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Warnings sound as Israel’s Ben-Gvir toughens up on Palestinian prisoners

Newly appointed National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is following through on his electoral agenda of ending the privileges of Palestinian security prisoners, and alarm bells are already ringing.
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) transferred 70 Palestinian security prisoners on Monday, among them prominent militant Marwan Barghouti, from the high-security Hadarim jail in the center of Israel to the high-security Nafha in the south of the country.

In the coming weeks, the IPS plans to redistribute some 2,000 prisoners among several facilities. The plan was apparently conceived under the former government, but the appointment of hard-liner Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister gave it a final push. Ben-Gvir and his Jewish Power party had campaigned on ending the “summer camp” conditions enjoyed by security prisoners.

On Sunday Ben-Gvir informed Knesset speaker Amir Ohana that visits by Knesset members to Palestinian prisoners would be limited. The new protocol is for only one legislator from each Knesset faction to make such visits.

There are reportedly 4,500 Palestinians currently detained in Israel, suspected or convicted of attacks against Israelis, mostly civilians. The issue has been a potent catalyst of violence in the West Bank over the years, as well as a constant irritant in Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA). It also holds significant potential to unite bitter Palestinian rival factions. With hard-liner Ben-Gvir now responsible for the prisons, it could become a real diplomatic and security minefield.

Palestinian society regards the prisoners as freedom fighters and heroes, and the PA rewards them and their families with monthly stipends throughout their incarceration. Israel naturally regards them as murderers of women and children, enemies who planned or took part in terrorist attacks.

Last Thursday, Ben-Gvir visited the high-security Nafha Prison in southern Israel to ensure that the conditions of the hundreds of Palestinians incarcerated there are sufficiently punitive, as promised. Prison administration showed him revamped prison cells with three bunk beds each, a fortified cement floor to prevent escape and an Israeli flag. Ben-Gvir was pleased.

Security prisoners are accorded privileges that upset many Israelis, including the opportunity to study for university degrees. Prison authorities and the Shin Bet security agency have gone along with these practices to ensure calm among the inmates and on the Palestinian street.

Ben-Gvir promised a shakeup, demanding a stop to the practice of housing prisoners according to their political affiliations (Hamas, Fatah or Islamic Jihad, for example) and instead for them to be mixed up to disrupt cohesion. His wish list also includes doing away with the role of spokespeople in each prison wing who represent the inmates, stopping prisoners from cooking for themselves, limiting family visits and severely restricting visits by Knesset members.

After a Nov. 22 terrorist attack in which two Israelis were killed and 18 people were wounded in two bus stop explosions, Ben-Gvir said, “Security prisons should be sealed off completely" with "no yard, no feasts and festivals." They should get "only the minimum dictated by law," he said.

Ben-Gvir will face opposition on the part of the Shin Bet, which knows that violating the understandings with the prisoners and worsening their conditions risk outbreaks of violence.

A retired senior Shin Bet agent told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, "Ben-Gvir may collide with reality and cause a big explosion if he insists on these things." The agent added, "There is little value in undermining their conditions. Israel will not get anything out of it. No Palestinian likes to be imprisoned in Israel, regardless of the conditions of incarceration, but the rage that may erupt as a result of such moves could release the demon from the bottle and create a situation that will take us years to correct."

According to the IPS, Ben-Gvir's actions could lead to riots inside the prisons and even a general hunger strike.

"IPS intelligence is already reporting a large increase in alerts on such riots even before anything substantive has happened," a senior Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "The important question is whether Ben-Gvir will move ahead with his agenda once he hears the professional arguments from the Shin Bet and the IPS about the strategic risks.” The official added that Ben-Gvir, like others before him, may find that issuing threats and pledging extreme actions is easier as a civilian or member of the Knesset opposition than carrying them out once in power. “Meanwhile, he is mostly making statements. There are no real actions on the ground yet,” the official added.

Ben-Gvir's threats come on the heels of sanctions adopted by the Security Cabinet against the Palestinian Authority last week in retribution for its role in pushing through a UN decision to seek the opinion of the International Court of Justice regarding the legality of Israel’s occupation.

"Netanyahu is restoring the policy of weakening the PA with all his might," a former senior Israeli security official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "This runs counter to the policy of the Lapid-Bennett government, which tried to help the PA regain stability and governance.” The official warned that Ben-Gvir’s planned crackdown on security prisoners, along with the renewed effort to weaken the already weak PA, would be disastrous.

Throughout his years in power, Netanyahu was cautious on the issue of security prisoners, allowing and even enhancing the so-called "summer camp" conditions and blocking efforts to change them for the sake of stability. But the Netanyahu who just installed the most extreme, reactionary government is Israeli history is a new incarnation. Stability and moderation have become dirty words for members of his new government. The security prisoners’ issue could turn their boastful swaggering into a bloody mess.

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