On the Rise: How Cellphones Reach Inmates in Israeli Jails

Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel are generally not permitted any calls. Exceptions are sometimes made in the event of a death or wedding of a close relative, or for medical consultations.

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Public phones at Ma'asiyahu Prison's Wing 10.
Public phones at Ma'asiyahu Prison's Wing 10.Credit: Israel Prison Service
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

In 2016, 214 cellphones were smuggled into Israeli prisons, 21 more than a year earlier.

For security prisoners not permitted phone calls, this is their only way to make contact with the outside world. Prison officials believe that smuggling efforts will therefore continue, even after the suspicions against MK Basel Ghattas. But the cost of each contraband phone will likely be costlier.

Prison authorities struggle to prevent cell phone smuggling in the U.S. and other countries as well. Since the advent of smartphones, prison inmates have been willing to pay a lot of money to get ahold of a device with access to the internet.

In California, prison authorities confiscated 1,400 contraband cellphones in 2007. In 2009, the number was up to 7,000 and by 2011 it was over 15,000. And the numbers continue to rise each year.

Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel are generally not permitted any calls. Exceptions are sometimes made in the event of a death or wedding of a close relative, or for medical consultations if the inmate falls seriously ill.

In humanitarian cases, the district commander may permit a phone call to a first-degree relative, with Shin Bet approval. These calls must be recorded, may not exceed 10 minutes, and must be conducted via speakerphone in the presence of a warden who speaks the prisoner’s language. Prisoners who have not had any visitors for more than two years can be granted permission for one phone call every other month, on condition of good behavior.

The strict rules lead many Palestinians to go to great lengths to bring phones into the prisons.

In July 2015, a prisoner named Danny Ohana was convicted of helping security prisoners smuggle in phones. During a trip to court, Ohana happened to meet a security prisoner known as “Abu Abdullah,” who was associated with Hamas. Abu Abdullah told Ohana he was from Hebron and serving time in Ketziot Prison. He also told him that for each cell phone Ohana brought in, he would be paid 10,000 shekels.

There were two methods for smuggling in the phones: hiding them in sacks of flour delivered to the prison or inside products brought in to stock the canteen. Before his plan was foiled, Ohana was preparing to smuggle in 93 Nokia phones, 154 SIM cards from various companies and 48 chargers.

The smuggling is often orchestrated, with an entire system of go-betweens whose task it is to acquire phone numbers in their own names that may be transferred to the phones smuggled to prison inmates. Sometimes, to avoid leaving traces, numbers are passed through a number of people before reaching the contraband phone.

In 2011, the Hamas leadership in Gaza tried to smuggle in phones via a Palestinian man who had permission to enter Israel, and who had legally departed Israel for Sinai then re-entered Gaza via a tunnel. Back in Israel, he followed orders to go to Nablus where he was given 30 cellphones and thousands of shekels in cash. He then met with someone in Lod who was supposed to follow through with the smuggling plot, but wound up getting arrested when the Shin Bet learned of his plans to kidnap a soldier.

Smuggling attempts have continued, nonetheless. The number of phones discovered during prison searches shows the efforts are quite successful.

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