Analysis |

The Israel Prison Service’s Brutal Raid on Palestinians ‘To Locate Unauthorized Cellphones’

Around 140 Palestinian prisoners were injured in Monday’s onslaught at Ofer Prison, which is seen in the West Bank as PR for Israel’s public security minister before the April election

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Israeli forces raid Ofer Prison, January 2019.
Israeli forces raid Ofer Prison, January 2019. Credit: Israel Prison Services Spokesperson
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

When Manal Tamimi watched the pictures released by the Israel Prison Service, she felt her body emptying of energy and her head exploding in horror. The photos and videos showed dozens of men wearing uniforms and helmets, armed with rifles, their faces covered with World War I-style gas masks. The men, accompanied by dogs, crowded around the doors of cells at Ofer Prison.

“Look, mom, they’re in front of Cell 5 where Hamada is,” said Tamimi’s eldest son, Osama. In September, Osama was released from this cell in Wing 11, nine months after being arrested. His 19-year-old brother Mohammed remained to finish another eight months for throwing stones at Israeli troops and the Border Police when they raided the village of Nabi Saleh.

>>Read more: Palestinian prisoners: Israel's plan to worsen already 'sub-human conditions' is propaganda

The pictures show one of the prison guards, with a gas mask, bending down and peeping through a cell door’s food hatch. Behind him are many members of his unit and an attack dog.

Everything began to go dizzy around Manal; she knows that the families of the other 1,200 prisoners at Ofer Prison responded as she did and feel the same paralysis.

Hamada TamimiCredit: Bilal Tamimi

A few minutes after the prison service released the photos and videos to the Israeli media Monday evening, the raid by the prison service and police became the main topic on Palestinian news broadcasts and social media.

The Palestinians have one explanation for the raid and its timing: It’s propaganda for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in the run-up to Israel’s April 9 general election. The Likud legislator wants to show his base and voters that he’s tough on Palestinians, thus the pictures were released a few hours after the act.

There always have been searches of cells, and friction with the prisoners and violent acts of suppression are nothing new either. But the preparations and implementation have never been brought to the attention of the Israeli public in such a way – on television so soon after the event.

“Anyone who sends 350 members of intervention units – who were specially assembled from all the prisons – on a mission to locate cellphones has planned in advance to use great force,” said a former prisoner who was released about two years ago from Ofer. That prison is intended mainly for inmates serving light sentences, or who are near the end of their terms.

The first pieces of information trickled in by Tuesday afternoon: about 100 prisoners injured; 20 of them were taken for treatment in hospitals but were returned to prison the same day. The tear gas penetrated into all the cells – also into the two wings for minors where the armed men did not intervene.

By Wednesday evening, through the lawyers who met with some of their prisoner clients, details continued to reach the Palestinian authority for prisoner affairs and former prisoners, the Palestinian Prisoners Club and the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.

This allowed for a slightly more detailed picture, though not a complete one – and it can be assumed that events will only be understood in full in a few months when the testimonies are all in.

The outside of the Ofer Prison near Ramallah. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

What is certain is that the number of injured is larger than what was first thought, 140, and the injuries are more serious. “What was published in the press does not reflect 1 percent of what happened,” a prisoner told a lawyer from the Prisoners Club.

Islamic Jihad vs. special ops

On Sunday evening, a search was conducted in the cells of Wing 17, where members of Fatah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are held. The unit conducting the search entered, checked and left without any problem.

On Monday at 4 A.M. the Metzada unit – the prison service’s special operations unit – raided Wing 15. Members of all the organizations can be found here, including from Hamas. In two of the cells, where Islamic Jihad members are incarcerated, an incident immediately occurred: Was it, as the prison service said, the prisoners who immediately resisted and attacked? Or was the raid violently provocative and the prisoners reacted? We can’t know, at least not at this stage.

Prisoners in nearby cells and wings woke up to the sounds of stun grenades and shouting. “When prisoners in nearby cells hear shouting and don’t know what’s happening, all they can do is bang on the doors,” said Daoud, a former prisoner and Fatah member who now works in the Palestinian prisoner affairs authority.

The prisoners in all the wings now banged on the doors. “As far as the prison service is concerned, this is a rebellion,” he said. Only then did the prison administration gather all the units of suppression, as Daoud calls them, and raid all the wings – except for those of the minors.

The prisoners said that in addition to the Metzada unit, members of the police special forces took part. They said the police’s Yamam counterterrorism unit and the prison service’s Dror antidrug unit were there. Only the Metzada forces had firearms.

Security forces at the Ofer Prison, January 2019. Credit: Israel Prison Services Spokesperson

“But they told us Yamam was the most violent,” Daoud said. The units deployed in wings 11 and 12. Most of the prisoners in Wing 11 are Fatah members, and maybe there are also Islamic Jihad members too. In Wing 12 there are Hamas and Popular Front members.

First, the units sprayed tear gas through the food hatches. Then the security forces closed and sealed the barred windows on the doors. After that, they entered the cells that were filled with tear gas and attacked with dogs, batons, pepper spray and rifles loaded with rubber-coated metal bullets or other “nonlethal” ammunition.

It’s not clear if they did this in all the cells in the two wings, or only in some of them. As far as is known, in two cells (some say in three) the prisoners set mattresses on fire. This is the prisoners’ way of trying to drive off their attackers, Daoud said.

The prison administration punished all the prisoners by not letting them go out into the prison yard and by removing personal items, electric appliances and clothes from the cells. To protest the attack, the prisoners refused to receive their food until Wednesday morning.

On Tuesday evening and on Wednesday, the administration met with representatives of the prisoners at the prison. Both sides expressed a wish for calm, but the administration announced its intention to punish the prisoners for the “rebellion” with a fine of 40,000 shekels ($10,850). Also, for two months, family visits would be halted, as would purchases at the prison canteen.

Manal and Bilal TamimiCredit: Tamimi family

The prison service said in response that “while entering the prison that holds 900 security prisoners to conduct a search, and especially after prisoners acted violently and set a cell on fire, there was a need for many guards and special units to maintain order. During the search we found many unauthorized items such as spikes, makeshift screwdrivers and cellphones. The prisoners hurled shelves, window frames and other equipment at the guards.”

According to the prison service, “riot-control methods are only used when necessary and pending the authorization of a senior officer. These means are meant to curb violent actions by prisoners without risking their lives. During the incidents this week, three staff members and six prisoners were injured and received medical care at the scene; they did not require hospitalization.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Palestinian Prisoners Club published the names of 56 injured; there were bruises to limbs, the back, head, face, eyes, joints and pelvis, in addition to broken noses. Two people were wounded by a rubber-tipped metal bullet (or a different nonlethal bullet): one in the back and the other in the mouth. Someone was wounded when he was hit by a tear gas grenade in the chest.

Another was wounded by a stun grenade to the leg. A police dog attacked another prisoner, who now has scratches on his face. Four prisoners were hit on their lower legs and also needed oxygen at the prison infirmary after the tear gas attack.

Minors who met with their lawyers said an adult prisoner was transferred to their wing, who it seems suffers from asthma; he was breathing so poorly they thought he would die. The minors also said members of the intervention force entered their wing, accompanied by dogs, and threatened that if they joined the protest, the dogs would be set on them. The minors are suffering from a kind of anxiety and fear that they have never felt before, an attorney said.

The raid at the Ofer PrisonCredit: Israel Prison Services Spokesperson

Eight injured or bruised prisoners were afraid to leave their cells because they heard that the guards or the intervention force – a few dozen of whom are still at the prison – were beating prisoners heading to the infirmary. When their pain worsened, they asked to leave – and it seems they were taken to the hospital. It’s not known if and when they will be returned and what their condition is. “There was a lot of blood on the floor,” one lawyer quoted a prisoner as saying.

Raids on homes too

At first, the organizations planned to keep the names of the injured a secret so as not to worry the families. But the opposite happened, Manal said: “This is how all of us worry and go crazy from a lack of information. If they told me my son was injured, at least I’d know where and what he’s suffering from.” So far, her son has not appeared on the list of the injured.

In recent years, Manal has been arrested three times for participating in the protests against the taking over of the spring and lands of the villages Nabi Saleh and Deir Nizam by settlers from Halamish. Altogether, she was in jail for 22 days.

Her husband Bilal was arrested during the first intifada for six months, and in recent years he was arrested a few times for a few days or a few hours – because he documents the military raids on the village and the protests against them. Bilal and Manal have stopped counting the times their home has been raided by soldiers.

But they have never felt the kind of fear they feel today, they said. The hardest thing is the inability to do something for their son Hamada, they told Haaretz at Bilal’s workplace in Ramallah, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from Ofer Prison.

When Hamada was 11, a tear gas grenade fired by a soldier hit him in the hip. He suffered a hematoma, was hospitalized for a few days, and for six months feared that soldiers would come and arrest him at night, so he insisted on sleeping in his clothes.

At 15, a bullet fired by a soldier wounded him in the leg. Two of his school friends were killed by soldiers, one in front of him. He and his brother Osama were arrested in early 2017, a few weeks after the famous incident between soldiers and the teenage girl Ahed Tamimi, a relative of theirs. This was an opportunity for the army and Shin Bet security service to increase their suppression of the residents of the village, which had become famous for its weekly protests since 2007.

Hamada was taken for questioning by the Shin Bet in the Petah Tikva jail. For 25 days he was questioned about stone-throwing and placed in a cell where the light remained on day and night. He lost track of the days, and when he was transferred to Ofer, he was always looking for a dark corner.

Now his parents can’t put out of their minds the image of him in a prison cell, and of a Metzada or Yamam officer spraying him with tear gas. “This tear gas isn’t like in the village,” Manal said. “In prison, it’s like a spray that comes out of a fire extinguisher, it’s a sort of powder that sticks to the walls, clothes, doors. The smell and poison will remain there for many months; who knows how it will affect their health.”

The parents are tormented by their thoughts. Did he pass out from suffocation, is he injured and they still don’t know he was injured? What did he do when a brute wearing a gas mask came racing at him, brandishing a baton, or maybe a rifle? How much time will it take him and his friends to recover from this violence?

The raid at the Ofer Prison Credit: Israel Prison Services Spokesperson

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