Knesset extends Israel’s ‘incarceration emergency’ as prisons near capacity

According to the Israel Prison Service, 19,756 people are currently held in Israeli jails and ‘within a week or two, we will reach the maximum capacity for prisoners’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

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

The Knesset National Security Committee voted unanimously to extend Israel’s “incarceration emergency” until mid-January, allowing the country’s correctional system to continue housing prisoners in what would otherwise be considered illegally cramped conditions.

Last month, in the wake of Hamas’s devastating assault on southern Israel, lawmakers passed a bill allowing the government to declare the emergency, paving the way for the temporary lifting of restrictions on housing conditions for prisoners.

Since then, the Israel Prison Service has warned lawmakers that the sharp increase in prisoners since the outbreak of the war has strained the system’s capacity to house them all — leading to a situation in which many inmates are sleeping on mattresses on the floor rather than in beds.

Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza after thousands of Hamas fighters invaded the south of the country on October 7, rampaging through communities and killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking another estimated 240 people hostage.

Addressing the committee on Sunday, Lt. Col. Elyasaf Zakai, head of the IPS’s Planning and Incarceration Branch, stated that 19,756 prisoners are currently being held in Israeli prisons, an increase of 3,400 since October.

This is very close to the maximum of 20,000 that the system can handle and significantly more than the maximum prison population of 14,500 in non-emergency times, officials said, with Zakai warning that “within a week or two, we will reach the maximum capacity for prisoners in jails.”

An apparent Hamas member with his hands up hands over an assault rifle after surrendering to troops in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, on December 9, 2023. (Social media: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

He added that some 88% of Palestinian prisoners held for terror offenses — commonly known as security prisoners, are living in spaces of “less than three square meters per prisoner.”

But acting committee chairman MK Zvi Sukkot of the far-right Religious Zionism party was unmoved, saying, “The time has come to stop the summer camp in the security wings.”

“The killers from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations should be held under the minimum conditions that the law allows,” he declared. “I expect the prison service to become more stringent and overcrowd the Hamas prisoners even more,” he stated.

“At a time when overcrowding in prisons is increasing, they need to be the first to pay the price.”

Speaking during a tour of Ktzi’ot and Ela prisons held by the committee last week, Aviv Israeli, a representative of the National Security Ministry, said that “security prisoners who have arrived at prisons in Israel since the war began will remain here a long time.” But, he said, Israel was “approaching the red line the IPS has drawn with regard to the maximum number of prisoners it can hold.

“A proper strategic plan must be formulated for coping with the incarceration problem in Israel,” he said at the time.

Adding to those comments during Sunday’s hearing, Israeli said that the National Security Council would be discussing prison overcrowding on Monday and that the issue was of concern “to the highest levels of the state.”

Israel’s prison overcrowding crisis comes as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has been engaged in a high-profile effort to oust Israel Prison Service chief commissioner Katy Perry. Benny Gantz’s National Unity has argued the move violates the party’s agreement with Likud underpinning the current emergency government.

It also comes on the heels of criticism of the prison service following the fatal beating of a Palestinian security prisoner last month.

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