The Warming Ties Between Hamas Prisoners and Israel

Prison service may be dialing down antagonism with Hamas prisoners to promote quiet in Gaza, but stabbing of warden after a search shows Hamas has other plans

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Ofer Prison in the West Bank, where a Hamas prisoner stabbed a warden earlier this week, April 13, 2019,
Ofer Prison in the West Bank, where a Hamas prisoner stabbed a warden earlier this week, April 13, 2019,Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Last Sunday, a Hamas prisoner stabbed a warden at Ofer Prison, wounding him lightly. Over the previous two weeks, the Israel Prison Service had received a lot of information, including from senior Hamas prisoners, about plans by Hamas prisoners to attack wardens in retaliation for searches of their cellblocks.

Despite these warnings, the prison service took no precautions. Several sources said the warden who was stabbed in the neck – the deputy commander of the cellblock – entered the prisoner’s cell unaccompanied and without protective clothing. And though senior Hamas prisoners denied responsibility, defense officials are skeptical of their claim.

This incident reflects a trend identified by both defense officials and Palestinian prisoners – a rapprochement between senior prison service officials and senior Hamas prisoners. Until recently, senior Fatah prisoners were the ones close to prison service commanders. But now, several sources said, prisoners from the rival Palestinian organization are the ones getting preferential treatment – though the prison service told Haaretz that it “rejects the reporter’s baseless claims.”

In the days before the stabbing, due to rising tensions between Hamas prisoners and their jailers, a senior Hamas prisoner received unusual permission to talk with his counterparts in other jails in an effort to calm tempers. Two senior sources said that Muhanad Sharim, one of the men behind the Park Hotel suicide bombing in Netanya in 2002, called other senior prisoners from the office of a Ramon Prison commander and promised to turn over “a new leaf between Hamas and the prison service” – a promise belied by the stabbing a few days later.

Hamas prisoners have also received many other perks. And wardens have “turned a blind eye,” in the words of one defense official, to violations of prison regulations.

In December, for instance, a senior Hamas prisoner at Ketziot Prison was caught giving a cellphone to an administrative detainee. Prisoners aren’t supposed to visit other cellblocks, much less bring cellphones with them there. But even though this was a serious violation, the punishment was relatively lenient – a few days of solitary confinement.

Moreover, this inmate’s cellblock has public telephones, and under the prison service’s agreement with Hamas prisoners, these phones are supposed to be blocked if anyone in the block is caught with a cellphone. But that sanction was finally imposed only a week later.

This illustrates the prison service’s contradictory stance regarding cellphones. On the one hand, it tries to keep phones from being smuggled in. On the other, it knows that senior Hamas prisoners have cellphones. These phones are sometimes used to try to calm tempers via conversations with other prisoners or even Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip.

Officially, prisons are supposed to jam cellphone transmissions. But several sources said the prison service does not jam cellblocks where senior Hamas prisoners are held.

In contrast, jails have cracked down on Fatah prisoners, conducting searches and special-forces operations in their cellblocks and trying to break up their leadership by relocating senior Fatah prisoners to other jails. Several sources said these measures have damaged the prison service’s intelligence because Fatah prisoners often once cooperated with the service. A defense source said even the prison service is worried by this development.

“If the prison service thought Hamas was a partner, this week at Ofer Prison they realized how they’re really viewed,” a source close to the Fatah prisoners said, referring to the stabbing. “Hamas figured out that the prison service gives in to violence, and now they’re playing it off against Fatah. Anyone who gets near a viper shouldn’t be surprised it if bites him.”

This source speculated that the rapprochement in the prisons is related to Israel’s efforts to reach a cease-fire with Hamas.

“They think a rapprochement with Hamas in prison will help them promote quiet in Gaza,” and maybe also help secure a deal for the return of two slain soldiers and two kidnapped civilians held by Hamas, he said. “They don’t understand that Hamas is exploiting this. This week could have ended with a dead warden at Ofer Prison, and in the future it could end in a terror attack.”

The stabbing at Ofer followed a search of Hamas’ cellblock in which 11 cellphones and dozens of SIM cards were seized. Nor was this the first time prisoners have attacked wardens after a search.

Over two days in March, for instance, two wardens were stabbed by two Hamas members, a prisoner and an administrative detainee. Though both insisted that they acted at their own initiative, the prison service and the Shin Bet security service believe that they were acting on orders from Hamas leaders. That’s also their view of last week’s stabbing at Ofer.

Several attempts to smuggle in cellphones have been thwarted in recent weeks, but prosecuting the perpetrators has proved difficult. Last month, for instance, a prison service officer at Ramon Prison was arrested on suspicion of smuggling cellphones to Fatah prisoners for cash. Several prisoners and a Palestinian policeman from Hebron, whose fingerprints were found on a sticker attached to one phone, were also arrested. But since then, the prison service officer has been released to house arrest and the other suspects have been released entirely.

The prison service said in a statement that it “rejects the reporter’s baseless claims,” adding that it treats all Palestinian prisoners professionally and according to the law, “regardless of their organizational affiliation.”

It denied that Muhanad Sharim was allowed to speak with prisoners at other jails. It said the Ketziot prisoner who gave a cellphone to a detainee was deprived of family visits and a canteen allowance for two months, in addition to the days in solitary, and a criminal case was opened against him. Moreover, his cellblock’s public phones were shut down for a week. It also denied having advance intelligence about the Ofer stabbing.

Finally, it said, several steps taken against Palestinian prisoners in recent months reflect the prison service’s resolute attitude toward them, including breaking up their cellblocks, daily searches, scattering their leaders among different prisons, worsening their living conditions and expanding cellphone jamming to all wards where suspected or convicted terrorists are kept.

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