The Israel Prison Service and the Israel Police last week raided a few wings in the Ofer, Nafha and Gilboa prisons where Palestinian security prisoners and detainees are held. The raid resulted from an intelligence tip that inmates were in possession of cellphones. Police and prison service SWAT teams, equipped with gas masks, batons, rifles, pepper spray and accompanied by attack dogs, sprayed inmates with tear gas.
Following the raid, clashes broke out and three prison guards were injured. According to the prison service, six inmates were injured; Palestinian sources said over 100 were hurt. In the wake of the events, inmates at Ofer Prison launched a hunger strike.
There are conflicting accounts of the events. According to the prison service, inmates resisted immediately and attacked. According to inmates, the raid was provocative in its violence, to which a few inmates reacted.
Cell searches are not unusual in prisons, nor are friction with inmates and violent suppressive measures. But this time, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan considered it urgent to inform the public about the preparations and the implementation.
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The timing of the searches, the PR they received (the prison service spokeswoman sent photographs and videos to Israeli media within hours) and the force used by the SWAT teams were no accident. An election season is an ideal time for populist measures; in addition, Erdan is about to face a primary in which he needs the support of Likud party members.
While his party colleagues are lambasting the media and the law enforcement agencies, the public security minister is proving to his voters that he keeps his word. At a press conference this month, he promised to crack down on prisoners and take steps to make life harder for Palestinians in Israeli prisons. Among the steps he proposed were restricting the quantity of food and water they receive and ending the separation between prisoners from Hamas and those from Fatah.
Instead of producing normal campaign ads, Erdan is giving his base a direct, almost live, broadcast from the field — recorded proof of his iron hand with Palestinian prisoners.
The High Court of Justice has ruled that the conditions in which Israeli prisoners are held are inhumane. In Nafha Prison, the average cell is just 19.5 square meters and hold eight inmates; that’s under 2.5 sq. meters per person. At Ofer Prison, each inmate has an average of 2.2 sq. meters. There is terrible overcrowding, the walls are crumbling, the bathrooms are tiny and have no toilet, just a hole (Josh Breiner, Haaretz in Hebrew, January 25). This inhumanity is now being increased by Erdan in an effort to make the prisoners pawns in his primary campaign.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.