Escort service

The elite Nachshon Unit is with the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners that roam the country each day.

escort service 88 (photo credit: )
escort service 88
(photo credit: )
Machine guns drawn and sidearms unholstered, members of the elite Nachshon Unit line up outside the jail transport bus as it comes to a stop at the entrance of the Ofer Military Court, south of the West Bank city of Ramallah. The Palestinian security detainees disembark from the bus with their heads lowered and quietly pass by their guardians, who look as if they are inspecting a military honor guard - although not one that leads to a state visit, but rather to a prison cell, where they will await their court hearing for the day. Close to 17,000 prisoners are locked up in Israeli cells - some of them Palestinian mass murderers serving multiple life sentences. On a daily basis, close to 1,000 of them are roaming throughout the country, right under our noses. They are out for medical tests, court hearings or any other court-approved furlough from prison. But they are never alone. Wherever they go, with their arms and legs locked in rattling chains, the prisoners are followed by members of Nachshon - the IPS prisoner escort unit. In total, the unit escorts some 140,000 Palestinian and Israeli prisoners a year. Some are being transferred from one prison to another, and others are being escorted to court. Sometimes the prisoners are even accompanied to family functions, as in the case of recently released Islamic Movement head Sheikh Raed Salah, who was escorted under tight security to his daughter's wedding prior to his release. The unit, established in 1973, is also responsible for dispersing prison riots, searching cells, escorting prisoners of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and protecting IPS officers whose lives are threatened. The Jerusalem Post recently accompanied the elite unit for a day of escorting Palestinian security detainees to the Ofer Military Court. Tense and constantly on guard, a team of 15 prison guards was escorting the busload of 20 prisoners as it made its way toward the prison, located just outside Ramallah. The guards were on high alert - primarily to prevent prisoners from escaping their tight clutches, but also to keep an eye on the prisoners' attorneys, who often try to pass cellular phones and drugs to their clients. The escort commander, Denis, was holding his M-16 rifle taut, with his finger on the trigger. Denis, in his late 20s, already has close to 10 years under his belt combating Palestinian terrorism. He just recently transferred to the Prisons Service after serving as a company commander with the Border Police in Jerusalem. "Our job is to make sure the prisoners get here [to Ofer] and back to their cells safely," he says. "We also need to make sure no one tries to interfere along the way." But there is interference. Whether from the lawyers who try to smuggle drugs or family members who attack the guards during the court hearings, Denis and his crew stay on their toes until everyone is back in their cells. This is not a simple task when driving along Road 443, which cuts across the West Bank, even if Denis and his men are equipped with special rifles and other means of defense. Just last year, prison guards confiscated an ashgar - Arabic for prison note - hidden inside the body of a prisoner as he was about to board a bus on his way to Ofer. Written on the note were explicit instructions detailing how to ambush a Nachshon convoy and free the prisoners. The plan included opening fire on the IPS bus, killing all the guards and scooting the prisoners deep into the West Bank, with waiting vans parked in the bushes. Although the escape plan was thwarted, it prompted the IPS to review the way it escorted prisoners. One change was the establishment of a canine unit that accompanies sensitive prisoner escorts and can easily sniff out danger. The unit also purchased motorcycles, which accompany specific, sensitive escorts and provide a quick response to ambushes or other incidents. "Had they opened fire on our guards they would have had little chance of surviving," says Nachshon's chief, Asst.-Cmdr. Asher Shirki. "The threat of attempts to break prisoners out while in transit is one of our most sensitive issues." As an example, Shirki refers to jailed underworld kingpin Ze'ev Rosenstein, who is accompanied by dozens of policemen and IPS officers at court hearings. Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti also receives what is called VIP treatment during any excursions he takes outside prison walls. Is there intelligence that criminal elements might try to break Rosenstein out of jail? "Security around him is there for a reason," Shirki says. "The issue of breaking criminals out of prison is certainly on the minds of organized crime leaders." For that reason, a convoy never takes the same route twice. "We are busy all day trying to confuse our enemies," Shirki explains. "There are many threats, and part of our job is ensuring that they never materialize." An issue that is still sensitive for Shirki and his subordinates, however, is the 2002 breakout by security detainee Mahmoud Abu Jamous. Despite being held in a special cage in the bus, the prisoner - hailed as the greatest of Palestinian car thieves - managed to break free from the cuffs to which he was chained arm and leg to another prisoner, remove a metal mesh covering from the bus window, and squirm through an opening just 17 centimeters wide. Abu Jamous then lowered himself to the ground while the bus was moving, jumped clear of the vehicle and rolled into shrubbery on the roadside. Neither the four guards on board nor those in escort vehicles in front and behind noticed anything. In fact, his absence was discovered only some 20 minutes later, when a truck driver who witnessed the dramatic escape alerted police. He was only apprehended following an intense, 48-hour manhunt that included tracker dogs, a police helicopter, and police and volunteers on horseback. Following a Prisons Service inquiry into the incident, the 10 guards were dismissed, and Nachshon's unit commander and his deputy were transferred to new posts. Shirki transferred to the IPS after receiving a call one day from the head of the service, Ya'acov Ganot, who offered him the prestigious position. As Shirki says: "When Ganot calls, you come running." A cheerful man, he, like a large contingent of Nachshon members, served previously his last position with the Border Police. Interaction with the Palestinian population is not new to him: he commanded the Border Police in the Old City of Jerusalem at the height of the intifada. While trying not to sound apologetic for the Abu Jamous escape, Shirki admits there were security flaws that allowed it to happen. Of course, he says, they have been corrected. But the main point, he continues, is that for a unit that has transported up to 140,000 prisoners annually for the past 32 years, one escape is not such a bad statistic. "The Americans, the French and the British come here to visit us and always ask how many prisoners have escaped," he says. "When we answer one, they almost go into shock and refuse to believe us." The idea, Shirki explains, is to make sure the prisoners understand they don't stand a chance going up against the prison guards. Laying out ankle cuffs on the floor in the Ayalon Prison's parking garage, the Nachshon officers frisk each prisoner before clasping their ankle together with a friend's. The prisoners are frisked as they enter the garage, are checked again before boarding the bus and are checked a third time before heading back to the prison. At the Ofer Military Court, they spend their time waiting in private cells in a small fenced-in compound secured by members of Nachshon. Despite the tight security and strict discipline, there are still prisoners who make trouble and try to take advantage of their day out of jail. "Some push us around and try and provoke us," a member of Denis's team says. "On bus rides through Jewish towns they sometimes turn rowdy and open the windows and scream out 'Death to the Jews.'" However, the unit does not allow disobedience and is quick to take disciplinary action against prisoners who don't follow the rules. Overall, Shirki says, the prisoners don't fight much, since they know there is nothing to be gained. In 2004, he points out, there were a mere 15 attacks against prison staff - most of them by Palestinian security detainees. "They see how serious we are and what we can do," he says. "They know there just is no point in opposing us." With recruitment at an all-time high - some 400 people apply a year - Shirki hand picks his prison guards and sends each for an extensive Shin Bet background check. In between fielding questions from the Post, Shirki takes a call from an old friend currently serving as the police chief in a city in the center of the country. The cop wants to know if Shirki has any openings for his unemployed brother-in-law. Shirki tells the officer to fax over his resume. "This isn't politics," he explains. "This is a serious job and each and every person needs to be checked and judged according to their professional level." But with the opening of a new branch of the unit in the north, Nachshon is expanding to meet the needs of a growing IPS. Under Ganot, the IPS has grown drastically over the past year, after taking over control of the IDF-run Megiddo Prison in the north and with plans to do the same soon with Ketziyot Prison down south. For Shirki it means more transports, more contact with the prisoners and as a result, more friction and tension. The most important lesson? "We can never demonstrate weakness," he says. "If you give in to one, it can spread like a fire through a field of thorns."