoners were admitted that evening to Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. Two were in serious condition.
‘No one resisted’
Amir Salum, 26, of Shoafat, a neighborhood and Palestinian refugee camp in East Jerusalem, was serving a four-year sentence at the time for crimes including arson, assaulting a police officer and firearms offenses. He filed a complaint over the evening’s events.
“They decided to transfer us from Wing 4 to Wing 3,” Salum recalled. “Suddenly, in the middle of the move, we heard someone shout ‘stabbing, stabbing!’ Within a few minutes, guards from the Masada (Israel Prison Service SWAT) unit came in and started shooting these steel bullets at us. We then fled to the other side of the wing.”
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It didn’t end there. Members of the IPS Rapid Response Unit, Keter, entered the wing. Prisoners say they were the most violent of the guards. “They put us in restraints and no one resisted, and then they simply began to beat us with batons,” Salum said. “They tossed us into the center of the wing, like we were nothing, and beat us without us being able to defend ourselves.”
Salum said the prisoners knew these guards; they saw them in the wing every day. “That didn’t keep them from beating us mercilessly. We were sure they were going to kill us,” he said. “Everyone prayed to God. Only after seeing all the blood around me did one of the officers order that I be taken to the clinic. They beat me along the way, too.”
A different prisoner who was injured that night described in his complaint brutal, random violence by the guards, saying a guard beat him seven or eight times with an iron baton. He described being put in the wing’s open area while in restraints, his hands behind his back.
“I stayed like that for a few hours,” he related. “Six of my teeth were broken and my head was bleeding in four places from the blows. They restrained us in pairs after three hours, and we stayed like that until the morning. They also took away our clothing and mattresses, and we slept that way for three days, without anything. We remained with our heads down. Anyone who raised his head got beaten.”
Ali Da’ana, who is serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder and accessory to murder, said in his complaint that the guards waged a campaign of retaliation against the prisoner. “I was beaten mercilessly by masked guards as I lay on the floor, for no reason,” he recalled. “It was revenge. I told one of them that I had a chronic illness and he said it didn’t matter. They kept hitting.”
Another prisoner injured that evening described in his complaint how he was tied that evening through the next morning at 9 A.M. “The Keter unit’s jailers kept kicking and beating us, and made racist slurs,” he said. “One officer said, ‘Cut their face’.”
Another prisoner who filed a complaint said, “It’s indescribable what we went through that night. One officer yelled, ‘I want blood!’ We stayed their all night, wet and tied, without access to a bathroom. It’s all documented, and I hope it won’t become routine.”
13 prisoners filed complaints regarding that night, all requesting a fair investigation.
‘It’s probably me’
Despite the video footage, the police failed to identify all the officers in the wing that night. Police investigators explained the security cameras weren’t enough to identify them. Only four were briefly questioned, on suspicion of battery. Few attempts were made to identify additional officers present that night. Although the prisoners declared they could identify the perpetrators, no lineup was conducted.
One of the officers questioned, Alon Bayech of the Keter unit, told investigators, “Reasonable force was used to handcuff Wing 3 prisoners.” He wasn’t asked what happened in the prison yard. His questioning focused on another incident that night.
Keter’s commander in Ketziot, Albert Goldberg, backed the corrections officers in his testimony. “After the stabbing, most of the prisoners were evacuated from Wing 3, and a general riot broke out, including those outside the wing,” he said. “It was decided to call backup to calm the situation… To the best of my knowledge, there was controlled use of force to conduct the mission and there were no exceptions.” Investigators showed Goldberg the security footage but only asked him to identify one of the officers seen beating a prisoner with a baton. Goldberg didn’t know his name, and thus ended his questioning.
The questioning of officer Herzl Margolin, who was filmed beating prisoners, was particularly short. He initially claimed he couldn’t identify himself in the footage, but changed his stance toward the end. “I can’t say for sure, it’s probably me,” he told investigators. “I worked according to orders and rules. There was a different order each time – once to bind them, once to put them on the floor.”
The recording of his questioning went as follows:
Investigator: “Do you think the use of force was reasonable?”
Margolin: “In most cases yes, reasonable.”
Investigator: “When wasn’t it?”
Margolin: “I might have slapped here and there.”
Investigator: “What is slapping?”
Margolin: “Maybe I gave a jab more after what they did… These prisoners attacked us, some tried to stab and some bit on the leg.”
Investigator: “The prisoners look tied up, lying on the ground, and you attack them for several minutes without them doing anything. Why did you use force against these prisoners?”
Margolin: “There was resistance in some cases. We tried to neutralize the danger. Even if I didn’t use reasonable force in some cases, I can’t be judged because of the situation, the emotions, the chaos, the cuts on the officers and the evacuees. I myself was injured, and I continued and I was among those evacuated. I have nothing personal against anyone. I don’t know anyone there.”
Thus ended Margolin’s questioning. The investigations officer of the national unit for investigating corrections officers, Commander Valery Blubstein, recommended to the prosecutor to close the case because “it was impossible to identify the prisoners in the video (we) received for handling the cases.” He added: “The complainants do not provide the names of the officers who attacked them aside from mentioning units like ‘Keter’ or ‘Masada.’ The officers were questioned in the cases. In light of the above, the offender is unknown.”
Commander Yehuda Aharoni, the investigations officer, also recommended closing the case. “Force was used for restraint and for halting the prison rioting,” he wrote. “As such, the officers wore protective gear while using force so it was impossible to identify officers. In light of that, I recommend closing on account of an unknown offender.”
The deputy prosecutor for the Southern District, Yoav Kishon, accepted the police recommendation, and closed the case. The commander of Ketziot Prison at the time of the incident, Avihai Ben Hamu, was promoted in February and was appointed as Central District commander.
In response to the case’s closure, Hamoked filed an appeal to the district attorney. “The incident at Ketziont is a case of brute, wholesale violence against tied, helpless people,” Hamoked attorney Nadia Daqqa said. “The investigative authorities’ attempt to shirk responsibility, despite the security camera footage, is a badge of shame for the national unit for investigating corrections officers and investigative bodies in general. When that’s the reality, it’s no wonder that the violence of security forces toward Palestinians is so common when that’s how they handle complaints.”
The Israel Police commented: “The investigation was handled in wake of suspicion of unreasonable use of force by some officers in the violent disturbances that happened within the prison walls, after a stabbing and injury of an officer by a prisoner. Contrary to what is claimed, the investigation was conducted thoroughly and professionally, collecting evidence from the scene and a number of officers were questioned under warning. All the investigative materials were provided for consideration of the district attorney, which decided to close the case.”
The Israel Prisons Service commented: “A planned terror attack transpired in Ketziot Prison in 2019, during which a security prisoner tried to murder two prison officers and he was indicted for attempted murder. One officer was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital and the other was evacuated in an ambulance to receive medical treatment. With the stabbing, a riot immediately broke out in the wing involving dozens of prisoners, leading the prison officers to rein in the aggressiveness and to restore the situation to prevent another attack on personnel. Parallel to an investigation of the incident, it was decided initially to involve the national unit for investigating prison officers to examine the prisoners’ claims. After investigating, unit staffers decided to close the case. Accordingly, and in light of the circumstances of the case and the lack of evidence, the examination ended.”
The district attorney commented: “An appeal was filed a few days ago regarding the decision to close some of the cases involving the prison officers, and so we cannot comment.”