Palestinian prisoners stand at the top of their society’s political agenda, in both Gaza and the West Bank. But little is known about what motivates some Palestinians to join terrorist groups and reach leadership positions, and even less is known about how their experiences in jail can affect their ideological outlook.

Terrorist leaders can change their views on the conflict based on personal experiences in Israeli prisons, becoming more pragmatic, new research finds.

Israeli criminologist Sagit Yehoshua (photo credit: courtesy)

Israeli criminologist Sagit Yehoshua (photo credit: courtesy)

Sagit Yehushua, an Israeli criminologist, spent over a year interviewing 18 terrorist leaders sentenced to long prison terms in Israel. Her groundbreaking research on the mindset of these leaders and their social and ideological motivations will be submitted as a PhD dissertation to King’s College London later this year.

Yehoshua interviewed prison leaders of three Palestinian terror organizations: Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These leaders, she found, undergo two important “social processes”: the first, as they grow up, shows that the environment they were raised in is the most significant factor in shaping their worldview and organizational affiliation. But the second, the protracted Israeli prison experience, can make leaders more pragmatic in their outlook on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

‘The process security prisoners in Israel go through is globally unique’

“The process which security prisoners in Israel go through is globally unique,” Yehoshua told The Times of Israel. “We have no de-radicalization programs in Israeli prisons. We can’t run such programs because prisoners do not acknowledge the state, and won’t cooperate with such a program. So the process they go through is an independent one.”

Three factors are crucial for the moderation process of high-profile Palestinian leaders to take place, Yehoshua found. Firstly, they must enroll in academic studies at the Open University. Secondly, they must assume leadership roles in prison. Finally, they must serve a prison term of at least 8-10 years.

“Without these three factors, the chances of them undergoing a process of ‘pragmatization’ are slim,” she said, stressing that the prisoners are not “de-radicalized,” since they continue to identify with the goals of their movement.

An Israeli prison guard escorts Palestinian prisoners before their release from the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 15, 2008 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

An Israeli prison guard escorts Palestinian prisoners before their release from the Ofer Prison near the West Bank town of Ramallah, December 15, 2008 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“None of the prisoners leave their organizations,” she said. “They just become much more pragmatic, believing that the way of terror and violence is less viable and effective.”

Autonomy and democracy in prison

The Israeli prison system separates Palestinian security prisoners according to their organizational affiliation. Every few months, the movements hold democratic elections in prison for the roles of leader and spokesman, the latter tasked with representing his movement before prison authorities. The Prison Service may refuse to work with a certain spokesman, Yehoshua noted, but has no say on the elected leader.

“One notices the huge difference between the democratic system in prison and what takes place outside,” Yehoshua said. “A leader may be strong, charismatic, from a good family, but will have to take a step back if his opinions are unacceptable [to other inmates]. The totalitarian structure which characterizes terror movements simply doesn’t exist here.”

Interestingly, perhaps, she found that Hamas prisoners operate in a more democratic manner than Fatah prisoners, who tend to be more individualistic.

Coaxing the prisoners to speak

When Yehoshua approached the Prison Service with a request to meet with the high-profile prisoners, authorities were doubtful the men would cooperate. But her openness and complete transparency regarding the research allowed the prisoners to feel at ease and sometimes even confide in her, she said.

“I tried to take all possible steps to prevent difficulties and antagonism [on the part of the prisoners],” she says. “I let them talk about whatever they wanted and was completely honest with them. They were not handcuffed, and I allowed no warden to be present during the interviews. Participation was completely voluntary and anonymous. I said: ‘I’m a student, I have no connection to the Prison Service. I’m more interested in getting to know you’.”

‘One man even told me: ‘you can’t be yourself when you do something like this. You have to leave yourself behind and allow something else inside you to carry it out, to save your family.”

It worked. One prisoner even shared a traumatic childhood experience with Yehoshua and burst into tears. She says that she sometimes served as a counselor for prisoners, who desperately wanted both  to make their cause heard and to emotionally unload.

“At first they were hesitant, but then they were very happy to come. They even began recommending other leaders to me.”

Sometimes, the leaders shared stories of their terrorist acts that Yehoshua found difficult to stomach.

“They wanted to show me how nonviolent, humane people can be pushed to violent acts in what they perceive as defense of their society,” she said. “They often forgot that they’re describing these things to someone from the other side. It was often very difficult to hear, and on some days I had to take a break and leave the prison. I couldn’t display my own difficulties with their stories.”

Some of the leaders, she said, were sensitive to her possible reaction.

“One man even told me: ‘You can’t be yourself when you do something like this. You have to leave yourself behind and allow something else inside you to carry it out, to save your family.”

‘Despite the emotional difficulty in allowing them education, I personally believe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by depriving them of studies’

Yehoshua found that leaders manifest little or no signs of criminal personality, such as manipulative or deceitful behavior.

“Interestingly, members of religious organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad didn’t even come close to criminal patterns, as opposed to Fatah where prisoners displayed somewhat more criminal characteristics.”

Leaders of Islamic movements have clean criminal records, while Fatah leaders tended to be involved in petty crimes like car theft and burglary.

‘Let the prisoners study’

The Israeli government has come under harsh public criticism for allowing terrorists to complete academic degrees while in prison. The program was canceled in June 2011 as part of Israel’s efforts to pressure Hamas ahead of the prisoner swap for abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Last March, the District Court of Nazareth rejected a plea by security prisoner Rawi Sultani to complete his degree in the Open University. The court found that the ban was a legitimate way of combating terrorism, and therefore “served public interest.”

But Yehoshua called it a mistake.

“Despite the emotional difficulty in allowing them education, I personally believe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by depriving them of studies,” she said. “It’s a symbolic move on our part, which I see as more vindictive than effective.”