Ministerial c'tee mulls reducing privileges for Hamas inmates, but legal experts believe new law required.
By REBECCA ANNA STOIL, HERB KEINON
The Special Ministerial Committee for Examining the Conditions of Hamas Prisoners promised quick results after its first meeting Wednesday, but legal experts questioned whether their plans to put pressure on Hamas would withstand a petition to the High Court of Justice.
The committee, headed by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, was appointed late Tuesday by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after the special cabinet meeting to discuss the breakdown of negotiations for the release of Gilad Schalit.
It was tasked with clarifying the legal parameters for downgrading the prison conditions for Hamas members jailed in Israel.
Friedmann and committee members Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and ministers Haim Ramon, Shalom Simhon, Rafi Eitan and Meir Sheetrit - received on Wednesday a briefing on what benefits those prisoners currently received.
The committee established a subcommittee made up of representatives of the Attorney-General's Office, the Israel Prisons Service, the IDF and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which will consider curtailing Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoner privileges.
According to a statement put out by the Justice Ministry, the subcommittee will consider reducing the amount of money allotted the prisoners for their personal needs, reducing their television and radio rights, curtailing visitation rights, limiting their ability to study for high school diplomas or university degrees and limiting physical contact with visitors.
The subcommittee is to draw up its recommendations within two weeks.
"Was our humanitarian treatment of prisoners understood incorrectly by lowly murderers and those who send bombers to explode in cafes?" asked Friedmann before the meeting. "They seem to have misinterpreted this extreme humanitarian treatment."
Friedmann gave assurances following the first meeting that the committee would complete its hearings within two weeks, and would determine immediate steps to be taken.
The committee also decided to recommend the government restrict the flow of goods through the Gaza crossings, while maintaining the supply of essential items to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
"We can worsen the conditions of security prisoners. The privileges they receive today are much better than the minimum," Friedmann told Israel Radio, hours before the meeting.
Sheetrit described conditions for security prisoners as "VIP summer camps" and promised that if the law prohibited worsening those conditions, he would work to change the law.
Sheetrit said that in the material he had reviewed prior to the meeting, he found that even those jailed for multiple life sentences were allowed televisions in their rooms, connection to cable broadcasts, newspapers, cell phones, meetings with family members, the Red Cross and attorneys, as well as the opportunity to earn university degrees.
According to legal experts, Sheetrit may well have to make good on his promise on legislation.
Hamas prisoners are not considered prisoners of war, since recognizing them as such would imply recognition of the terror organization as a legitimate military body.
Rather, said Hebrew University lecturer Robbie Sabel, they have rights as "protected persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies to all people detained during war, even if Israel had no diplomatic relations with the states or bodies they represented.
Those rights include visits by the Red Cross and minimum standards of imprisonment including educational and religious activity, basic sanitation and food.
If, however, the prisoners were simply considered criminals, Israeli law would require even better living conditions.
The question, argued Sabel, is not what privileges could be taken away, but whether privileges could be taken away at all.
"The basic question is one of Israeli law - are we going to punish people not because of what they did, but because of what people in Gaza are doing?" said Sabel.
He added that the High Court of Justice could see the committee's decisions as a form of collective punishment, which is prohibited.
"The High Court will have a dilemma," he said. "On one hand, they live in this country and understand that we need a way to apply pressure on Hamas, but on the other hand, they might say that discriminating against specific prisoners is not allowed."
Members of the Justice Ministry's International Department were among those present at the committee's first meeting to examine what steps could be taken without violating international treaties, including the Fourth Geneva Convention.
And sources close to Friedmann said that they hoped Mazuz's presence on the committee would help prevent the High Court from annulling its decisions.
Meanwhile, The families of Palestinian security prisoners expressed deep disappointment Wednesday over the failure of the talks for the release of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, but blamed Israel.
Dozens of families staged sit-in strikes outside the offices of the International Red Cross in the West Bank, demanding that Israel release their relatives.
The families complained that Israel was "not serious" about reaching a prisoner exchange agreement.
"Schalit is not more precious than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners," said Ahmed Fodi, whose two sons, Abdel Rahman and Rami, are serving lengthy terms in jail for security offences.
Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.
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