OMG, Prisoners Get Cellphones

The claim that cellphones in the hands of Palestinian inmates pose a widespread security risk is nonsense.

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When the furor subsides, new ways of smuggling in cellphones will be found.
When the furor subsides, new ways of smuggling in cellphones will be found.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In-house winemaking and contraband cellphones is a tradition bequeathed by Lebanese inmates to their Palestinian cellmates in Israeli prisons. Perhaps it’s only an urban legend which claims that Palestinians had to wait for some secular and Christian Lebanese to start making wine in plastic bottles, a drink one couldn’t get drunk on due to its quality and quantity, but the production and tasting of behind Israeli bars posed a challenge while offering an illusion of freedom.

What is certain is that the first cellphones were smuggled into prisons during the mid-1990s, to Lebanese prisoners whom Israel had abducted for use as bargaining chips and who were living in depressing Gulag-like isolation from their families. The history of smuggling objects into prisons is as old as the history of prisons around the world, and they come to serve basic needs such as maintaining contact with families.

In contrast to criminal inmates and to ultra-nationalist racist Jewish prisoners, Palestinian political and security prisoners are prohibited from using public phones. There are no furloughs either, or conjugal visits with spouses. Only oppression, humiliation and discrimination disguised as security considerations.

Israeli Arab lawmaker Basel Ghattas.Credit: Ilan Assayag

During the ‘90s, the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel dropped sharply with the release of thousands of activists who had participated in the first uprising. The policy of closures had adversely affected visits, but prison services treated prisoners leniently with regard to what was allowed in. This included clothes, blankets, books, food, olive oil and za’atar (hyssop), vegetables, fruit, chili peppers for Gazans, whose West Bank cellmates still remember with dread to this day for their overpowering odors.

Once, a gallon of whiskey was brought in, disguised by its packaging as olive oil. That, too, may be an urban legend. Cellphones were also smuggled in, for use in the conduct of political consultations at a time when the Fatah organization believed that progress was being made toward the emptying of prisons, a permanent diplomatic solution and a state. The use of cellphones was sparing and judicious.

In the 2000s, when the number of prisoners increased again and the number of visits dwindled due to cities being placed under siege, the number of contraband phones and the length of conversations rose. One person accompanied by phone a sick mother on her way to surgery while another “took part” in a brother’s wedding, while yet another participated from a distance in a funeral. Some prisoners attempted to resolve family disputes.

“Instead of just saying ‘hello, I’m OK,’ and hanging up, they would ramble on romantically with their sweethearts,” complained a released prisoner once.

I learned about the existence of cellphones at the Ketziot prison already in the mid-2000s, and that they lasted undetected for around a year. They say there’s an antenna there that traces them. The high-tech nation probably knows how to listen in to conversations. The prisoners assume that the security services are tracing calls. For this reason, of the hundreds of phones smuggled in over the last 20 years, only a small number were probably used for purposes deemed dangerous by Israel. The vast majority of users simply want to maintain contact with their homes and the outside world, especially since Israel severely restricts visits.

The claim that cellphones in the hands of Palestinian inmates pose a widespread security risk is nonsense. Nonsense that aims to increase ultra-nationalist incitement against Palestinian citizens of Israel through an inflation of the gravity of the suspicions attached to MK Basel Ghattas.

When the furor subsides, new ways of smuggling in cellphones will be found. If one really wanted to prevent future smuggling, the authorities should allow Palestinian prisoners to use public phones. Security services can listen to calls in real time, decipher them or place a guard nearby to listen. All of these can be done simultaneously. The phone company will make a profit and graduates of courses in Arabic will have gainful employment. This is the only secure, simple and humane solution.

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