Three days before his release, Mahmoud Magadba called me from prison with sensational news: At lunch, instead of the standard schnitzel made from processed chicken, “real” drumsticks landed on his plate. “If after 21 years, I was successful in getting the inmates a non-carcinogenic meal, then to me it was all worth it,” he said with audible emotion.
Magadba was referring to a petition he filed two years ago, in the wake of a statement by the World Health Organization proclaiming that there is convincing evidence of a connection between the consumption of processed meat and contracting cancer. The ambitious petition, cleverly submitted while a lively public dialogue on the subject was underway, was one of no fewer than 1,000 procedural issues with which Magabada says he flooded the Israel Prisons Service during his incarceration.
To maintain the tide of petitions, Magadba did not confine himself to such lofty subjects as exposure to health hazards. He was just as avid about more minor campaigns, such as one that led the IPS to reduce the cost of photocopying documents from 1.25 shekels (36 cents) to 35 agorot (10 cents) per page. Others included a demand to allow inmates to use a prison printer to produce documents related to their legal affairs; a complaint about the ventilation in his cell; and an attempt to file a class-action suit against the fees charged by the prisons for managing the inmates’ bank accounts – to name just a few of his causes. His petitions covered the whole range of prison life: studies, employment, health and food.
Magadba, who served time for two rape convictions, also dared to challenge the system by appealing against such basic guidelines as the ban on prisoners speaking to journalists and the IPS’ authority to make use of “intelligence” it receives to rule on disputes between prisoners. Defense attorneys who represented him over the years considered him a courageous inmate, one who sought indefatigably to carve out paths of hope within a repressive, despair-inducing apparatus, someone endowed with exceptional instincts and a highly developed sense of justice. They also underline his judicial achievements and the assistance he gave other prisoners in the struggle for their rights. Indeed, the lawyers term him nothing less than a leader in the cause of social justice.
In contrast, the IPS describes him as an obsessive and not especially effective petitioner, most of whose demands were rejected and were in any event petty in character. Sources in the service say that the number of petitions he filed with them was not 1,000 but rather a mere 370 (a possible explanation for the disparity is that some of the complaints were resolved locally, at the intervention of the administration of the prison in question). According to the IPS, Magadba did not help other inmates with his campaigns, and in some cases he even did them harm, because he never knew when to stop and made a nuisance of himself. Certainly, the prison officials say, he cannot be perceived as a leader of any kind in light of the serious sex offenses of which he was convicted. As for structural changes made in the system proximate to his petitions, officials attribute these to their organization’s mechanisms of review or to internal staff work.
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Magadba, a 47-year-old unmarried Palestinian from Jenin, has spent more than half his life in Israeli prisons. (Before this lengthy criminal term he was jailed for five years for security offenses.) It’s not clear which side felt greater relief when he was released three weeks ago: the prisoner who returned to the fold of his family, or the staff of the IPS legal department, who had to contend with all his petitions over the years and would like to think they can now look forward to a period of calm. He, for his part, doesn’t intend to get off their case.
“It’s true that the prison service released Magadba, but Magadba isn’t yet releasing the prison service,” he asserted late last month when we met in a Jenin office building where a friend of his works.
Saved by Hebrew
Two months earlier, Magadba was in the courtroom in Ela Prison, south of Be’er Sheva. Every petition, even if it initially seems to be of a minor or marginal character, turns out to be dramatic the moment that the prisoners, in orange overalls, legs shackled, are brought to the stand. One complains about being deprived of a furlough day; another is incensed at being prohibited, for “security” reasons, from calling his children; and a third ardently explains why the vegan menu in the prison doesn’t yet meet his religious group’s needs. Magadba is here, too, waiting his turn in a small holding cell. Even though he can already breathe the scent of freedom, he has no intention of backing off, because as always, it’s a matter of principle.
This time, Magadba was fighting an edict prohibiting inmates from using electric burners on Saturdays, in order “to ensure the character of Shabbat in the public space.” Magadba argued that he and any other Muslim prisoner should be allowed to do as he pleased in his cell, as it is his own private area.
Gilad Barnea, a private attorney who frequently represented Magadba on a pro bono basis, asked the court whether “Sabbath observance extends solely to the heating device,” given the fact that the prison’s television continues to operate on the Sabbath, and no one questions the prisoners’ right to smoke in public on the Jewish day of rest. Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Aharon Mishnayot, however, rejected the request. “The decision of the prison warden to prevent cooking on the Sabbath is within the bounds of the reasonable,” he states. Magadba accepts the decision politely and is taken back to his cell. He’s already thinking about his appeal.
“That’s the weapon,” he said, theatrically waving a pen, when we met. “Prisoners don’t know that they are permitted to read the orders, to type out complaints, to browse a legal database. I defeated the IPS with paper and pen.”
But at the start, paper and pen were of no use to Magadba, for the simple reason that he was illiterate in Hebrew. So he decided to learn to read and write the language: “You live in prison and your dialogue is mainly with prisoners who don’t speak Arabic, so you don’t have a choice. I started to learn Hebrew at a higher level when I grasped the potential to create precedents and rock the IPS. That was the element that made it urgent for me to deepen my knowledge of the language. I took courses, I studied the law, I asked law clerks or students about words I didn’t understand.”
'The petitions were the first signs for me that there was hope… Hebrew saved me from myself and saved others from me.'
More inwardly, the shift occurred after Magadba had 18 months added on to his original 20-year sentence, after he assaulted two prisoners. “I understood that it was either me being killed or me killing someone, and I looked for a way to escape that,” he relates. “It’s almost impossible to survive prison by behaving properly. You find yourself in a cycle of violence: stabbings, conflicts, drug dealing. The petitions were the first signs for me that there was hope, that there’s a body with laws. Hebrew saved me from myself and saved others from me.”
Initially, his appeals were rejected outright. “That’s because I submitted them out of despair, because of the suffering and the harassment, without fully understanding the essence of the petition or informing myself about the role of the different judicial authorities,” he says, looking back. “The courts didn’t pity me and they rejected petition after petition. Then I started to learn: to read every decision, every reply, to consult with other inmates. I held back before submitting the next petitions; I called human rights organizations, and they started to guide and advise me.”
In fact, the first significant petition initiated by Magadba was submitted to the High Court of Justice about a decade ago, through the auspices of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights and the legal clinic of the University of Haifa. The issue at hand was the conditions in the vans that transport inmates between prisons, detention facilities and the courts. Magadba called attorney Abir Bakhar from Adalah, told her about the suffering endured in these trips, and she took it from there.
“I was put into the van at 4 A.M. at the transit wing of Nitzan Prison [in Ramle],” Magadba stated in the affidavit he submitted. “By the time the van went through the security check [to leave the prison] it was 9:30 A.M., and I and the other shackled prisoners were sitting on a steel bench in the bitter cold.” He went on to list the many stops the van made until the end of the route – late at night, in Megiddo Prison in the north of the country. And “without any food other than two slices of bread and jam that you’re supposed to eat while you’re shackled and handcuffed, and without a lavatory the whole day.”
He added, “No inmate would ride [in the van] if it were up to him, even if that meant being hit with an extra year or two or more – the main thing is not to ride in that vehicle.”
During the deliberations, the IPS expressed readiness to take steps to ease the situation, such as distributing food and adding rest stops where inmates could avail themselves of toilet facilities. Accordingly, the court recommended that Magadba withdraw the petition.
He homed in on his next target. At the beginning of the decade, Bakhar filed a petition in the prisoner’s name requesting an end to the discrimination inherent in the fact that prisoners received festive meals only on Jewish holidays, but not on Muslim holy days (Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha) or on days sacred to adherents of other faiths. Central District Court Judge Varda Meroz ruled in favor of the petition and instructed the IPS to revise its policy, as “it is proper that the same resources that are invested in holiday meals for Jewish prisoners should also be invested for those who are not Jews.”
Around the same time, Magadba petitioned the High Court through Gilad Barnea, requesting that non-Jewish inmates be provided with bread during Passover. That request was rejected.
In fact, many of his battles were aimed at achieving equality for Arab inmates, and not necessarily with respect to culinary matters. For example, his petition to introduce prison courses that teach written Arabic was accepted.
Not Don Quixote
In 2012, he filed a petition concerning the harsh conditions in the transit wing – known as “the terminal” – of Ayalon Prison in Ramle. In the wake of that petition, a report was compiled by a delegation led by the judge hearing the case about the conditions there. Its severe findings prompted the IPS to take immediate operative measures. These included installing ventilation in the transit cells and the possibility of adding fans equipped with water sprinklers; raising the height of the partitions between the squat toilets in order to preserve the inmates’ privacy; adding more prisoners to the team that distributes food and water; and ensuring the presence of a paramedic. The prison service also declared that it would undertake a more comprehensive examination concerning broader renovations.
Another significant petition, which apparently fomented a change simply by virtue of being submitted, dealt with Magadba’s request that the court demand that the service have specialist physicians in residence at the various prison facilities. He argued that the system under which inmates “from the peripheral prisons” were sent to the IPS medical center in Ramle, in the country’s center, for consultations, was extremely problematic, especially because of the trips in the notorious vans, and thus led many prisoners to forgo essential medical treatment.
Magadba was not out to incite a revolution, only to obligate the service to implement the recommendations of a 2004 report on the health care available to inmates. The IPS countered by arguing that the correct interpretation of the committee’s report was not that every facility had to be staffed by specialists. The officials went on to describe the efforts that had been taken to enable inmates to get proper treatment in their prison or in a nearby facility. That was made possible by the establishment of specialist centers in the central, southern and northern districts in cooperation with local hospitals. The authorities also undertook to set up an additional specialists center in Hasharon Prison, near Netanya. As a result, Central District Court Judge Avraham Tal rejected the petition, in May 2013.
Magadba did not relent. He appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, claiming that the IPS’ commitments were not being turned into actions. In February 2017, the Supreme Court ordered the IPS “to submit an updated statement within 60 days, describing the efforts to establish a specialists center in the Hasharon facility in cooperation with Laniado Hospital [in Netanya].”
Magadba, we need to recall, was in prison for two brutal rapes.
“That was one of the more important petitions I submitted, and thanks to it, the quality of life of all the inmates improved dramatically,” Magadba says proudly.
When he failed, as he often did, he always pursued the matter at hand to a higher judicial level. Experience shows that this reflex action sometimes paid off, even if the appeal did not get the original decision overturned. That was the case with regard to the petition on the nightmarish ride in the vans to courtrooms for no reason, when it transpired that a hearing had been postponed or canceled. When the petition was rejected by the administrative affairs court in Be’er Sheva, Magadba naturally requested permission to appeal. The Supreme Court did not turn him down outright, but instructed the IPS to carry out a 90-day pilot study so as to make it possible to estimate the number of times in which inmates were summoned to hearings in vain.
From Magadba’s perspective, that constituted recognition that the phenomenon existed: Following the study, the service undertook to reduce its frequency. In the decision to reject the petition, the justices wrote, “Without the shadow of a doubt, the request before us and the deliberations that were held about it, helped shed light on a deserving issue.” Justice Yoram Danziger complimented Magadba for “doing an important public deed regarding himself and regarding others.”
But hostile reactions were more frequent, because of Magadba’s reputation as a serial petitioner. According to Adalah’s Abir Bakhar, “He generated antagonism in many judges, in part because he flooded the system [with petitions] and because he submitted tons of handwritten material. The fact that he was opinionated and that he purported to present the factual basis [for his petitions] in legal language elicited a lack of empathy toward him. In one case I argued in his name, and he intervened to correct or advise me. The court reprimanded him: ‘You have representation, you will not say a word.’”
In fact, not only did the various judges reject most of Magadba’s petitions – in some cases they levied court costs on him, a sanction that judges rarely use against prison inmates, as they are aware of their dire straits. In a 2013 case, the Be’er Sheva District Court turned down Magadba’s petition to extend the living space of his cell and revise the ordinance dealing with the criteria for administrative release – the occasions when inmates get sent home because of overcrowding in the prisons – so that it would apply to him, too. District Court Judge Yoel Eden termed the petition “empty and baseless” and ruled that Magadba “put the IPS to unwarranted trouble.” He imposed costs of 2,000 shekels [about $500] on him, noting that such a step “is reserved for especially extreme cases.”
Another district judge in Be’er Sheva, Eliahu Bitan, also slapped Magadba with a similar fine when the latter submitted a petition that had already been rejected by Tel Aviv District Court and by the Supreme Court. Bitan wrote that Magadba had “overdone it,” and added that he seems “to amuse himself by submitting petitions and enjoying the opportunity of bothering the IPS and the court time after time.”
That description suggests that Magadba is what’s known in the social networks as a “troll” – a compulsive individual who gets pleasure from the disruption his actions generate, without their having concrete justification. Magadba denies this emphatically. “I never submitted a petition that I didn’t think was justified, and I did not act just to clash or wrangle with the prison service. That’s their tactic,” he avers, “to topple the petitions by claiming that they are of petty nuisance value.”
Many of Magadba's battles were aimed at achieving equality for Arab inmates
Still, Magadba admits that in some cases the value of what he was doing derived from the very fact of submitting the petition, irrespective of the results. “Doing things reduces the damage of being in prison, you start to feel, you know, immune to the torments, like you have a goal. And the moment imprisonment becomes a mission, the IPS has a problem.”
An article about Magadba that appeared several months ago in the blog of journalist Amir Zohar described him as “a Don Quixote from Jenin who is driving the IPS crazy.” It’s a captivating image, and Magadba would surely sign off on a characterization of himself as an uncompromising fighter for justice who does not give up even when his aims appear hopeless. But an attempt to romanticize his actions would itself be to over-romanticize the story. In contrast to the innocent Don Quixote, Magadba, we need to recall, was sentenced to a lengthy jail term for two brutal rapes of women in which he used violence and threatened the victims with a knife and with sticks.
He did not act alone. In both cases, he and two friends waylaid Arab couples who had gone to Zippori forest in Galilee in order to have sexual relations. They beat and robbed them and raped the woman in each case. The judges found that Magadba and his friends had deliberately raped only Arab women, based on the assumption that they would not dare to lodge a complaint, given the sensitivity among the Arab population toward women who have sexual relations, even by force, outside marriage. That conclusion stemmed from a third incident, in which Magadba and the others were accused of attacking another couple in the forest, but left the woman unharmed when they discovered that she was Jewish.
Magadba was convicted on three counts of robbery, two counts of rape, harassment of a witness and being in Israel illegally. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison by Nazareth District Court in 1997. On appeal, the Supreme Court reduced the sentence to 20 years.
Meeting the president
Three weeks ago, Sunday, Jenin. Magadba, who lives in a nearby village, was released just three days ago. This is his first visit to the West Bank city in more than 20 years. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing, everything has changed here,” he says at the sight of the city’s development and expansion.
Magadba has no compunctions about speaking Hebrew in a loud voice in public here. In fact, he sometimes feels more comfortable in his second language. “People who come to congratulate me say that I have become a Jew,” he relates. “It’s not that I have forgotten my native tongue, but go explain terms like ‘transcript’ and ‘appeal’ in Arabic.”
In a restaurant on the main street, he takes out a green notebook that he used in prison, in which he listed, in dense handwriting, the moves by which he helped other inmates.
“This is a petition of a prisoner who was placed in isolation and got a yellow card [a serious warning] ahead of the cancellation of a treatment program, because of a disciplinary infraction he did not commit,” he says by way of example, after turning to a random page. “With his agreement, I filed a compensation claim that was rejected in an outrageous judgment, and now he can appeal it within 15 days. I will write a request for permission to appeal for him, we’ll get him to sign an affidavit, we’ll do it all according to the law.”
During his incarceration they communicated by means of messages they left in each other’s voice box. He assisted prisoners in Neve Tirza, a women’s prison, by the same means. “My name is out there,” Magadba says. “They would leave me a message with the details, I checked it out, consulted about the legal aspect and tried to help.”
According to Magadba, he usually offered his assistance for free or, occasionally, in exchange for a symbolic deposit in his account, which he could then use to make purchases in the canteen, on a good-will basis. Indeed, the impression is that symbolic capital is the main issue here. Says Barnea: “There’s no doubt that this is what elevated Magadba’s status in the eyes of the inmates and of the prison administration, too. He was considered a disciplined prisoner, and that undoubtedly fostered his high self-esteem.”
Magadba maintains that his activity was praised by the prison staff as well. As proof, he cites a chance conversation he had with a senior officer in Ayalon Prison. He relates, “I went to the officer to get him to sign petitions, and he said to me, ‘We Jews have used ‘agents’ since the state’s establishment. The first Arab who has succeeded in using Jewish agents against us is you. But I’m proud of the letters you write in their name. As long as you do it legally, I can only salute.’”
The IPS did not reply to a question about that particular encounter, as described by Magadba. Substantively, his motivation to apply the knowledge he accumulated for the benefit of other prisoners certainly did not make things easier for them. According to attorney Bakhar, “In one of the petitions in which I represented him, the IPS noted that they possessed intelligence to the effect that Magadba was ‘inciting’ inmates to submit petitions. They saw it in a negative light.”
However, Magadba not only “incited” prisoners to file petitions, he also worked with them in a cooperative effort to advance their joint causes on issues of principle that he sought to promote, sometimes in tandem with lawyers or an organization.
“A prisoner like Magadba is an asset to human rights organizations,” Bakhar observes, “because you, as a lawyer, face nontransparent systems, whose aim is to darken and insulate themselves, and you can’t wait for things to happen by themselves. You have to poke around, generate issues, develop a sense of smell for injustice. Magadba has that. He both sniffs out wrongs and also knows how to turn them into legal issues.”
Along with his achievements, Magadba claims that he paid a steep price for his constant vigilance: “I kept getting hit with disciplinary reports and tough, disproportionate punishments. Fines, isolation. All of it in revenge for the petitions.”
'The individual’s basic rights are not lessened by his deeds. His offenses have never had a bearing on our struggle against the repressive prison system.'Abir Bakhar
The IPS, for its part, believes that the data contradict every allegation of deliberate harassment of Magadba. His personal file contains 19 cases of disciplinary trials and another 23 of being deprived of specific rights, such as visits, phone calls and purchases in the canteen. Spread that record across 21 years, and it’s hard to claim, the officials say, that the staff treated Magadba with unusual severity.
According to Magadba, another means of punishment was to move him frequently between prisons. He notes that he was rarely held in the same facility for more than half a year consecutively. The reason, he surmises, was “so that the prison administrations would divide the burden among them.” The IPS also denies this allegation and points out that in cases of prisoners serving long terms, transfers are routine, mostly for security reasons. The officials note that in the final stretch of his detention, it was actually Magadba who asked for a transfer, from Ma’asiyahu to Ela Prison, and the authorities acceded to his request.
Magadba doesn’t deny that he asked for a transfer from Ma’asiyahu, where the conditions are considered to be as comfortable as they come. “After 20 years, a senior IPS official came to me and offered me a deal: ‘I put you in the hostel, the most advanced wing in the country, and in return you promise to stop with the petitions.’ Meaning not to see what’s going on around me, to be blind. And they really did put me in an open wing with lawns that looked like a soccer field. But when I saw there how they treat elderly inmates, I couldn’t believe it. Just humiliation and trampling their honor. There were two female commanders there that I don’t know how Bashar Assad missed. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I saw, ahead of a tour by people from outside, that they were hiding inmates who might complain about conditions in the infirmary. I told them: ‘Take me out of here, I can’t be bought and silenced.’”
During his short stay in Ma’asiyahu, Magadba encountered Moshe Katsav, the former president of Israel, who was serving a seven-year sentence for rape and other sexual offenses. “When he was still president, I sent him a request for a pardon,” Magadba relates. “Not because I admit to the deeds [I was convicted for], but just like that, because I thought it would help. He replied that my request was being rejected because my deeds were among the gravest there are. When I saw him in prison I said to him, ‘Now I understand why you turned down my request.’ Small world.”
In the blood
Indeed, Magadba never accepted responsibility for the actions for which he was jailed, and did not express willingness to take part in a rehabilitation program. Accordingly, the possibility of reducing his jail term by a third never came up, and he served his full sentence, to the last day.
The judgment in your case contains harrowing descriptions. Are they all invented?
“I deny any connection to the situations described. I plan to collect money, pay investigators, obtain evidence and fight for [my] innocence.”
But as long as his conviction stands, it raises ethical questions about the project that has occupied his life over the past 21 years, which bears a public character and derives from a human rights discourse. In short, it must be asked whether there isn’t something morally flawed in the fact that various organizations – and this article, too, which can also be seen as a party to this effort – have turned a sex offender into the poster boy of prisoners’ rights in Israel. Gilad Barnea finds nothing contradictory it. “This is not something personal,” he says. “The cases in which I represented Magadba are human rights issues in their most salient and basic sense. I am very comfortable with these cases, without any connection to who he is and what he did.”
Similarly, Abir Bakhar, who regularly represents female victims of sexual offenses, sees no dissonance. “Magadba is my model when it comes to matters of prisoners’ rights,” she says. “You have to remember that the punishment [incarceration] is a deprivation of rights, but the individual’s basic rights are not lessened by the deeds [he’s done]. His offenses have never had a bearing on our struggle against the repressive, insensitive and harassing nature of the prison system. When people ask me what he did, I somehow don’t want to tell them.”
Magadba, too, though he is ostensibly determined to continue fighting to clear his name, doesn’t care to discuss the subject. At the same time, he has no intention of leaving behind the prison chapter of his life – on the contrary. “Even after prison, the motivation to help prisoners is sweeping me,” he says, adding that he plans to establish an organization to assist those who are still behind bars.
In the meantime, he is also determined to follow through with the appeals on the last five of his petitions that were turned down, which have yet to be rebuffed for good – including the one dealing with cooking on a burner on Shabbat.
“It’s hard for me to give up all the attention I got from lawyers,” he says, smiling. His friends and family would rather he dropped all that. “They tell me, ‘Enough, we’re not interested, we want to get you married, for you to raise a family.’ They are also afraid that it will hurt me in some way, that it will land me back in jail. But they don’t understand that it’s impossible to get this out of me, that it’s already in the blood.”
Magadba is considered an especially productive petitioner, but other prisoners are also very active in this regard. Among them are the rapist Benny Sela and the lifer Gur Hamel, who in 1998 beat an elderly Palestinian to death with rocks and with his bare hands. Sela flooded the system with dozens of pesky demands until the court limited him to eight a year. Hamel, who in jail calls himself Gur Arye Ben Yair, sued the IPS for allegedly forcing him to eat inordinate amounts of chocolate, causing him to gain excessive weight. (That petition was rejected.)
Magadba sometimes cooperated with the two men in advancing issues that interested them all, through exchanges of letters and voice-box messages.
For example, the trio consulted with one another about how to deal with situations in which they submitted a petition but received no official confirmation of such, and when they tried to discover the status of the petition found that there was no record of it. Magadba filed a petition calling for the commander of his wing of the prison to sign a request when it was submitted and give the inmate a copy stamped “Received.” In response, the IPS stated that the procedures would be corrected. According to Magadba, “It was the idea of Benny and Gur, and I acted so that the inmates would have proof that their requests were being dealt with.”
He adds, “To get the desired results I would have been ready accept assistance even by the devil. I am disgusted by the deeds, but if the prisoner’s action serves the goal, from my point of view there is no reason to discriminate, and I see nothing wrong with it.”
A spokesperson for the Israel Prison Service made the following statement, in response to questions from Haaretz: “As part of a multiyear program of the IPS, it was planned to make medical services accessible, and for this reason specialist clinics were established in different parts of the country in a gradual process over recent years, and not as a result of the petition by the prisoner Magadba. Likewise, the decision to update the food roster and remove processed items from the menu was made in the wake of the draft report of the state comptroller.
“With regard to the placement of prisoners in the detention facilities, this is an undertaking that includes professional considerations that take into account, among other issues, the need to preserve the well-being and security both of the specific prisoner and of other prisoners.”