Israel Prison Service, Hamas Prisoners Agree on Improved Conditions After Tense Period

Move comes as another sign that relations between the sides are getting better, with the threat of prisoner sanctions and hunger strike lifted

Josh Breiner
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Ofer Prison in the West Bank.
Ofer Prison in the West Bank.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Josh Breiner

Hamas prisoner leaders in the Ofer Prison and senior Israel Prison Service officials recently agreed on a series of improvements in the conditions of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for lifting the threat of prisoner sanctions and a hunger strike, sources on both sides said.

According to the sources, the improvements include the installation of public phones in prison wings where cellphone reception is blocked. The sources added that the very fact that an agreement had been reached shows a continuation of bettering of relations over the past year.

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According to the understandings, the prison service will allow senior Hamas prisoners access to the wing where minors are housed as well as the intake wing. The Hamas prisoners said their presence was necessary to help new prisoners, especially minors. It was also agreed that a Hamas prisoner would be assigned to food preparation in the prison kitchen and the five TV channels available at present would be changed according to inmates’ requests.

A meeting was held three weeks ago with senior officials from the Ofer Prison, near Ramallah, along with senior Israel Prison Service personnel, the sources told Haaretz. A Palestinian source said that senior Hamas prisoners took part in the meeting, among them Yahya Jado of Bethlehem, who is in administrative detention; Mohammad Abu Tir from the West Bank; Ayid Dudin from the southern Hebron Mountains, who is also in administrative detention; and Sheikh Bajes Nakhleh from the Jalazun refugee camp. According to the prison service, all the prisoners had been involved in terror activities. It also said that reports of such a “high-level” meeting between the sides were false.

As in previous instances of hunger strikes, including one called in April 2019, the focus of friction between security prisoners and the prison service was over attempts to prevent smuggling of cellphones into the prison and block cellphone reception. On the face of it, the prison service scored a victory this year in that despite the threats of the prisoners it was able to install cellphone reception blockers in two Hamas wings in Ramon and Ketziot Prisons. But in fact, senior prisoners identified with Hamas are not housed in those wings, but in wings where there is cellphone reception.

A number of sources on both sides also stated that prisoners have been able to obtain WiFi connections after smuggling in advanced cellphones. “They connect via their cellphones to Hamas channels…to enlist young people,” a Palestinian prisoner said. WiFi also allows them communication with their families and with the Hamas leadership.

Every year, the prison service confiscates dozens of cellphones, most of which are not smartphones. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” a security source said. Some prison service officials are said to ignore the cellphones the prisoners have to avoid friction that could lead to violent protests.

Moreover, it has emerged that the issue of the kitchen at Ofer Prison is a point of contention between Hamas and Fatah prisoners. The usual arrangement is for a Fatah prisoner to be responsible for food preparation to prevent the prisoners from cooking in their cells. Now it has been agreed with the prison service that a Hamas prisoner will be responsible for the preparation of certain dishes, including cakes.

The goal: quiet

Over the past year the prison service has changed its policies toward Hamas prisoners after years of preferential treatment of Fatah prisoners. Sources both in the prison service and Fatah say that Hamas threats have led the prison service to compromise and accept some of the demands. For example, Wing 12 at Ofer Prison has once more been populated with Hamas prisoners, after they had been scattered in the general population wards in February following an attack on a guard. “There is a clear policy of a desire for quiet,” said a security source. “There is compromise with them on everything so they don’t stage protests.”

According to a Palestinian source, there is a battle going on between Hamas and Fatah prisoners. “Senior Hamas prisoners rejoice when they see that Fatah men are losing status, that’s what’s important to them,” he said. The Fatah prisoners, for their part, say that most of the searches for cellphones take place in their cells, while the guards turn a blind eye to the Hamas prisoners.

Ofer Prison, where the meeting between the Hamas prisoners and the prison service representatives took place, is at the heart of the conflict between the two sides. In March, the prison commander was dismissed after, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, he allowed a resident of East Jerusalem to enter the prison and buy 150,000 shekels ($43,149) worth of cigarettes from the prison canteen for security prisoners. According to some sources, that was not the first such instance in a security prison.

The struggle between security prisoners and the prison service reached a climax in 2018, when former Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan promoted a number of steps to stiffen conditions of security prisoners, although in fact few of the steps were implemented. Haaretz has learned that the Public Security Ministry is now preparing a report on the non-implementation of procedures that were set.

One issue raised in the report is the matter of prisoner spokesmen. Each wing of the prison has an elected representative who is the only prisoner allowed to communicate with the warden in charge of each wing. But in fact, spokesmen are transferred freely between the various wings in Ofer Prison, with the approval of the prison service command. This allows the spokesmen from the various wings to communicate with each other, coordinate their demands and sometimes even transfer cellphones, as happened at Ketziot Prison. The report in preparation shows that dozens of such transfers take place. Sources also say that prisoners continue to cook in their cells, and pots, frying pans and spices have been found in cells.

The Israel Prison Service said in response to this report: “Unfortunately, once again an attempt has been made to amplify fake news to create a false narrative for the Israeli public of the way security prisoners are dealt with. The commanders of the Prison Service visit the prisons on a regular basis and conduct reviews, and certainly speak to prisoners to hear the mood especially during the coronavirus crisis. Any report of ‘high-level meetings’ is baseless.”

The Prison Service statement added that “during a visit to the unit of the district commander together with representatives of the unit, prisoners raised various requests, none of which were granted. Any other claim is false. Moreover, in light of intelligence information on their attempt to contravene prison service procedures, the prisoners were warned that disobedience of prison service rules and directives would lead to punishment...” The prison service said it would “fulfill all decisions made regarding the installation of cellphone reception blockers and other steps that have been delineated in the past, while continuing intelligence and security work in keeping with the organization’s decisions and those of the prison service guards who are at the forefront of the fight against terror.”

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