Gideon Levy

Wounded Palestinian Prisoners Left in Rain With No Food or Toilets in 'Night of the Atrocity'

About 100 shackled security prisoners in an Israeli prison were left outside for 36 hours, after two guards were stabbed. This week they launched a hunger strike

A woman takes part in a rally to show solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, Nablus, West Bank, April 11, 2019.
\ ABED OMAR QUSINI/ REUTERS

Here’s what happened on the night of March 24 in Ketziot Prison in the Negev, far from the eyes of the public: 100 Palestinian prisoners, bound hand and foot with plastic handcuffs, were thrown to the ground, beaten with clubs and shot with Tasers. When morning broke, the plastic cuffs were replaced with steel ones, and they were shackled to one another in pairs. They were left like that for a day and a half, under the open sky in the desert cold, without water, without food, without toilets. Most were wounded, some were bleeding. The rain that fell on them mingled with the blood flowing from their injuries.

They were wounded when special forces of the Israel Prison Service, Border Police and regular police force – a total of about 300 warders and officers – invaded their wing after a prisoner stabbed and wounded two guards with an improvised spike. That happened as the prisoners were being moved from one wing to another, in response to the tension that’s recently gripped the prison, which this week led to a hunger strike by the inmates associated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

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The situation had become particularly fraught between the Ketziot warders and the prisoners after the latter’s cellphones were jammed – by means of measures that terrified the prisoners because of their perceived radiation hazard, and infuriated them as well because now they were even more cut off than ever from their families. Afterward came the stabbing and then the brutal acts of punishment and revenge by the IPS and police forces against the inmates in wing A-4. They used Tasers and clubs on nearly every prisoner in the wing. Dozens were wounded, eight were taken to the hospital by helicopter.

Very little about these events was reported in the local media. This week, however, an opportunity arose to hear a full report about what actually happened last month, from a prisoner who was released from Ketziot two weeks ago. He, too, was wounded in the furor and needed hospital treatment even after his release.

Israeli forces react to stabbing at Ketziot Prison, in southern Israel, March 24, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Mohammed Salaima, his wife, Ruseila, and their two children – 2-year-old Yazar and 8-month-old Mayis, who was born while her father was in Ketziot – live in a small one-room apartment in the neighborhood of Jabel Kurbaj in Hebron. He’s a smiling, stocky baker of 25, who was incarcerated for two years after being convicted of attempting to stab policemen outside the city’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

On March 29, five days after the unrest broke out at Ketziot, Salaima finished his jail term and returned home. We met him there this week together with Musa Abu Hashhash, a field researcher for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. For three hours, Salaima described the events of the night of March 24, which he referred to as the “night of the crimes” and the “night of the atrocity.”

Before that, he spoke frankly about why he had tried to stab the Border Policeman. The idea came to him in 2014, when the wave of so-called lone-wolf stabbing attacks started. He was particularly distraught after the September 2015 killing of Hadeel Hashlamoun of Hebron, who became a local heroine; the veiled 18-year-old had aroused the suspicion of soldiers at a checkpoint, and was shot to death. An investigation by the Israel Defense Forces found that the soldiers could have arrested her instead of killing her.

The social networks and broadcasts by Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station, along with a nationalist song written in Hashlamoun’s memory, stirred very strong feelings in him, Salaima relates, although he did not know her or any other Palestinian who had been killed by Israeli forces. He wanted to name his daughter Hadeel, but he was in prison when she was born and named. In any event, for months he fought with himself, repeatedly putting off the stabbing attack that he was planning, telling no one about it. But an argument with his brother that erupted one evening in their parents’ house and deteriorated into a violent brawl, in which he was injured by a stone thrown by his brother, made him decide to do the deed, after months of dithering – to prove to his brother that he, too, was a real man.

Salaima’s wife was pregnant at the time; their firstborn son was 7 months old – “But I was already programmed,” he says. On the morning of May 5, 2017, the day after the fight with his brother, he grabbed the longest knife in the kitchen, put on a coat to conceal the weapon (despite the heat), and set out for the Tomb of the Patriarchs. There were only a few Border Policemen at the entrance, and he decided to wait for more to arrive. He thought he would be able to stab a large number of officers, come out alive and even escape. But he aroused the suspicion of two of the policemen, who approached and shot him twice, in the waist and pelvis. He fell to the ground, shouting “Allahu akbar” – God is great – and “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet,” the verse recited before death. He was sure he was dying.

Mohammed Salaima holds his son Yazar during an interview at his home in Hebron, April 11, 2019.
Alex Levac

Salaima was hospitalized for a month at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, his arms and legs bound to the bed, and for another month in the IPS medical facility in Ramle. He was sentenced to two years in a plea bargain, as the prosecutor apparently took into consideration his serious wound and other personal circumstances. He told his interrogators what he told us about his motives. He was incarcerated in the wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners at Ketziot.

Until recently, he explains, relations between the prisoners and guards in Ketziot were proper and marked by mutual respect. The trouble began with the announcement of the installation of jamming devices on February 18, in wing A-4 where more than 110 prisoners are housed in six tents. At the time, there were three or four smuggled cell phones in the wing, and the inmates used them in rotation: A prisoner could make one 15-minute call every three days.

The prison warders informed the inmates about the jamming devices, Salaima says, explaining that the decision was not made by them but at the political level, namely by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, ahead of the election on April 9, as a show of their toughness with Hamas prisoners.

On February 19, inmates in A-4 were moved by bus to another wing for a few hours, to allow the devices to be installed. The Ketziot management promised that jamming would not begin for the time being. The prisoners’ representatives agreed to the measure, on condition that they would enter into negotiations about it with the prison management.

The devices were not activated during February, but the negotiations foundered. The jamming began at month’s end. In addition to telephones, it also disrupted radio and television reception and frightened the prisoners, who had heard that the devices installed emitted dangerous radiation. Management denied this and said that the prison guards were also exposed to what it claimed was nonhazardous radiation; for their part, the inmates argued that the guards would not be exposed to the radiation 24 hours a day over years, as they were. The prisoners wrote placards and staged a small protest march in the wing. Their slogan: “We don’t want to die slowly.”

Salaima brews some tea and goes on to recount that at one point, the prisoners stopped all their leisure activity, including games of table tennis, and broke off contact with Ketziot’s directors. The tensions mounted. High-ranking IPS officials came to the cellblock to say that the decision to install the jamming devices had been made at the ministerial level. On March 20, the inmates were dispersed among other cellblocks and prisons, in an effort to disarm a veritable time bomb of unrest. Everyone was waiting for something to happen. Then on March 24 came what Salaima calls the “day of disaster.”

The prison management announced that a search would be carried out in wing A-4 and that the inmates would be moved elsewhere while it was being conducted. There were now about 100 prisoners in the cellblock, some having been released in the meantime. At first, management claimed that the move would only last for two hours. Then they said it was for the night, but ultimately the inmates were ordered to take their gear with them because they were being moved to wing A-3, which had been evacuated, for two weeks. The transfer proceeded quietly at first, with 10 inmates walking over at a time, until only a few prisoners remained in A-4.

It was then that the two guards were stabbed, in the almost-empty A-4. According to Salaima, the attack was carried out by a prisoner named Islam Mushahi. The whole transfer procedure was accompanied by members of special forces from the IPS and the police: Masada, Yamam, Yamar and Keter. Now they burst inside, forcibly. Some 300 of them were arrayed against the inmates, most of them already in A-3, a few still in A-4. Not one prisoner escaped the blows of the clubs or the Taser, says Salaima, adding that the beatings were indiscriminate and that they turned the prison wings into a battlefield. Forty-five inmates were wounded. He tried to hide in a corner but was clubbed; the scars on his forehead and his nose testify to that.

“They broke legs, arms, noses, chins, ribs,” he says, about the special forces that had been brought in. “Masada shot, and Yamar, Yamam and Keter did the beating.” About 340 Taser shells were fired at the inmates, and around 15 to 20 dogs also took part in the operation to suppress the prisoners, and wounded a few of them. The melee lasted for three or four hours, into the night, according to Salaima.

That was followed by the shackling of prisoners’ hands and feet, who were then left outside, under the nighttime sky. For 36 hours the inmates remained like that – bound, hungry, thirsty, bruised, exposed to the cold, on the ground.

The IPS spokesman issued the following statement to Haaretz’s police reporter, Josh Breiner: “On Sunday, March 24, Hamas prisoners in Ketziot tried to murder IPS officers by stabbing them, as part of a planned and orchestrated terrorist event. A preliminary examination of the details of the incident indicates that IPS warders on the scene came to the rescue of their colleagues who were under attack and had been wounded, and took over the wing in order to prevent additional attacks by the prisoners and further mortal danger to the warders.

“It should be noted that before the attempted murder, the prison guards carried out an operation in the Hamas wing that was intended to save prisoners’ lives, in light of the fear that a fire would be set in the wing as an act of protest.

“It should be noted also that according to all assessments by IPS experts, the danger of an attack on the staff by Hamas prisoners still exists, as is evidenced by the fact that later in the week there was an additional stabbing attempt by a Hamas prisoner in Ketziot. As with every operational incident of this kind, the event will be investigated and [the results will be presented at all echelons.”