This is how the ‘balance of deterrence’ was created in the security prisons in Israel

September 10, 2021 by Baruch Yedid - TPS
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A very senior Hamas leader told TPS Thursday that “the statement heard among Israeli officials that it is the prisoners who control the prisons is incitement that is often repeated and is baseless.”

Gilboa Prison Photo/TPS

He said that the “prisons are responsible for the management, but the prisoners have been given the right to manage their lives and make internal arrangements.”

The senior Hamas official added that “Israel now wants to justify the next revenge campaign on security prisoners to cover up the great embarrassment after the escape of six prisoners,” claiming that “gangs in Israel now run the prisons and not the state.”

In a conversation TPS had with a released prisoner, a Hamas man from Judea and Samaria, the prisoner described the relationship in the prisons and said that “over the years, a delicate system of understanding and the setting of boundaries between prisoners and prison administrations has been created. Prisoners are given the freedom to manage their lives and personal, social and group affairs while understanding that they have no bearing on matters relating to the security of the prisons.”

The source added that “sometimes the relationship is affected by external events and sometimes it is violated due to the hardening of the hand on behalf of the Israel Prison Service, but it usually strictly upheld.”

In recent years, there have been at least 23 strikes in security prisons lasting various periods of time. For the most part, the strikes were intended to pressure the prison administration to ease matters defined by the prisoners as “internal matters” and not due to nationalistic events, but exceptional cases were recorded such as the stabbing of two guards after receiving instructions from the Hamas leadership abroad in 2017, against the background of the deteriorating conditions of the prisoners and an attempt to thwart the election process for the Hamas leadership in prison.

Another Palestinian prisoner, a former member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), said that “there is no basis for your claims that the prisoners control the prisons,” but from experience, he says that “the prisoners managed a status quo during years of struggle that arose from blood and severe violence and reached a situation where there is mutual deterrence with the IPS.”

But a wealth of evidence suggests that the definition of “internal affairs” is subject to interpretation and has evolved over the years and is in fact obscuring the “balance of deterrence” that exists between Israeli prison authorities and the leadership of security prisoners.

Management of “internal affairs” – relief for prisoners

Prisoners have power tools, radio, and television in their cells. At their disposal are kitchens in the cells, they enjoy board games and even private libraries.

Security prisoners, unlike criminals, are allowed to set their own menu separately from that served in the prison dining rooms. On holidays, during the month of Ramadan, and at various events, prisoners are entitled to receive food from outside the prison walls and prepare their own meals, which are sometimes mass meals and an event of a political nature inside the prison.

Another privilege given to prisoners is the right to academic studies, and in recent years hundreds of prisoners have completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees at colleges in the region and even abroad. Prisoners are also given the opportunity to write books.

The hierarchy in prisons

Israel enables the prisoners to maintain an organizational hierarchy that has become an important source of power in prisons. In recent years, Israel has approved the distribution of prisoners in prisons according to an organizational key, which has given prisoners a great deal of political power both within the prisons and vis-à-vis the managements. Since 2007, Israel has also confirmed the separate incarceration of Fatah and Hamas prisoners, following Hamas’ violent coup in the Gaza Strip and tensions between the organizations.

After the escape from Gilboa Prison, Israel is trying to dismantle one of these centres of power and disperse the 400 Islamic Jihad prisoners among all the prisons, and they are responding with violence.

In practice, it appears from the testimonies, the organizations are in control of entire divisions or parts of them. Sources among Hamas prisoners say that the committees and the built-in hierarchy in prisons are one of the most important centers of power for security prisoners.

Hamas prisoners currently hold the largest force in prisons and maintain a hierarchy, with an “Amir” at the head of each prison, a title given to senior Hamas figures, and he has deputies. Hamas prisoners are organized in security, culture, society and finance committees and they actually control the lives of the prisoners. Without them, an inmate would not be able to survive within the prison walls.

Participation in the Hamas leadership election

Another right given to a Hamas prisoner, sometimes with the IPS’ closed eyes or supposed opposition, is to participate in the prisoner leadership elections, which is also a partner in Hamas’ political bureau and the Shura Council, Hamas’ highest leadership institutions.

Several years ago, Musa Dudin, the holder of the Hamas prisoner file, said that the IPS acted against Hamas candidates in the elections but gradually accepted them to prevent chaos inside the prisons. On the other hand, Riyad al-Ashkar, one of the leaders of the Prisoners’ Committee in the Gaza Strip, said that the IPS sees the elections as an internal matter for the prisoners and it allows them to take place unhindered. In any case, Hamas sources said in this regard that “holding the elections in the territories of Judea and Samaria, under the watchful eye of the Shin Bet, is considered the most complicated of the elections inside the prisons.”

Security relief

Along with “internal affairs,” over the years Israel has slipped into relief in security matters as well, at least according to a Hamas source, a former security prisoner, who confirmed this in a conversation with TPS. “The prisoners are also involved in the counting process, which is considered the most sacred event in the eyes of the prison administration,” he claimed.

He said that “without the consent of the [prisoners] representation, there will be no counting inside the rooms and cells or in the wings, and if it takes place, it will last an hour and not a few minutes.” From his experience as a security prisoner, he testifies that today the heads of the committees in the prisons make sure that all prisoners get up and report for the count, but many times, the counting routine and the number of times it takes place are subject to negotiation between the prisoners and the IPS.

The prisoners are also involved in setting the agenda in the prisons and are even involved in setting the duration of the walks in the yard. Numerous testimonies claim that the representative of the terrorist prisoners in prisons often prevented the searches in cells and wings and also objected when prisoners were sent to solitary confinement.

Other testimonies show that in 2017 a senior officer who served in Nafha prison was fired due to the harsh hand policy he used against Hamas.

Dissolution of the Representation Committees

In the prisons, there are representative committees on behalf of the prisoners and they hold a great deal of power in their hands. The committees include a representative from each terrorist organization and the chairman of the committee is the head of the largest faction.

The prisoners are not allowed to have any contact with the prison authorities as only the heads of the rooms and cells have the authority to contact the heads of the wards and they may contact the representatives of the prisoners, who is the only authority to talk to the prison authorities.

Prisoner leaderships are also involved in the process of sorting prisoners in cells and wards, usually 10 to 20 people in each cell or tent, and are responsible for the process of absorbing a new prisoner in the prison. “Representation committees were abolished in 1980 but resumed operations in 2000 due to a mutual need,” says an activist in the Gaza Prisoners’ Committees.

It now appears from several sources that following the recent incidents in the prisons, the prisoners are considering dismantling the prisoner representation committees that appear before the prison authorities. A released Hamas prisoner said that “dismantling the prisoners’ representations in prisons is the most significant step that prisoners can use to threaten the prison authorities.”

“In the absence of representation,” says the former prisoner, “the IPS will face hundreds of prisoners directly and not through intermediaries and this will cause chaos in the prisons. The IPS will not be able to hold counts in cells and wings since it is the representation of the prisoners that is currently responsible for the very existence of the count in the morning and at night.”

“The prisoners themselves are involved in the counting process and, among other things, through the instructions of the representation committees in the prisons, which require the prisoners to participate in the counting. This is a sacred right in the eyes of the IPS, so the heads of the prisoners in the prisons made sure to preserve it, but also to win and squeeze relief in return for it,” he said.

Another Hamas prisoner, a resident of the Gaza Strip, says that “this will lead to chaos in the prisons as the authorities will have to hold separate negotiations with each prisoner and discipline in the prisons will crash.”

About 6,500 security prisoners are currently being held in Israeli prisons, divided into 22 detention facilities.

Among the prisoners are 350 minor prisoners, 58 women and 11 Palestinian Authority MPs. 85% of the prisoners are residents of Judea and Samaria, 10% are residents of eastern Jerusalem and 5% are residents of the Gaza Strip.

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