Knesset approves wartime prison crowding, among other emergency measures

In addition to letting Ben Gvir house Palestinian security prisoners on mattresses, Knesset advances payment moratoriums, remote pretrial hearings

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Convening to approve a series of emergency wartime measures, the Knesset on Wednesday passed a law enabling National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to worsen the conditions of security prisoners.

According to the new law, which passed 16-1, the national security minister would be able to declare a “prison emergency,” upon the recommendation of the Israel Prison Service commissioner and with the consent of the prime minister and the defense minister.

The emergency law is valid for three months.

In particular, Ben Gvir has said that he wants to house Palestinian detainees and prisoners on mattresses, rather than in beds, in order to accommodate a potential influx of terror-related inmates, in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught that killed some 1,400 Israelis, and Israel’s ensuing war with the terror organization.

Any order issued by the national security minister under this emergency measure would be valid for five days, and extendable for up to 30 days. The Knesset’s National Security Committee can give its consent for further extensions.

Notes accompanying the new law say it is intended to reduce pressure on the prison service, in light of the ongoing war.

Illustrative: View of the Gilboa Prison, near the Jordan Valley, December 5, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The assessment of security officials is that many more detainees are expected to be absorbed in the near future in view of the state of war, taking into account that the fighting is still ongoing,” they read.

Last week, Ben Gvir said that he had consulted Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on the emergency move, and that she gave her approval.

Ben Gvir, who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has made headlines in the past for ordering the prison service to reduce terror inmates’ shower times and end the practice of baking fresh pita in prison kitchens, as well as reducing prisoner visits. Critics ridiculed some of the measures as spiteful and unhelpful to Israel’s battle against terror.

The Knesset advanced two further wartime measures on Wednesday: a bill to delay certain payments owed by people serving in the war, abducted by Hamas or missing as a result of its terror attack, or living in an evacuated community near the Gaza or Lebanon border, and a bill to hold initial courtroom hearings through video conference.

Both cleared their first reading on Wednesday and were sent to committee for a rapid recall to the plenum, where they are expected to be quickly finalized.

According to the payments bill, creditors and courts must grant a 30-day grace period before requiring payment. The bill grants a similar 30-day postponement for “the execution of actions stipulated in a contract or judgment.”

Israeli soldiers patrol along a road near the border between Israel and Lebanon, in Israel, Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

For the purposes of defining wartime service, the bill extends protection to police officers, firefighters, and prison guards, alongside soldiers.

The defense minister, with approval of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, can extent the period of this temporary order up to December 31, 2023, or longer with committee approval.

Notes accompanying the bill explain that it is geared toward taking pressure off of Israelis most affected by wartime circumstances.

Prisoners would have their right to an in-person hearing curtailed by proposed temporary measures to hold pretrial hearings by video conference, and in exceptional circumstances, telephone calls.

Backers of the bill write that “there is significant difficulty in transporting prisoners and detainees throughout the country, in a way that will not endanger them and those transporting and accompanying them.”

The also cite manpower shortages in the prison service, and say transporting prisoners for hearings would be logistically challenging.

Only wartime and emergency legislation is expected to be advanced until the end of hostilities, barring legislation pushed by consensus between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Benny Gantz, in line with the terms of their emergency government.

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