Israeli Minister Almost Caused War With Hamas Prisoners, Security Officials Claim

Defense officials say Asher Vaknin ignored Israeli interest in reaching a deal but he didn't act alone, the public security minister was set on imposing harsher conditions for prisoners at almost any price

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during a government ceremony, March 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkowitz

With coalition negotiations underway on the formation of a new government, a new public security minister will be appointed to succeed Gilad Erdan. For the time being, the country’s police have managed to gain a firm footing, even in the absence of a permanent police commissioner to replace the current acting commissioner. By contrast, however, another security agency, the Israel Prison Service, is in the midst of upheaval and instability.

The IPS has always been seen as being on the bottom rung of the enforcement and security services, almost a stepchild of the defense establishment. While the police and the Israeli army get the credit for apprehending terrorists and criminals, the IPS, which is responsible for incarcerating them, has been viewed as more marginal. That’s despite its importance and particularly despite the tremendous influence that the prisoners, mainly the security prisoners, have on the situation in on the ground on the outside, in addition to the intelligence trove that they represent.

>>Read more: Israel, Hamas, hail victory in ending hunger strike. But real success is the timing | Analysis 

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Security prisoners retain their strong, superior status in Palestinian society, as does their influence on Palestinian leadership in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

At the end of the day, the prison service has emerged battered and humiliated from the agreement that Israel reached with the leadership of the security prisoners that ended their recent hunger strike. While in Israel there have been efforts to sell the agreement as a success, because the cell phone jamming technology that precipitated the prisoners’ hunger strike will not be removed, privately IPS staff who will continue to work with the prisoners express a strong sense of defeat and of a surrender to violence on the part of Hamas-affiliated prisoners.

Defense officials point to the conduct of acting IPS Commissioner Asher Vaknin, who insisted on waging a head-on battle with the Hamas members. Vaknin hasn’t been operating in a vacuum. Public Security Minister Erdan, who in effect appointed him as acting commissioner, has adhered to a policy of imposing harsher conditions on the security prisoners at almost any price.

IPS Commissioner Asher Vaknin
Omer Shalev / IPS

“The spirit of the commander,” as currently reflected in the IPS, is to worsen the prisoners’ conditions to the extent possible. According to several security sources, Vaknin translated Erdan’s demand not to conduct talks with the prisoners into action as well as the demand that the prison service prepare for a prolonged hunger strike, including consideration of the possibility of forced feeding, with Erdan’s support.

In criticism of Vaknin, one source said: “He’s trigger happy. He ignored the intelligence, and he could have caused an escalation in the entire region.” And the official added: “From the outset, he behaved as though they were going to war against the prisoners, when in effect he was ignoring the fact that the political establishment was interested in reaching a calm [a long-term agreement on a cease-fire in Gaza] with Hamas. The prisoners realized that and exploited the opportunity and the fact that even the prime minister was forced to take responsibility for the negotiations away from the IPS and to transfer it to the Shin Bet security service.”

The prison service denied this in a statement. "The entire negotiation process with the prisoners [was] carried out by prison service officials and at no stage was management of the event taken away from the prison service, and it should be stressed that every action carried out within the walls of the prison takes place only with the approval of the professional staff of the prison service. In recent discussions, at the end of the prisoners' strike, security officials, including [those from] the army and the Shin Bet, continued to praise the prison service's conduct of the event," the statement said. "Commissioner Vaknin participated in all of the security deliberations examining the subject … and his views were certainly expressed and discussed."

Deteriorating relations

The deterioration in the relations between the IPS and the prisoners began when the prison service decided to install the jamming equipment designed to prevent outgoing cellphone conversations in the Hamas wings of the prisons. The IPS and Erdan were responsible for the initiative to stall the technology which the IPS received at the end of last year. Its main purpose was to block attempts to conduct planning for the commission of terrorist attacks from inside the prison, particularly on abductions for the purpose of bargaining for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

But the prominent decision made by the IPS leadership to install the jamming technology in the Hamas wings of the prisons was seen as a deliberate offensive move. That led to a significant deterioration in the situation, including the torching of a wing at the Ramon prison. Things reached their peak with a serious stabbing incident, committed by a Hamas member against an officer at the Ketziot prison. The prisoner, an activist from a refugee camp in Jenin who is now on trial, was about to near the end, next year, of a 19-year sentence. In spite of that, he was chosen by the Hamas security leadership to carry out the stabbing.

Ofer Prison in the West Bank, January 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

The defense establishment and the IPS viewed that as evidence of a willingness on the part of Hamas to embark on a no-holds-barred struggle, but IPS intelligence had warned of that possibility in advance. The writing was on the wall that the wardens would be harmed, and everyone warned about it. In the final analysis, what do the prisoners understand? That violence produces results, the defense sources said.

The confrontational approach was reflected in the fact that they ignored the attempts of senior members of the prisoner leadership to try to reach understandings at the height of the crisis. While the IPS sent reinforcements to all of the high-profile prisons, Hamas viewed the step as a sign that Israel was planning for a prolonged hunger strike. That, in fact, was the intention of Erdan and Vaknin, who prepared a range of national agencies, including the health care system, to prepare for a mass evacuation of prisoners.

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According to a security source, in one of the discussions on the subject, for the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard that the prison service had already installed the jamming system at Ramon Prison. While the army and the Shin Bet security service expressed concern that bringing the prisoners into the wing with the jammers would lead to escalation, Erdan and the IPS convinced the prime minister to approve the transfer of the prisoners, a step that led to the torching of the entire wing a few hours later.

Installing public telephones

Those who actually conducted the talks with the senior Hamas prison leadership – the planners of the 2002 terrorist attack at the Park Hotel in Netanya – were the head of the IPS Intelligence Division, Yuval Biton, and a senior Shin Bet agent from the Jerusalem district. Israel’s ultimate agreement to install public telephones in the wings, a step that was strongly opposed by the prison service for years, is also a blow to the status of the wardens themselves.

On orders from Netanyahu at the height of the crisis, the Shin Bet replaced the IPS in conducting the negotiations. According to security sources, the prisoners’ real accomplishment was attaining a situation in which they conducted the crisis talks not with the prison wardens but with the Shin Bet, an outside agency called in to save the situation.

It should be noted that there was no real hunger strike. A total of three prisoners were sent for medical treatment, and it’s clear that all of those who had claimed to be on a hunger strike continued eating in secret. The IPS and Vaknin, who successfully managed a hunger strike led by Palestinian prisoner Marwan Barghouti in 2017, when Barghouti was caught eating a candy bar, were sidelined after the political leadership began to fear that intensifying the strike would affect the Palestinian sphere and could bring about the failure of contacts over an agreement, with Egyptian mediation, in Gaza itself.

“Vaknin’s mistake was that he didn’t understand that there’s a difference between a strike by Fatah [the leading party in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank] and a strike by Hamas. Hamas prisoners have total influence on the ground, and not once did the IPS analyze the situation from the broader perspective of the entire area,” said one senior defense official. According to several sources, Vaknin even issued a letter to the wardens in which he wrote that it had been “decided” to bring public phones into the wings, a step that was seen by IPS workers as something forced on them.

To show the public security minister that an acting commissioner had arrived who was going head-to-head with the security prisoners, he almost caused a deterioration in the security of the entire region, in opposition to the prime minister’s stance, defense sources said.

Solitary confinement

Evidence of the status of the IPS can be seen in the decision to transfer Abbas Sa’id to solitary confinement, after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh boasted that he had spoken to him from a cellphone that was smuggled in hours after the agreement was reached. As punishment, Sa’id was sent to solitary confinement, but a few hours later he was removed and transferred to the Eshel prison, where there is no jamming equipment. Nor is it clear as of yet what will become of the second part of the jammer project, which is supposed to start in June, and according to defense establishment estimates, will not be carried out.

It’s not only the issue of the security prisoners that is upsetting the prison service. So is its huge budgetary crisis. Recently it transpired that there is a deficit of about 200 million shekels ($56 million) in the organization’s budget due to the fact that hundreds of non-commissioned officers have been promoted in recent years. As a result, the organization is expected to cancel about positions that will probably be implemented among the wardens. Some will have their level of activity lowered. Many positions will be eliminated, and there has even been talk about closing several prisons.

The IPS points to the conduct of the former commissioner, Ofra Klinger, as purportedly being responsible for the crisis. The service said Vaknin is now being forced to take preventive measures. The fear of additional steps in the wake of the budgetary crisis is adding to the wardens’ concerns.

When it comes to the problem of prison overcrowding, which is before the Supreme Court, according to estimates, the IPS is expected to meet the demands of the High Court of Justice and to provide every prisoner with the minimal living space set by the justices – 3 square meters – by the end of the month. The situation is expected to improve among security prisoners as well, where conditions were at their worst, thanks to an addition of tents at Ketziot prison. That is also expected to be temporary, since their effectiveness did not prove itself in the recent crisis.

Erdan and the prison service respond

Erdan’s office said in part in response: “These are a collection of lies and nonsense that only reflect the desperation of the person who said them. The cellular jamming initiated by Erdan began with the support of all the security services and the tenders for its deployment in the prison wings housing the terrorists were published two years ago during Klinger’s term as commissioner. There is no connection between the ‘minister’s spirit’ or any other untrue invention. At a meeting held with the prime minister recently, the prime minister commented on the importance of the project and the need to continue its implementation.

“As a simple check would have discovered, conduct of the negotiations was not transferred at all from the Shin Bet, but there was a joint negotiating team [consisting of] the prison service and the Shin Bet, led by the Shin Bet. Over the past year, two major wage agreements were signed ... that significantly improved the wages of guards and those serving in the prison service, something that will strengthen greatly the quality of the manpower in the organization in coming years.”

In its response for this article, the prison service said in part: "As a rule, the prison service does not intend to relate or respond to statements by anonymous officials and discourse will remain at the professional level vis-à-vis the other security officials. The jamming project was approved in February 2017 and all of the security agencies supported the move."

The statement went on to say that, after a bidding process of about two years, a pilot project was begun in February designed ultimately have the technology installed in all of the country's prison wings where security prisoners are held, regardless of their organizational affiliation. In recent discussions among security officials, the importance of the project was confirmed, the statement added.