Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian group that strikes fear in Israel’s prisons

The organization's inmates are 'insanely brave,' one prison official said. If the two Islamic Jihad escapees still at large are hurt, a wave of prison violence is almost certain

The spot from which the fugitives escaped

Josh Breiner writes in Haaretz on 12 September 2021:

After a group of Islamic Jihad prisoners failed in a 2014 attempt to break out of Gilboa Prison by tunnel – an escape that was foiled at the last minute – a senior official in the Israel Prison Service sat with Mahmoud Aradeh, the prisoner who planned the breakout, at Gilboa’s canteen.

“He told him straight to his face, ‘We’ve decided to escape from prison, so it’s going to happen,’” a former Prison Service official told Haaretz.

Seven years later, Aradeh managed to flee the very same prison where his previous attempt failed – even if he was captured Friday with another Islamic Jihad member, four days after their escape. Still at large are two other Islamic Jihad members.

At 46, Mahmoud Aradeh is the leader of the Islamic Jihad prisoners at Gilboa, which is just north of the West Bank. Since 1996, he has been serving a life sentence for his part in the murder of a soldier.

“He’s a smart and sophisticated guy who, once he makes a decision,  sticks to it till the end,” a Palestinian official who knows him said before Aradeh’s capture. “He decided he wanted to be free, and he’s willing to pay the price, even if it’s his life.”

About 400 Islamic Jihad members are doing time in Israeli prisons, just 8 percent of all security prisoners; Islamic Jihad is a smaller organization. About half the 4,500 security prisoners belong to Fatah, a quarter to Hamas and the rest to an assortment of groups, the largest being Islamic Jihad.The Prison Service has had a hard time controlling Islamic Jihad inmates.   “It’s a closed organization, a tough nut to crack in terms of getting intelligence,” one prison official said.

Also, amid concerns about letting the group get too powerful, Islamic Jihad inmates haven’t received a prison wing of their own. Most share wings with Hamas and are dispersed among various prisons in the hope that more intelligence can be gleaned.

“If you asked me which is the most extreme organization in the prisons, I would tell you it’s Jihad,” the prison official said. “They’re insanely brave and do whatever they think it takes.”

This was seen in part in the group’s attempt to sneak cellphones into the prison. For example, a Jihad prisoner led the abortive attempt three years ago to get 60 cellphones into Nafkha Prison in the south via a drone. A similar sophisticated attempt was made at Gilboa a year ago to smuggle smartphones and smartwatches to inmates.

‘Very extreme’

Islamic Jihad receives funding from Iran and has offices in Syria, which is likely the goal of the remaining escapees. Still, with its prisoners spread among different jails, the group’s overall prison organization has a hard time functioning as a single body.

“They’re relatively unorganized, behaving more like a neighborhood,” one former Palestinian security prisoner said. “But they’re very extreme in everything they do.”

The Prison Service recently decided to give Islamic Jihad half a wing at Megiddo Prison, another facility just north of the West Bank; the wing will house about 60 inmates. The decision was made despite an assault two weeks ago. Now, after the escape, several sources said the offer is being rescinded.

After the breakout, Islamic Jihad prisoners were distributed among various prisons. This sparked tensions among other inmates and disturbances by Islamic Jihad prisoners, including the torching of cells at the Ketziot and Ramon prisons in the south.

“An Islamic Jihad inmate, who wants to pray, loves Iran and holds fast to the values of modesty is now sitting in a cell with a Fatah prisoner, who is secular, hates Iran and wants to watch a Lebanese TV show that has women. It’s a guaranteed explosion,” one prison source said.

The other prisoners’ anger isn’t directed just at Islamic Jihad inmates but at the Prison Service, which has imposed collective punishment on all the prisoners. That includes suspending family visits under the aegis of the Red Cross, while time allowed outside cells has been cut from four hours to one hour daily. Meanwhile, appointments for various treatments have been suspended, as has access to the prison store.

“They decided to punish Islamic Jihad for [the warders’] negligence, but why did they punish all the prisoners?” one ex-Palestinian prisoner said. “Things like that will get all the prisoners to join Islamic Jihad to protest.”

As Ilan Borda, a former head of intelligence at the Prison Service, put it, “Whenever there have been tensions with the prison authorities, it’s Fatah and Hamas that try to ease things, only to have Islamic Jihad try to escalate the situation. They’re extremist, militant, and the Prison Service has always tried to restrain them. They’re constantly looking for what’s most extreme, so they’re always under the intelligence unit’s magnifying glass, but intelligence can never be 100 percent.”

A Palestinian hero

Another Islamic Jihad prisoner leader is Anas Jaradat, who received 35 life sentences for his role in the attacks at the Megiddo and Karkur junctions in 2002 that killed 31 Israelis. Others include Tabat Mardawi, who is serving 21 life sentences for his role in terror attacks during the second intifada, and Ziyad Basisi, who is serving a life sentence for attempted attacks in Tel Aviv and Tiberias.

Aradeh was No. 3 among the Islamic Jihad leaders. All the remaining prisoner leaders were moved Monday to Kishon Prison near Haifa for interrogation by the Shin Bet security service about any knowledge they had about Aradeh’s plans to escape. In the meantime, Aradeh has become a Palestinian hero, a development that will boost Islamic Jihad’s standing in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite what many Israelis believe, conditions for security prisons are hard. The Prison Service’s facilities are aging, inmates are crowded together and toilets are often in disrepair.

Also, visits to the prison courtyard are limited to a few hours a day. Security prisoners have fewer rights than criminal prisoners, who can receive time outside of prison and are allowed conjugal visits.

In addition, security prisoners don’t receive rehab services or the chance to pursue higher education. Still, they operate their own education system by which they can study for the matriculation exams that accompany graduation from high school. They spend most of the day watching television – five channels for Hamas prisoners and 10 for Fatah inmates, two of them Israel’s Kan and Channel 13.

Security prisoners, however, receive certain perks. Each prison wing has a leader authorized to negotiate with the warden. Because the security prisoners serve together and are organized, they can bargain with the prison authorities. A decision by the prisoner leaders to stage a hunger strike, for example, requires all the inmates to cooperate.

In this balance of power with the authorities, security prisoners further benefit from their broad support among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

As a result, these inmates live a life almost independent from the authorities. Guards often steer clear of certain prison wings, and when they enter, they usually provide advance notice. The inmates cover their expenses with money from the Palestinian Authority.

They run canteens where they can buy goods such as sweets, snacks, drinks and cleaning products. These goods are ordered through the Prison Service via an outside contractor. Access to these products explains why smartphone photos are often leaked showing prisoners “celebrating” events with candy and cake. Since the breakout, these benefits have been reduced.

Now both sides – the prisoners and their jailers – are waiting to see how the story of the other two fugitives ends. If it ends in violence, a wave of prison violence is almost certain to follow.

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