Raising the bars - inside Israel's high security prisons

Nafha Prison’s deputy warden Yariv Cohen, who is in charge of many security prisoners and terrorists, talks of life in jail from his perspective.

Nafha Prison’s deputy warden Yariv Cohen (photo credit: ARIEL BSOR)
Nafha Prison’s deputy warden Yariv Cohen
(photo credit: ARIEL BSOR)
An urgent call from the Hamas security prisoners’ wing is transferred to the deputy warden of Nafha Prison, the high-security penitentiary next to Mitzpe Ramon.
“They’re claiming that the food is rotten and it’s not enough for them,” deputy warden Yariv Cohen hears on the other side. “We told the cook, and he said he would speak with the kitchen supervisor.”
Nafha’s second-in-command thought about the problem and answered in a determined voice.
“I understand. Inform the intelligence officer so that he’ll check. If we need to give more food then we’ll give them, and that will be the end of the story. If you need me to get involved, call me back.”
Less than half an hour later, Cohen found himself making his way through the heavy steel doors to Wing 12. On the other side of the bars the wing’s unofficial Hamas representative was waiting to greet him. Their conversation was quiet and to the point. They mainly spoke about food – about the supply of cottage cheese. Cohen listened patiently, and after taking a look at a crate of tomatoes, admitted that they didn’t look good.
“We’re the executive branch,” he explained as he left the impromptu meeting.
“I receive an order, and there is the law. It really doesn’t matter what I think, what my personal opinions are.
“We’re an organized democracy and they receive conditions – dental checkups, medical treatment. They say that there are Palestinians who intentionally throw stones or carry knives just so they can get in here for a short period, get the medical treatment they need and then be released.”
Palestinian prisoners in Israel prepare for a massive hunger strike. (Reuters)
Cohen, 44, is a bit of a character. It’s hard to discern from where he draws the serenity that radiates from him, despite being inside the pressure cooker of one of the most difficult prisons in the country at the moment the Fatah prisoners decided to go on a hunger strike.
On the one hand, this is his 26th year in uniform. He started in the IDF’s Golani Brigade, transferred to the Israel Police intelligence unit as an investigator, then moved to the force’s Counterterrorism Unit (Yamam). He then served in the Prisons Service’s Masada Unit, which is mainly responsible for hostage rescue, and now he’s the deputy warden of a high-security prison.
Cohen has another side to him, one that is the polar opposite. Underneath the “tough guy” uniform he has put on every day for almost three decades, he’s the author of a recently published children’s book, The Candy Forest.
“If you had told me that during my service in the Counterterrorism Unit that one day I would be in the Prisons Service – a deputy warden of a prison – I would have told you to calm down and have a drink of a water,” he laughs.
“You never know where life will take you. If in another 10 years I am a full-time children’s author I won’t be amazed. I have close friends who didn’t know about the book at all. When it came out, they asked, ‘Is everything all right? You took a book out from the drawer, do you want to come out of another place, too?’”
IN GEOGRAPHICAL terms, Nafha Prison is in the middle of nowhere, especially for an officer who lives in the central region. The correctional facility is 20 km. north of Mitzpe Ramon. All that surrounds the institution is the barren desert, isolated from populated areas. Behind lock and key lie the “hardcore” terrorists – security prisoners with blood on their hands. One can find here senior Hamas, Fatah and Islamic Jihad members – and even members of Islamic State who were detained in recent years.
The leading organizations are separated into their own wings and courtyards.
Cohen and his men know that the relative quiet that they experienced during the Hamas terrorists’ complaint about the food can instantly turn into an all-hell-break-loose riot. In July 2002, a Hamas detainee stabbed the prison’s warden, Asst.-Comm. Albert Abuhatzeira, and two guards. In February, another guard was stabbed.
“It was an incident that ended quickly, because the guard was able to overtake the stabber with another guard unit that happened to be nearby,” Cohen recounts. “But imagine, if right now, as we’re sitting here, they’ll start banging on the doors screaming ‘Allahu akbar.’ What do you do? You’re alone, there’s isn’t a Masada Unit team next to me and I can’t just push a button and a Counterterrorism Unit force will appear. I only have my prison guards and I have to decide whether we go in or not. Do I use gas, or not? Every decision has major significance. The press will show up and start asking questions, and then tomorrow I have to deal with the prisoners.
“There are senior members of terrorist organizations here. Very high-ranking members of Hamas, strategists, smart people. The enemy isn’t stupid.”
In a prison like this don’t you just lock the cell and throw the key into the sea?
“Absolutely not. Once a week we sit with the leaders and we talk. In their minds, they probably feel different, but the conversations are always to the point, they’re professional and very respectable.
"It’s a whole other story from a criminal prison. When I go into the different wings here, the respective representatives of the terrorist organizations will talk to me about the problems. In a regular criminal wing there are about 100 prisoners, and each one has his own problem. This one is having trouble being isolated, this one wants a third of his sentence commuted, and this one has a problem with education. Here [in Nafha], the issues are directly related to the terrorist organization."
Don’t you fear for your life during these meetings?
"The thought crosses my mind occasionally. Sometimes we’re only two or three officers sitting across the table from 10 terrorists who killed Jews. Why would they act any differently toward us? The answer is because they have a lot to lose.
"Look at how they’re living. They know that if they make a mistake they’ll ruin all the accomplishments they’ve achieved for future generations – they have a canteen, they play sports, go on trips, they have television. We’ll take everything away from them. That’s a heavy price.”
How does it feel to talk with murderers?
“I get rid of all my personal feelings. Otherwise it’s impossible.I look at them as human beings, and not as the terrorists from the Sarona Market. If I would look at them as terrorists it would be a lot more difficult to have a conversation with them."
“You have to get to the point of the conversation: ‘What do you want? The supplies didn’t arrive, the canteen didn’t open on time, you didn’t get your 20 kg. of tomatoes?’ They’re a lot more aware of their rights than I am aware. They know exactly – down to the last gram – what they’re supposed to get.”
The issue of prisoners’ rights and demands ignited the recent Fatah prisoners’ hunger strike. Cohen says it’s psychological warfare: whoever blinks first loses.
“The incident was a national one, and not one directly related to the Prisons Service,” Cohen immediately spells out. “We implement directives. There are regulations, laws, protocols. This is what they get, nothing extra.
“They could come to me next year and ask for a Jacuzzi in every cell and regular supply of steaks. Parts of the population will say that what they’re demanding is legitimate, but the decision-makers think they should get less, but in any event, there are the recommendations of the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency].”
A security prison is a cat-and-mouse game, an ongoing intellectual game of chess between the management and the prisoners. A Nafha intelligence officer was the first one to reveal that former MK Basel Ghattas was smuggling cellphones into Ketziot Prison.
In October 2015, then-Nafha commander Shimon Bibas was fired after cellphones were smuggled into the prison.
“It was a difficult incident,” Cohen admits. “As much as it is an isolated prison, they were a couple of people from outside who came and studied the way the prison’s security system operates and literally threw the telephones over the wall and into the wing itself. They knew exactly where to throw, when to throw it so the patrol vehicles would have already passed and the guard tower wasn’t being manned. They had worked on their plan a long time.”
How can you prevent incidents like these?
“You might speak to other prison officers that will say that you can prevent something like this, but I think it’s hard to guarantee something like that. In the end, you’re dealing with criminal organizations that are sitting and thinking for 20 hours a day about how they can get around the law – and you don’t think like them. Sometimes we find the beginning of a tunnel. A few years ago they found prisoners crawling out of the Ashkelon prison.”
The prison now undergoes a unique roll call. Unlike other prisons, the roll call is done with the prisoners inside their cells, and the guards arrive in full gear, ready for anything. The guard doing the count enters the cell with his colleagues holding on to him for fear that the prisoners will try to grab him inside.
“At night, the prisoners can take the opportunity to plan something,” Cohen explains. “We’ve already seen them attack somebody in the morning because of an incident in the West Bank, or because we irritated them, and now they want to get back at us. This comes with the understanding that the organization will have to pay a price for the prisoners’ actions, and I have to be ready for that. We know a lot about their plans, but we don’t know everything.”
Is prisoner escapes an issue?
“We’re concerned with this all day, every day. Are the beds still nailed down, is the toilet attached to the wall, we bang on the bars to make sure they’re still holding up. If there’s one thing that prison guards are scared of, it’s escapes.”
There must be an emphasis on intelligence.
“Yes, this week we found prisoners’ briefings. Every week we find something, it’s not new. They pass around messages, and you can’t believe how organized it is. They have someone responsible for order, and another one on intelligence matters. If one of them is interrogated, when he gets back they ask him what happened and write it down.
"If I were to go into the wing now, there is somebody who will write down that I entered on this date, at this time and for this long. If they were to decide right now that everyone would shout ‘Allahu akbar,’ the ground would shake.”
What’s your reaction?
“From discussion to using maximum force, we can choose to act anywhere in that range. It’s always best to use the discussion option, otherwise everyone ends up losing. But you also need to use force sometimes.”
Will the assassination of a senior Hamas put the prison on a higher alert?
“There are events that get them riled up. Our intelligence people are always looking into that, but usually they don’t respond here. The ones outside the prison do. Sometimes the reverse happens. When there are attacks on Israeli soil, you want to see if the prisoners are happy. If they are, oh boy, they’re in trouble. You have to understand, we treat the prisoners as human beings, there’s a lot of mutual respect here. I can tell them ‘no,’ but I do it politely, without any harsh words. Everything goes fine until something gets screwed up.”
COHEN SAYS it is lucky that the prisoners don’t recognize him from the past.
He doesn’t walk around with his pins and badges from his previous units or even keep them on the wall in his office.
In his prior lines of duty, when his face was covered and most of his missions were in the territories, he carried out dangerous operations and had a chance to meet many of the prisoners who are now in Nafha up close and personal.
“The Masada Unit comes to visit the Hamas wing a lot,” he smiles. Masada, from which Cohen arrived after finishing his service in the Counterterrorism Unit, is the elite commando unit of the Prisons Service, dealing mainly with hostage rescue.
His dossier contains a famous incident – unrelated to security prisoners – that made quite a few headlines. In February 2014, he was the Masada squadron commander during the Samuel Sheinbein shootout in Rimonim Prison.
Sheinbein managed to sneak in a handgun after a furlough and shot at three guards, critically wounding two of them. The Masada Unit was then called in, firing at him and killing him.
“The unit commander was new at the time,” Cohen says. “I got to the scene pretty quickly and was told to take command. Sheinbein was inside and the guards were trapped there without any weapons. As a member of Masada, you’re not familiar with all the prisons, but you look at the prison file and you see exactly where the doors and the windows are.
“The first thing you do is put snipers in every corner and put monkeys [commandos that can climb ropes to quickly secure multiple levels of the prison]. You have to isolate the incident. The more room I give him, the more doors he will be able to take over. The incident could have ended very differently, but in the end it was Sheinbein who made the first move and started firing at the Masada Unit. He could just as easily have gone into the wing, and who knows what would have happened next. He didn’t have any hostages, but we only figured that out at a later stage. It’s a real danger, because other than the prisoners there’s staff, technicians, the kashrut supervisor, the canteen supervisor.
“You work automatically. There’s no bragging, your heart rate stays the same. I drill this dozens of times every year. What’s the difference for me if it’s a drill or the real thing?”
Do you miss that type of adrenaline?
“Maybe one day I’ll go back to Masada as the commanding officer, but what about being an investigative officer in the police’s intelligence unit? That was also a job that had a lot of action.
“The president invited me twice to commend me for cracking cases. Here we’re taking a crime family and putting them in jail. In one case it was an organization that was starting to get bigger and bigger, recruiting more and more people, putting fear into people’s lives – and we cut them off big time. You know that you’re giving the residents a present.
“I was threatened: ‘Just wait, we’ll settle our score with you.’ What do you do? You walk around with a handgun, check the car when you get in and out. The police is a great organization with too many operations and not enough officers. You come in the morning and you don’t know if today you’re going to go to a murder, a robbery or a rape. The problem with the police is it doesn’t have great public relations.”
Two years ago, Cohen had a heart attack when he was deputy warden at Eshel Prison.
“Pressure at work,” he says.
“Those were the toughest three months of my life. I had this feeling that my body was betraying me, and I’m someone who’s been going for runs and keeping in shape all my life. Quite a few doctors told me, ‘Give thanks you’re still alive,’ and they instructed me to stay at home for another two months. I tried coming back after two weeks and I was getting dizzy. Then I broke down mentally. I didn’t understand why it happened. I don’t smoke, I eat healthy. On the day of the heart attack I ran 10 km.
“I got back into shape slowly to get over all the fears I had. I went skiing with friends and I tore a ligament in my knee. This is was my toughest battle – getting back to the ‘me that I knew.’”
What did this episode do to you?
“It put everything in proportion. If I wouldn’t have taken it easy, a perfectly good life would have gone to waste. So what, now I need to deal with who moved my cheese? There are always officers coming in, screaming and getting angry. I say, ‘It happens, we’re not in a laboratory.’
“I’ve changed. I haven’t taken it down a notch, but before I would take everything personally. I think this also stems from a maturity in my command skills, knowing that some things just need to be let go. I can’t take care of a thousand people at once.”
During those difficult days, Cohen told a story he wrote to his four children in their living room. His wife, Etti, said things like this can’t stay in the drawer anymore. She set up a meeting with the publisher, and from there he began a second career as a children’s author with the book The Candy Forest.
“You don’t need to get mad at children. You have to teach them the lesson in a different fashion,” he says. “We can’t expect this generation to behave the same way we did. So the book has sweets and colors, because you have to draw them in.”
LEAVING THE prison after this interview, it was clear that it takes a special officer to make the jump from the walls of the security prison where there isn’t a spark of optimism to the colorful “candy forest” land.
“For 26 years I’ve been in uniform, it’s become a part of me,” Cohen explains.
“But put me in a tire factory or on an assembly line, and I guess that I’ll be able to find the value in the job. That’s just the way I am.”
■ Translated by Benjamin Glatt. Originally published in Ma’ariv.