In an Israeli jail, Fatah and Hamas reach modus vivendi
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In an Israeli jail, Fatah and Hamas reach modus vivendi

At Ofer Prison, inmates from the rival movements cooperate in a way that would seem impossible on the outside

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Inmates at Ofer penitentiary, August 20, 2008 (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Inmates at Ofer penitentiary, August 20, 2008 (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

OFER PRISON, West Bank — Reconciliation talks between the leaders of Fatah and Hamas may be deadlocked, but inside an Israeli penitentiary, prisoners from the two Palestinian movements report that reconciliation, at some level, has already been realized.

One of 33 Israeli jails, Ofer is a security prison located a mile southwest of Ramallah, the only Israeli incarceration facility in the West Bank. It houses just over 700 prisoners, 80 percent of whom are defined as detainees: men whose court proceedings are ongoing or who are held in administrative detention on security grounds. According to Israel’s Prison Service, a total of 5,000 security prisoners are currently held in Israeli prisons; nearly half of whom, 2,325 are defined as having “blood on their hands” or participating in violent acts against Israeli soldiers. 550 Palestinians are currently serving life sentences in Israeli jails.

This week, Ofer opened its gates to members of the foreign press, allowing them rare, unmediated contact even with Hamas and underage inmates. Formally separated from detainees belonging to Fatah since Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Hamas inmates spoke to the Times of Israel of cordial relations and cooperation with Fatah inmates, whom they meet during mealtime and recreation hours in the prison courtyard.

“Life here is different than outside,” said Jawwad Jaabari of Hebron, 45, who had spent three years in administrative detention before being released and then rearrested recently. “We lead a democratic life here. We elect our own leadership every three months.”

Ofer’s story reflects the tumultuous history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict over the past 25 years. Opened in 1988 as a military prison to house the thousands of West Bank Palestinians arrested by the IDF at the outbreak of the First Intifada, Ofer shut its doors in 1995, at the height of the Oslo years and following a mass release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel. The facility reopened in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF’s assault on the terrorist infrastructure sending suicide bombers into Israel, and responsibility for the prison was handed over by the IDF to the Israel Prison Service after the violence of the Second Intifada died down. The number of inmates has been in progressive decline ever since.

Inmates at Ofer live in one of six wards, divided based on their political affiliation. Upon arrival, prisoners must tell an intelligence officer which of five Palestinian groups they belong to: Hamas (the Islamist group formally committed to the destruction of Israel and designated by Israel, the US and others as a terrorist organization); Islamic Jihad (an extremist offshoot, like Hamas, of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood, also designated as a terror group); Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas); the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP, the second-largest PLO faction after Fatah, which it considers too moderate on Israel; also regarded as a terror group by the US, Israel and others), or the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP, a Marxist PLO faction partly funded by Syria, dropped from the US list of terror groups). There is also a youth ward, holding 100 teenagers between the ages of 12 (the minimum age for criminal responsibility in Israeli law) and 18.

Arafat Nasser of Ramallah has spent nine months detained at Ofer. He told The Times of Israel that the close quarters in the prison, including a common kitchen run by the inmates, force Hamas and Fatah inmates to interact.

‘In prison they are much more pragmatic, while outside they need to pretend and save face with their own groups. They understand that… they all share the same status as prisoners’

“The political divide does not serve our interests,” he said, noting that inmates also try to convey that message to the outside leadership through lawyers who visit them regularly.

Sagit Yehoshua, an Israeli criminologist completing her PhD dissertation at Kings College London on Palestinian prisoner leaders serving time in Israeli jails, confirms that relations between members of rival Palestinian movements are typically much better behind bars.

“In prison they are much more pragmatic, while outside they need to pretend and save face with their own groups,” Yehoshua said. “They understand that prison is a different reality, where they all share the same status as prisoners.”

Referring to the political tensions which exist between Fatah and Hamas, prisoner Omar Abu-Ghosh from Ramallah, 33, said that “once we’re inside we forget about everything that takes place outside.”

The need to select one leader to represent all security prisoners in Israel has also forced pragmatism on the inmates, Yehoshua added. The current elected prisoner spokesman, serving at Hadarim, belongs to Fatah.

“They have to cooperate inside the prison because of the need to work with prison authorities,” Yehoshua said.

‘If we don’t take care of one another, who will take care of us?’ asked Muhammad Sayid Ahmad, 17. ‘The Jews arrested us, so we must cooperate’

The Palestinian Prisoners’ Document, signed at Hadarim Prison by the leaders of five Palestinian factions in May 2006, and outlining the principles of a future Palestinian state, is widely regarded as the best example of cross-factional cooperation on strategic issues.

The document calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state beyond the 1967 lines and the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. Abbas attempted to bring it to public referendum. But Hamas and the Islamic Jihad withdrew their names from the document, accusing Abbas of manipulating it for political purposes. The following month, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and a rare potential opportunity for Palestinian consensus was buried.

“If we don’t take care of one another, who will take care of us?” asked Muhammad Sayid Ahmad, 17. “The Jews arrested us, so we must cooperate.”

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