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Hamas prisoners vote inside Israeli jails

Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan announced a series of harsh restrictions on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. This could be a dangerous maneuver for Israel.
OFER CAMP, -:  Palestinians Mohammed Hassan Arman (R) and Walid Anjaf sit in the Ofer army base military court in the West Bank, north of Jerusalem, 30 November 2003 before being sentenced to 36 consecutive life sentences for masterminding suicide bombings at Jerusalem's Hebrew university, the Moment cafe and other attacks which left 36 Israelis dead.      AFP PHOTO/Brian HENDLER  (Photo credit should read BRIAN HENDLER/AFP/Getty Images)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Hamas’ prisoners in Israeli prisons elected their senior leadership for the 2019-2021 term. These elections are held in Israeli prisons every two years. The results were announced Dec. 2.

Inmate Mohammed Arman was elected president.

The leadership committee began its tasks at the beginning of the new year after winning the elections, which were held by a special election commission affiliated with Hamas. The elections are held across all prisons and detention centers, whereby 11 members are elected and four others are appointed as jail wardens of the four major prisons — al-Naqab, Ofer, Rimon and Megiddo — bringing the number of the committee to 15 members.

The committee is made up of important names in the Hamas movement — especially its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Many of these names played a major role in the movement before their detention and after their release. Hamas’ current strongman, Yahya Sinwar, was head of the prisoners' committee in 2011 before his release. He later became Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip.

Arman, the newly elected head of the committee, hails from Ramallah and is seen as one al-Qassam Brigades’ prominent leaders. He is serving a 36-year sentence in prison for his involvement in the killing of 35 Israelis during the second intifada. His deputy, prisoner Abbas al-Sayed, is also serving a life sentence.

A Hamas leader, Hassan Yousef, told Al-Monitor that the elections have become a custom for the movement in order to promote Shura (consultative) values as a non-exclusive decision-making system — whether within or outside of prisons. He pointed out that the elections inside prisons are held for prisoners to elect a general committee, which in turn elects a Shura Council made up of 60 members who elect the higher leadership committee. 

The leadership committee is entrusted with several tasks, mainly the management of inmates’ affairs; the development of administrative, financial and cultural programs for prisoners; and communication with the Israel Prison Service (IPS). The committee is also responsible for coordinating decisions and stances with the leadership of other factions inside prisons — especially with regard to holding hunger strikes or returning food to the IPS, according to Yousef.

Commenting on whether Israeli prison authorities are aware of the elections in jails, Yousef said, “The IPS knows what is going on in the prisons via its surveillance cameras. But we do not wait for its approval to hold elections. We are keen on using our own means and methods to communicate with inmates across all prisons so that the voice of each and every one of them is accounted for in the elections.” In other words, elections are done in secrecy.

The prisoners’ committee plays a major role in Hamas’ political and military decisions, as it constitutes one of the four parties involved in decision-making alongside the movement’s leadership in the West Bank, Gaza and abroad.

“The committee has a say at the political level and in any development in the Palestinian issue,” Youssef said.

He added that two members of the prisoners’ leadership committee are also members of Hamas' General Shura Council based abroad. One of them is Arman; he refused to identify the second.

Hamas is one of the first Palestinian factions in Israeli jails to elect a senior leadership inside prisons. The first such elections were held in 2004, according to Hamas spokesman Ali al-Mughrabi, who spoke with Al-Monitor.

The leadership committee conducts all contacts with prison authorities. This arrangement has proved convenient for the IPS to ensure a calm routine within the prison walls. Therefore, prison authorities worry when these committees make a decision to dissolve — which is seen as a decision of war and civil disobedience — prompting the IPS to declare a state of alert, as has happened on a few previous occasions. 

Back on Aug. 9, 2015, Hamas’ leadership committee announced that it would dissolve and that the prisoners were in full-blown civil disobedience. The Islamic Jihad committee followed suit the following day. The factions were protesting against the crackdown on inmates and decisions to move some prisoners.

The move was meant to pressure prison authorities, because dissolving the committee means stirring up chaos and trouble among the inmates' population and an absence of spokesmen to communicate with authorities — not to mention Israeli fears of stabbing operations against jailers.

Hamas prisoners’ leadership, like the rest of the movement’s bodies, is in for several challenges in the new year in light of the Israeli legislative decisions against Palestinians.

Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan announced Jan. 2 that he was accepting the recommendation of a team he appointed in June to examine the condition of Palestinian inmates. These included a series of new restrictions on prisoners, including limiting stipends provided by the Palestinian Authority to inmates, significantly reducing their water consumption and banning cooking. Most importantly, Erdan said he will revoke the prisoners’ “autonomy” and the separation between Fatah and Hamas prisoners. This separation has proved to be in the interest of the IPS in order to avoid power struggles between the two rival factions and maintain order in jails.

Mughrabi considered Erdan’s threats to be an expression of the political decision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, which failed in the confrontation with Gaza. He believes the government is trying to boost its status before its supporters and pressure the Palestinian factions — mainly Hamas — in regard to the captured Israeli soldiers. 

He also believes this step comes as part of the competition to attract right-wing voters in the upcoming elections, as political parties are trying to come across as hard-liners when it comes to Hamas prisoners. Mughrabi said that prisoners are fully ready to retaliate should these decisions be implemented on the ground. 

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