Palestinian Prisoners Run ‘A State Within a State’ in Israel’s Jails, Officials Say

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Gilboa Prison from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped, last week.
Gilboa Prison from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped, last week.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

An emotionless Yakub Kadari, one of the six prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison on Monday of last week, was brought to the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court on Saturday after being captured on Friday. Three of the others who escaped with him have also been apprehended.

This wasn’t Kadari’s first attempted prison escape. He was also involved in an attempted jailbreak in 2014. And although he was never charged, he was also suspected of involvement in a failed plot to smuggle cellphones into Gilboa prison a year ago.

Four months ago, his testimony in Nazareth District Court in that case shed light on what transpires behind prisons walls. “We’re only in our cells at night,” he said. “During the day, we’re in the courtyard.” According to regulations, however, prisoners are to be outside for four hours a day at most.

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Kadari also told the court about the prisoners’ use of smuggled cellphones. He claimed to have “found” such a phone in his cell, after which, he said, “everyone used it... I called my family and my mother on it.” To the best of his knowledge, he added, all the prisoners in his cellblock used the same phone.

Last year’s attempt to smuggle phones into Gilboa was just one of many such attempts in recent years. Nevertheless, security at Gilboa wasn’t tightened. On the contrary, due to a shortage of staff, the prison stopped staffing one of the guard towers outside the prison and curtailed other security measures. Prison guards have also testified to the independence enjoyed by Palestinian prisoners.

In 2018, the public security minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, convened a special committee to examine the conditions under which so-called “security prisoners” were held – meaning prisoners suspected or convicted of nationalistically motivated terrorist offenses or other similar acts. The committee interviewed dozens of guards and senior prison service officials.

“It’s a state within a state,” one guard said, referring to the Palestinian prisoners at Ofer and Ketziot prisons. “The security prisoners run their own affairs and are in control from the inside.” Another admitted, “On the inside, we aren’t in control,” adding that the atmosphere in the security prisoners’ cellblocks is “as if we are going into their homes.”

The committee summed up its findings as follows: “In the security cellblocks, the terrorist organizations have de facto autonomy.”

The committee made special mention of Gilboa prison in this regard, warning that guards lacked the ability to properly monitor what is happening in the security cellblocks. Prison staff had “limited access” to the security prisoners’ cellblocks and courtyards, it noted.

A guard currently serving at Gilboa confirmed the commission’s findings. “Nobody dares to enter the security wing without approval from an intelligence officer,” he said, “not because we’re afraid, but simply because it’s extraterritorial, so we refrain from doing it.”

The inmates in the security cellblocks choose their own representatives to negotiate with prison officials, and the representatives have important status, he added. “In practice, they run the business together with the intelligence officers.”

A former guard who also described the security cellblocks as an autonomous zone, said guards only have contact with the prisoners’ representatives but not with the other prisoners themselves.

“In every security check of the cell, the shawish stays close to you,” he said, using the Arabic term for the prisoners’ representative. “When you want to enter for an inspection, you call the shawish,” who then informs the other prisoners that a search is about to take place. “That way the cellblock knows in advance that you’re coming in for an inspection, and the prisoners can hide things in the meantime.”

As a result of the arrangement, the prisoners enjoy a great deal of independence. “They live freely at Gilboa, because the moment you are dealing with just one person, they effectively control you,” the guard explained. “You want to remove a certain prisoner? Call the shawish to bring him.”

He said he had complained to the prison’s chief intelligence officer about the situation, but was told to get used to it. “The prisoners always give you the feeling that everything is okay, everything is calm,” he said. “They give you the peace and quiet that you want. But beneath the surface, things are happening.”

It appears that it is often convenient for the prison service to have the prisoners run things for themselves. Guards at the Nafha Prison testified, for example, that the prisoners’ representatives are a major help and sometimes punish prisoners for disciplinary infractions by imposing various sanctions, such as placing the wing’s canteen off limits to them. Another guard called it “organizational discipline” and said: “As in the army, the organizational discipline is good.”

Senior prisoner service officials who testified before the committee said the Gilboa prison’s regulations even permit the spokesmen to move among the five security wings of the prison unsupervised. A number of senior prison service officials who appeared before the committee expressed support for the policy, citing the need to preserve order and control. The arrangement provides “a single address for solving problems and for passing along messages to all the prisoners for intelligence purposes,” is how one senior prison official described it.

In the case of the six escaped prisoners from the Gilboa prison, they were all from the vicinity of the West Bank town of Jenin. Two of them were cousins.

The committee highlighted the need to separate such prisoners, saying that permitting such an arrangement “necessarily creates power centers inside the prisons and could well constitute a security threat.”

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