Palestinian prisoners to launch major hunger strike over cellphone crackdown

Hamas chief reportedly warns UN envoy that recent violence between inmates and guards at Israel’s Ketziot Prison could aggravate regional tensions

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Palestinian prisoners stand in a cell, pending their release from Ketziot prison in southern Israel, on October 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)
Illustrative: Palestinian prisoners stand in a cell, pending their release from Ketziot prison in southern Israel, on October 1, 2007. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit/File)

Palestinian security prisoners at Israel’s Ketziot Prison have announced that they will launch a major hunger strike next week to protest an intensifying crackdown on illicit cellphone usage among inmates, according to the Palestinian Authority.

PA Prisoners Affairs Commission spokesman Hassan Abd Rabbo told The Times of Israel on Monday that the strike will be launched on April 7, two days before Israeli elections, and be observed by inmates affiliated with Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions.

Rabbo said the hunger strike will begin at Ketziot, and be extended gradually to include Palestinian prisoners in other Israeli jails. He said the prisoners were launching the strike to protest their incarceration conditions — particularly the recent Israeli measures to restrict cellphone usage by the prisoners, including the installation of jamming systems.

On Sunday, the Palestinian Prisoners Club said that riots at Ketziot sparked by the crackdown have injured over 120 Palestinian inmates since February. According to the group, Israel Prisons Service officials have completely isolated several prisoners involved in the riot in “very dire conditions,” stripping them of their personal belongings, family visitation rights and interactions with other prisoners.

Twice last month, Hamas prisoners violently attacked guards at Ketziot Prison, with one guard sustaining serious injuries from a stab wound to his neck. Reports in Hebrew-language media said that, in the second attack, inmates used shanks to stab the guards, as the prisoners were being moved between cells, sparking a riot in the prison.

Israeli soldiers evacuate a wounded guard of the Israel Prison Service to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, southern Israel, on March 24, 2019. (Meir Even Haim/Flash90)

The IPS said that 11 prisoners were injured and hospitalized after security forces quelled the March 3 riot. Seven of the prisoners were airlifted to hospitals by the IDF, the Haaretz daily reported at the time.

The stabbings came a week after Hamas prisoners in the nearby Ramon prison torched 14 beds, setting a fire in the wing. The blaze was quickly extinguished and no injuries were reported. In that incident, too, prisoners were protesting restrictions on cellphone usage.

On Monday, the United Nations’ envoy to the region, Nickolay Mladenov, reportedly discussed the issue of Palestinian prisoners during talks with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s Channel 13 quoted a Palestinian source as saying that Haniyeh warned Mladenov that the recent uptick in violence among prisoners could aggravate tensions with Israel.

Hamas officials reportedly asked Mladenov to intervene, and said that inmates were prepared to take unspecified measures if the Israeli “attacks” against them continued.

Palestinians take part in a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in Gaza City, on April 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has vowed not to negotiate with the inmates. Last week, he called the recent violence “very serious,” and said it “proves once again that the prisons service is on the front-line of the war against terror.”

Erdan vowed to continue jamming cellphones in the prison, saying that it was an important step in attempts to prevent “terror attacks being directed from within the prison against Israeli civilians.”

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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