‘Marwan Barghouti is not a moderating force,” former commissioner of the Prisons Service Orit Adato told The Jerusalem Post in a wide-ranging interview in addressing the nearly three-week-old hunger strike by Palestinian security prisoners.
Speaking from her home in Shoham, the first female Prisons Service chief said that he only “sounds like a man of peace” to outsiders, in part due to his pre-second intifada moderation, but that within the Palestinian leadership “he is leading a more extreme faction” and that the strike is entirely political and designed to trick the world.
She might also sum up the current and past Palestinian security prisoner hunger strikers with one word: condiments.
As former prisons chief from 2000-2003 and possibly the go-to former official on the issue for the media, Adato had tried in office to improve Palestinian security prisoners’ humanitarian conditions in prison, by letting them bring in “herbs, zaatar and lemons for their food.”
She said the prisoners always had better food than in many other prisons globally – and she is in a position to know, having been No. 2 in a key international prisons’ officials group. But the prisoners said the food would taste better with these condiments.
Adato allowed the new condiments. That was until her staff caught the prisoners smuggling a cellphone into the prison inside the lemons. Promptly, the herbs and lemons stopped.
This is the true cat-and-mouse game that sums up the hunger strikers’ plight, according to Adato.
She said that everything Barghouti and the hunger strikers do is meticulously crafted. On the one hand, the hunger strike is designed to reap world sympathy and gain political support among Palestinians for Barghouti to succeed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On the other hand, most new requests are also designed to try to find ways to exploit privileges so as to smuggle in cellphones and other means of communication between terrorists in prison and their outside networks.
Palestinians hold rallies as hundreds of prisoners in Israeli jails begin a hunger strike (credit: REUTERS)
Part of her proof is that she said she has reviewed US, British and other enlightened Western countries’ prison conditions and found that many Israeli conditions that are being complained about are better than conditions for prisoners in other countries. This is part of why she said the hunger strikes always have ulterior motives.
Thus, too, Balad Knesset member Basel Ghattas was sentenced on April 9 to two years in prison for exploiting his legislator’s immunity from guard checks to smuggle cellphones into security prisoners.
In principle, Adato would like to be as open as possible to Israeli-Arab MKs visiting and providing encouragement to security prisoners for them to be stable, satisfied and rule-abiding in jail.
However, she said, “I estimate he is not the only one [MK] who tried” to smuggle illegal items into security prisoners.
While saying this estimation was based more on her general feel and experience than on anything else, she said all that was unique about Ghattas was that “there was enough intelligence beforehand to catch him in the act,” which was so blatant that he himself helped “expose the organizational difficulty of the Prisons Service to deal with this issue of repeated visits” by MKs to security prisoners.
So while Adato would like to facilitate MK visits for security prisoners, she said the system must have rules, and security must come first.
She said the government and much of the media, when focusing the debate on whether the hunger strikers will die or not, are mishandling the issue.
“We need to stop talking about... dying... it won’t happen,” saying that hunger strikers dying has not been a phenomenon for decades. Rather, she said, the real issue here is an internal Palestinian struggle between Abbas’s faction and Barghouti’s faction.
Adato contended that “hunger strikes don’t need to be a pressure on Israel. We need to know how to manage them and the right way to reduce pressure,” she said.
In this spirit, she called the state’s two-year-old and, so far, unused force-feeding law a major tactical error, not because she has sympathy for the hunger strikers, but because she feels it was completely unnecessary and drew attention to debates about dying – even though through temporary isolation and other techniques it is more than possible to put down a hunger strike.
She reminded the Post that an earlier hunger strike of Barghouti fizzled after the Prisons Service secretly filmed him cheating on the strike and eating in his cell and then distributed the footage.
Adato also said “it was a mistake taking hunger-striking administrative detainees to civilian hospitals,” where the Prisons Service lost control over them, both physically and in terms of outsiders interfering with messaging.
She advocated “keeping them in prison [medical facilities] or field hospitals,” asserting that in disaster areas around the world, Israel has shown how strong its field hospitals can be.
These solutions would both protect hunger-striking administrative detainees’ lives and also maintain the break between them and their terrorist and political networks. Otherwise, they try to abuse their hospitalizations for pressuring the state into unnecessary early releases.
With all of that said, Adato is also open-minded and ready to show surprising forward-thinking leniency regarding security prisoners and administrative detainees.
Probably her most revolutionary idea is tossing the entire category of “security prisoner.”
“The security prisoner category should be ended – they should be split up into three groups. The arch-terrorists and ideological murderers – it is clear they are not going to get out. Put them in one or two places – like Mitzpe Ramon and Nafha prisons. Give them the most minimal rights required by the Geneva Conventions,” she said.
Next, you have the Palestinian security prisoners who are primarily petty criminals, but who also got swept up in something worse, connected to a security issue. Adato explained that “they are not ideologically committed. Maybe for economic reasons, they were asked [by terrorists] to move something from point A to point B. We should separate out these small fishes so they are not influenced by the ideological prisoners.”
These prisoners could also receive much more flexible and lenient treatment than the hard-core terrorists.
This would improve their lives and “make it less likely that they will be indoctrinated in prison” and, upon leaving prison, “become real terrorists,” she added.
The third group, in between the arch-terrorists and the petty criminals, would be somewhat harder to define. But Adato is confident that “the intelligence about them is very professional” in regard to deciding how to treat them. This group might include a Palestinian who was living a normative life, had no terrorist connections, but for a variety of motivations, spontaneously tried once to stab someone with a kitchen knife or scissors.
Keeping them away from the hard-core terrorists and giving them some better treatment could also reap benefits.
For those prisoners who were screened and viewed as being able to eventually rejoin society, they could receive job training in prison to encourage their return to normative life. Also, Adato wants to flip the Palestinian model of paying more money to the worst terrorists sentenced to longer jail terms, and to get the Palestinians and international prison experts to oversee more financial support and job training for the less dangerous and more normative prisoners.
She suggested that the state could also “check what is happening to them [released and job-trained prisoners]. Do they go back to terrorism or not? Then decide whether it is working or not.”
In terms of releasing prisoners, she advocated “making our own list of whom to free. To be proactive. We should not just release two administrative detainees” under pressure of hunger strikes, at a time of the prisoners’ choosing, as has been happening.
“Have the state screen administrative detainees, decide on our own to free five”; but she recommended that four out of the five be non-hunger-strikers, “and only release one hunger striker.” Adato said this would flip the current message in which hunger-striking administrative detainees are rewarded and stable prisoners are not.
This is probably Adato’s key message on prisons, hunger strikes and releases: Israel must be tough and hold the line when under pressure by hard-core terrorists with a political agenda, but should be more flexible and forward- thinking about privileges and releases for small-fish prisoners.