When Orit Adato was tapped in mid-2000 to become Israel’s prison commissioner, there were 600 Palestinians serving time for security-related offenses. By the time she left her post for retirement three years later, the jails she oversaw were filled with thousands of security prisoners, products of the Second Intifada.
One of the prisoners to enter the system at that time was a Palestinian terrorist named Marwan Barghouti, sentenced to five life terms for orchestrating a series of deadly attacks on Israelis. In the years since, Barghouti has led a number of hunger strikes, culminating in an ongoing one launched last month by more than 1,000 inmates, the largest Palestinian hunger strike ever.
Barghouti says the strike is to protest “inhumane” conditions in Israeli jails, including medical negligence, solitary confinement, imprisonment without a trial, and a lack of family visitation rights.
But Adato, who spoke to The Times of Israel in her central Israel hometown of Shoham, said it was simply not true that Palestinian security prisoners suffer inhumane conditions. Indeed, the contention made her visibly upset.
“The conditions are very humane. They are being supplied with all their needs — food, clothing, medical treatment… They are getting better conditions than any other terrorists in the world,” she said, later allowing that a few Scandinavian countries might be better.
For proof she pointed to Yahya Sinwar, the hard-line Hamas leader in Gaza, who, she said, is alive today only because of brain surgery he received, reportedly for a tumor, while in Israeli prison.
“When they say they are not being treated well, I would ask you and others to give a phone call to one specific person, Yahya Sinwar, who is alive nowadays just because of life-saving surgery he was given,” she said.
The terror group leader served 22 years after being given multiple life sentences for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of two Israeli soldiers in 1988. He was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011.
In March, Sinwar was elected Gaza leader of Hamas, a terror group publicly committed to the destruction of Israel by violent means which has fought three wars with Israel since it seized control of the Strip in 2007.
Adato shared the assessment of many Israeli political analysts, as well as Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, that the Barghouti-led hunger strike is more about internal Palestinian politics than inmates’ rights.
“Why did they start this hunger strike? The struggle between Barghouti and [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas,” she said.
In December, Barghouti, seen as a possible successor to Abbas, secured the most votes in the Fatah party’s seventh congress. But in February, he and his party backers were not given key positions in Fatah. The strike is an attempt to show Ramallah he still wields power in the Palestinian street, many analysts believe.
But Adato believes it’s not all just about Barghouti. It’s also the prisoners themselves who every so often feel the need to be heard.
“When there is quiet, and they feel they have been forgotten, they need to do something,” she said.
‘Inmates should thank Israel’
Adato describes herself as “very short, with broad shoulders” — good for carrying a heavy burden, but also fitting the three stars of her rank of lieutenant-general, she quipped.
She now works as a consultant internationally on prison policy. For nine years, she served as vice president of the International Correction and Prison Association, which works with prison services around the world to promote and implement “policies and standards for humane and effective correctional policies and practices,” according to the group’s website.
Her polite demeanor is a far cry from any stereotypical image of grizzled and hardened wardens. But years of guarding terrorists and other criminals have also made her serious and uncompromising on key issues.
Prisoners don’t get to make “demands,” she said adamantly. Only the prison service, she elaborated, can make demands — of the inmates to follow regulations. Prisoners “can only ask to improve their living conditions.”
One of the main demands of the strikers is better visitation rights for family members and Adato acknowledged that some Palestinian families have an arduous journey to the prison where their relatives are held.
She knows that some family members wake up in Ramallah at 3 a.m. just to make a 10 a.m. visit at a prison in Israel’s south, due to time lost at Israel’s crossings and security checks. Then there are some family members who can’t get into Israel at all, because they are denied entry permits for security reasons. Any Palestinian previously arrested in Israel is likely to get see an entry request rejected.
Yamen Zidan, an attorney representing the Palestinian prisoners’ committee, told The Times of Israel last week this problem was shared by over 500 of the 6,500 or so Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.
Adato is unapologetic. She pointed out that to visit regular Israeli inmates, families sometimes have to travel long distances, for example from Haifa to Beersheba.
“That’s the reality,” she said. “It’s not that bad. Make the effort. Innocent [Palestinian] people who want to come work here and work in Israel also have to deal with the crossings,” she added.
Adato is similarly dismissive of complaints that by transferring inmates from the West Bank to Israel proper, Israel is contravening the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits moving prisoners from occupied territory.
The Red Cross, which has a good working relationship with the prison service, recently delivered a rare public rebuke of Israel for violating the international treaty, to which Israel is a signatory. “Family contact must be improved, not further restricted,” a statement from the ICRC read.
Israel argues that it is not an occupying power in the West Bank, but rather that the land between the Green Line and the Jordan River is “disputed territory,” subject to ongoing negotiations.
But Adato said the prisoners should “thank Israel” for being moved to a place with strict laws in place.
“If it’s inside the Green Line [in pre-1967 sovereign Israel], we have to keep up with all the laws. It is much more supervised inside the Green Line than it would be in the [West Bank] territories,” she said, pointing to the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an example of a state skirting laws by placing a jail outside its territory.
Palestinian inmates in Israel can sue for better conditions and appeal decisions all the way to the Supreme Court, she noted, citing a case 15 years ago in which she said an inmate sought permission to have a thermos of hot water for coffee in his cell — ultimately being rejected because of the perceived security risk related to boiling hot water in a cell which might be thrown at other inmates or jailers.
“Is their any other country in the world — except in Scandinavia — that would allow each inmate to apply to the courts on any issue they want to, including the taste of water?” she asked.
‘People make mistakes, but policy is right’
Adato also argued that the fear some of the current hunger strikers might die is overblown, even though some are in their 60s.
“For 40 years there have been hunger strikes. In the 1980s, two to three died, and not because of the hunger strike, but because of mishandling them after the hunger strike. When it’s kept inside, you know how to manage it,” she said.
As for prisoners’ requests to be allowed access to public phones, she contended that some security prisoners try to coordinate attacks from behind prison bars and that there would therefore be a logistical nightmare of monitoring thousands of prisoners’ calls, requiring a large Arabic-speaking staff. She also noted that there might be legal impediments to such monitoring.
Prisoners conditions are monitored by the ICRC, which has access to inmates in private and would report on any issues, which Adato said is proof nothing is wrong with their conditions.
The ICRC denied a request to speak about prisoners’ conditions.
Are their any security prisoners who may have been mistreated or victims of medical negligence? “We are talking about thousands of prisoners,” she said. “The staff is made of human beings. Some might make mistakes, but the policy is right.”
She also contended that “the security inmates’ mortal danger is less than the ‘regular’ penal ones.”
There is one request, however, Adato thinks the prison service should consider granting: better waiting facilities for families of visiting prisoners.
“That is really [purely] humanitarian,” she said.
Not your grandfather’s prisoner
One of the strikers’ central demands is for the renewal of a program that allowed them to attain academic degrees while in prison.
The privilege was revoked in 2011, in a bid to pressure Hamas to release then-captive Israeli soldier Shalit.
Some have argued for the return of the program, arguing that because the prisoners studied Hebrew and learned about Jewish and Israeli society, it fostered understanding.
Adato agrees that at one point it did help, producing Palestinian leaders fluent in Hebrew. But these days, she said, the type of prisoner has changed.
Again, she pointed to Sinwar, noting he learned Hebrew in jail, but that this did nothing to quell the Hamas leader’s hatred of Israel.
If the Palestinian Authority would work with the prison service to help continue a rehabilitation process outside of prison, including vocational training and supervision, then, Adato said, she might advocate renewing the academic program.
“Since the Second Intifada, the theological terrorists have grown in number. They are not as pragmatic. They don’t want to see anyone here but them,” she said. “Education is part of the rehabilitation process. But when a person can’t accept that he needs rehabilitation, [education] won’t do anything.”