Israeli Politics and SpongeBob: Conversations With Palestinian Security Prisoners

The rift between Fatah and Hamas, the suffocating conditions, canteen allowances and dental health – Inside Israeli jails' security wings

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Israel Prison Service officials escorting a prisoner in the security wing of an Israeli jail, May 3, 2017
Israel Prison Service guards with a security prisoner. Israel's High Court of Justice has ruled that the country's prison conditions are inhumane.Credit: Israel Prison Service
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Stacked on the shelves around the table are a variety of sweets and snacks, with popular brands well represented – Kinder, Loacker, Splendid, Milka. Alongside them are more basic items like oil and canned goods, and there are also bottles of cola and a carton of the locally made Tapuzina orange drink. At first glance, the gang sitting around the table would be hard to describe: They are different ages, each is here for a different reason, and some have met here for the first time. The scheduled "departure" date differs from one man to the next. But there is also much in common: All of these men are security prisoners in an Israeli jail.

The group includes a few who in the past were termed “arch-terrorists” – those responsible for the bus bombings of the 1990s, who have the blood of dozens of Israelis on their hands. Some had already served time, were released and then incarcerated again. One was convicted relatively recently. And along with these are inmates convicted of killing Israel Defense Forces soldiers in violent armed clashes, and stone throwers too.

Over the past few months, Haaretz has visited several security wings in local prisons, observing the conditions of incarceration, speaking with prisoners, former prisoners, and current and retired prison guards. The prisoners of today talk about politics in Israel, about the chances of being released, about society’s attitude toward them and also about the conditions in prison.

The latter issue has made headlines of late, most recently in light of the Israel Prison Service video footage that surfaced this week, showing a particularly brutal raid by warders – ostensibly in search of cell phones – at the Ofer, Nafha and Gilboa prisons, which reportedly resulted in the injury of dozens of inmates and some guards.

Ofer Prison, on January 22, 2019. A criminal prisoner seemingly enters jail alone, while a Palestinian security prisoner is received enthusiastically by the organization he belongs to.Credit: Olvier Fitoussi

That incident was preceded earlier this month by a declaration by Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan about plans to toughen prison conditions. It will likely take some time until his scheme is implemented, if at all. The security cabinet has yet to convene to discuss the matter, and one must also take into account a ruling by the High Court of Justice, to the effect that the current conditions in Israeli jails are inhumane.

The chocolates in the prison canteens tell only a very small part of the story, and offer no hint of the repulsive conditions in which security prisoners are held. The walls of their cells are peeling, they eat their meals on their beds and the bathrooms are tiny and toilet-less, mere holes in the floor. And then there's the extreme overcrowding. The average cell that houses eight prisoners measures 19.5 square meters – under 2.5 square meters per person (the High Court ruled that 4.5 should be the minimum). There is a pervasive, suffocating feeling.

It's hard in some cases to discern the flaking whitewash on the walls: Spiderman conceals it. Not the superhero himself, but sheets of fabric emblazoned with his image. This is a popular scene – sheets hanging in the cells, featuring pictures of a superhero, or logos of soccer teams or even the image of SpongeBob, who seems to be popular too.

“That’s what they sent us,” explains one of the older prisoners, sitting in his cell. A few years ago, this man took part in a shooting incident involving Israeli settlers and he has been here ever since. Now bright-yellow SpongeBob is his cellmate.

This is the Fatah wing at this particular jail. No one here dares utter a word against Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, not even the seven young men from the Ramallah area who inhabit one of the cells. They've been sentenced to jail terms of various lengths of time for throwing stones. One is a member of the Palestinian Security Forces who, while in uniform, threw stones at IDF soldiers. “A fool,” one of his cellmates declares.

Meanwhile, Arabic music is playing in the background, and on the side are a few CDs of Hebrew singers: Eyal Golan, Pe’er Tassi and Yaniv Ben Mashiach, who sings songs of praise to God.

Prisoners in their cell in Nafha prison in southern IsraelCredit: Reuven Castro/Walla News

The social network

As long as Minister Erdan’s initiative to toughen conditions remains on paper, the norm of organizational separation between the rival Hamas and Fatah groups is being preserved in the prisons. Also a sense of unity is preserved: Whereas it may seem that a prisoner guilty of a criminal act enters jail alone, a Palestinian security prisoner who enters is immediately received enthusiastically by the organization to which he belongs, and proceeds to build up a network of friends that will accompany him even after he leaves.

The entrance to Ofer Prison in the Israeli-occupied West BankCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

“Just like you have in the army, we have in prison – it is a coming-of-age rite,” says one prisoner, serving a life term after being convicted of shooting at IDF forces on several occasions.

There is something else that one notices in the security wings: Although the walls are peeling, the general order and the cleanliness are astonishing. The librarian knows who exactly took which book; the canteen keeps careful records of inventory, along with debts, purchases and requests; and the inmates typically do not economize when it comes to cleaning agents, even if it comes from their own personal allowance.

“There are rules here,” says one, proud of the gleaming floor in his cell in the Nafha prison near Mitzpeh Ramon, in southern Israel. This prisoner, in his late thirties, was convicted of killing soldiers in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and has spent 15 years in prison, without any furloughs, benefits or sex.

Security prisoners do not have conjugal visits. Once a month they are permitted to meet with up to three persons, for 45 minutes. Once a year they are allowed to receive three photographs.

“Visiting here is punishment,” the inmate continues. “In order to get to Nafha, my mother has to leave the house at 2 A.M., wait for hours at a checkpoint, and make her way from Nablus to Ramon. I just don’t need it.”

What the prisoners do receive once a month is a monetary transfer from Fatah or Hamas, which underwrites their purchases in the canteen. Here, as well, there is a difference between the two organizations. A Fatah prisoner is enjoys a monthly allowance of up to 1,200 shekels ($327) in prison, but Hamas convicts have a maximum of 800.

Security prisoners in an Israeli jail. As long as Minister Erdan’s initiative to toughen conditions remains on paper, the separation between Hamas and Fatah groups continues. Credit: Israel Prison Service

“The cleaning materials, toilet paper, the most basic things – all that is on us,” says one prisoner. “When [Benjamin] Netanyahu was the finance minister, they used to pay for everything. Now we are buying even the shampoo.”

One senior Israel Prisons Service official explains that the allowance depends on another factor, which may have gone unmentioned. “The more serious the murder you committed, the more money you receive," he says. “This is one of the biggest motivations for terror.”

Not everyone Haaretz spoke with in the prisons concurs with that analysis. “That is a fairy tale told by the Israelis,” one of the more veteran prisoners states.

“The salaries are transferred to us through the PLO, and they are based on the number of children I have – not on the number of people I killed,” says another. “Prisoners who are members of the Islamic State, for instance, don’t receive any money. The fellow who murdered the family from Halamish [a 2017 stabbing attack that claimed the lives of three people], for instance, still hasn’t received a thing.”

But that same prisoner is wondering about something else: “With all due respect, doesn’t Ami Popper [the Israeli who killed seven Palestinians in May 1990] receive National Insurance payments? Doesn’t Yigal Amir receive them? I sat with Amir in the same wing and I saw what was going on: food brought in from the outside, free use of a phone, conjugal and other visits. And what did he do? He assassinated your prime minister [Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995]. If I would assassinate the prime minister, would I get the same sort of conditions?"

Nafha prison in southern IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

'Operation in Petah Tikva'

These men do not remember the names of their victims, and typically describe the reason they are incarcerated in laconic terms: “an action in Nablus,” “a shooting in Hebron,” “opposition to the occupation,” “an operation in Petah Tikva.”

But behind these vague descriptions there are Israeli victims: four persons killed in one incident, six in another, a soldier dead – and also the murder of a baby. Yes, one of the perpetrators of the terror attack in the Fogel family home in the settlement of Itamar in March 2011 is also here.

“He is sorry about the murder of the baby, he was a foolish boy of 17,” says one of his cellmates, and he is not the only one here who is critical of the action. Hamas and Islamic Jihad members also expressed their reservations about the killing of the baby.

Haaretz's conversations with prisoners, conducted over a period of months, are held in the presence of IPS personnel, including intelligence officers, who also take notes. We are allowed to talk about everything – but, of course, to a limited degree.

“My daughter sees me as a hero, but I know that in Israel they consider me a murderer,” says one prisoner, convicted of participating in a terror attack in which six Jews were killed. When the subject comes up of legislation to promote the death sentence for terrorists – the prisoners start to laugh.

A road sign for Nafha Prison in southern IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

“When I left my home and set out on the mission, I knew that I would die,” says one, who has been sentenced to several life terms for an act of terrorism during the second intifada. “How do you folks say it? Adraba [an Aramaic word meaning ‘on the contrary’],” he declares about the death penalty. “It would serve our needs because it would ignite the Palestinian street.”

In our conversations it is easy to spot the more prominent and vocal figures. They are usually the more veteran convicts, mainly those whose crimes were more serious or who had relatively high-ranking status before entering prison (such as being senior members of Tanzim, a military faction of Fatah).

And there are also the “position holders.” Each wing has a head and a spokesman, who are selected in democratic elections held by the prisoners (in Hamas, every four months; in Fatah, every six months). These position holders enjoy status even outside of jail: Their role is a sign of success that is automatically translated into a boost of their families’ good name.

It is the job of the spokesman – an “appointment” that Minister Erdan also aspires to abolish – to maintain contact with the IPS personnel running the prisons, but the head of the security wing has more power: It is he who manages the affairs of the inmates and is entrusted with contact with the leadership of the Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – conducted by means of family visits, attorneys and cell phones. The latter are forbidden, but it is clear to all that their presence is widespread.

“The IPS knows that they exist, and there is a constant battle of wits between us about it,” says one wing spokesman.

The cell-phone war is being waged not only between the IPS and the inmates, but also between the prisoners themselves, as is evident from recent statements by a high-ranking security prisoner affiliated with Islamic Jihad. As part of an IPS investigation of the suspected smuggling of 60 cell phones into Nafha prison, a convict named Ahmed Abu Jazer was questioned by an IPS official named Sasson, and expressed sharp criticism of the leaders of the terror organizations in prison.

“There is an inherent act of exploitation going on here,” Abu Jazer said. “The heads of the organizations decide just how much the prisoners will be able to talk with their families with the existing cell phones.” Based on that and other information, it seems that the spokesman of the wing is the one who decides whether a certain prisoner will get five minutes or 10 minutes to talk on a phone.

A guard supervising Palestinian security prisonersCredit: Israel Prison Service

Information about what goes on behind bars can influence what happens outside the prison, one IPS official says. "Any irregular incident at the prison can have an immediate effect on the outside world,” he explains. A minor hunger strike can lead, for instance, to a wave of clashes and to the “deployment of entire brigades of the IDF.”

The moves being considered by Erdan are thus liable to be a powder keg.

One veteran prisoner told Haaretz that if the changes the minister is initiating do take effect, the leaders of all the Palestinian organizations have agreed to launch a general hunger strike.

“We are not at all disturbed by the idea of us being mixed up together – we’ve slept in the same cells with one another in the past,” he says. “What bothers us most is that they [the prison authorities] are trying to restrict our food and water, and if they play around with our food – that is going to have repercussions. Each one of us has family in the territories and friends in the security forces, meaning that if we embark on a hunger strike, the implications of this for the world outside will be obvious.”

Toothy stories

In times of tension, whether greater or lesser, much importance is attributed to the identity of the security-wing spokesmen. Each of them, explains one official, is authorized by the IPS intelligence division (the same body responsible for the transfer of prominent convicts from one facility to another). The intelligence division is currently headed by Yuval Biton aka “Dr. Biton,” as he is called by the prisoners, a remnant of his days as an IPS dentist, prior to his career change.

Credit: Israel Prison Service

Biton claims that he can tell whether a prisoner is a regular criminal or a security prisoner based on the condition of his teeth. While the teeth of the former usually show signs of neglect, the teeth of security prisoners are typically in better shape – a matter of consciousness and social status, says Biton. The healthiest teeth belong to Hamas prisoners: Their hygienic preparations for prayer five times a day, he says, do the trick.

But the "cavities" he is looking for these days are not in teeth. “You have to exploit every crack between the prisoners and expand it in order to gather intelligence,” Biton has expressed in private conversation more than once. The cracks in security wings in jails around the country are numerous: burning hatred between Hamas and Fatah, internal political feuds and even disputes over regional issues. Everything is exploited for snitching. It is almost as if the Israeli enemy takes on marginal importance in relation to the intra-Palestinian power struggles seen here.

Sometimes it seems as if Biton is prepared to look the other way and ignore what is going on among the Palestinians behind bars (he has been a target of criticism for having a kid-gloves attitude toward security prisoners), in favor of gathering intelligence that can be translated into the foiling of terror activities in the field by the Shin Bet security service and the IDF. “The immediate threat of activating a terror attack from within the prison walls," says Biton, "is liable to occur at any time.”

One of the accomplishments that's mainly attributed to Biton is the breaking of the 2017 hunger strike by Marwan Barghouti in Kishon Prison – including the idea of documenting him eating a candy bar. This revelation brought about a significant decline in the clout wielded by the former high-ranking Fatah official, who was protesting the poor conditions in the jail.

“Who the heck is Barghouti?” scoffs one prisoner we spoke to, who was convicted of causing the death of an IDF soldier during an exchange of gunfire during Operation Defensive Shield. “I spoke with his wife, and I told her he was making a mistake when he launched his hunger strike. She wouldn’t listen to me. He expected that the public would take to the streets, that they’d start an intifada. We prisoners may have power, but we don’t want an intifada.”

Flat-screen TVs

There are not a lot of ways to pass the time in these facilities. In some prisons, the term “prison yard” is used for a small patch of PVC flooring with densely arranged climbing bars overhead. In others, there is a different surface – concrete. The most common option for unwinding is television-watching (more than ping-pong, for instance).

In one Fatah wing in Nafha, a 24-inch flat-screen TV is blaring news in Arabic. Fatah has 10 channels at its disposal, and Israel's Channel 12 is relatively popular. “The young guys are crazy over the program ‘Israel Ninja’ with [host] Assi Azar and that girl,” says one older prisoner. Others disclose impressive knowledge of the past participants of the Israeli series “Big Brother.”

Hamas has fewer channels to choose from, only five, and prisoners in that wing prefer the Israel Public Broadcasting Company's Channel 11.

“All of their programs are profound and informative, and their news program is the best,” states one inmate, as others around him nod in agreement. ”They have shows about the heritage and history of Israel, and that is of much interest to the people here.”

From what was gleaned in the security wings of the jails, there is consensus on only one thing: veteran political affairs commentator Ehud Yaari. “Every word of his is sacred,” they say about him. Haaretz also receives high marks. “There are no two ways about it – it is the most objective newspaper,” the group agrees. “We had [the daily freebie] Israel Hayom, too, but we couldn’t stop laughing about the headlines.”

Prisoners in the Hamas wings reveal a sophisticated familiarity with current affairs, and don’t make do solely with newspapers and TV broadcasts.

“I very much enjoyed the book, ‘The Gatekeepers,’” says one prisoner with a high rank in the organization. “It taught me a great deal about how the Shin Bet views us.” In the library in another prison, one inmate holds up a Hebrew-language edition of the book by Benjamin Netanyahu, “A Place Among the Nations.”

Current events in Israeli politics are without a doubt a major subject of conversation with these interviewees. Yesh Atid leader and aspiring premier Yair Lapid? “A liar like his father was.” Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay? “They’re gonna throw him out like they do to all the others.” Likud MK Oren Hazan’s name is mentioned, as someone who wields influence over public opinion in Israel. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni comes up in positive contexts – sort of.

“She's the only one who still inspires hope, she is very familiar with the Palestinian subject, but she doesn’t stand a chance,” says one prisoner. “You have chosen Netanyahu, who will be with you for another 30 years, so enjoy him.”

“What’s next? All Israeli society is moving to the right,” declares another inmate. “There isn’t really any hope.”

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