From the Prison Cell to the Terror Cell: Breaking the Cycle

“The percentage of convicted terrorists returning to the cycle of terrorism is high. This fact, in and by itself, should motivate a different way of thinking regarding the method in general.” A special column by Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel reviews the Israeli security incarceration effort

Palestinian prisoners released from Ofer prison (Archive photo: Moshe Milner / GPO)

This column reviews the Israeli security incarceration effort – the imprisonment of "security" prisoners (i.e., convicted terrorists) – its contribution to the "calm" in the present and its future damage potential.

The present status picture of the security incarceration activity promptly invokes the broad paradox of the overall effort to cope with terrorism, with the emphasis on terrorists apprehended before the act, or after it.

The Israel Security Agency (ISA, aka Shin Bet) is the organ in charge of counterterrorism in Israel. The IDF is the executive organ in the territories of the Judea and Samaria district, and the Israel Police is the executive organ within the territory of the State of Israel. The judicial system is responsible for the judicial aspect – the military judicial system in the Judea and Samaria, and the civilian system with regard to Israeli citizens. Nothing of the above is new. The incarceration activity is a nation-wide effort, mostly assigned to the Israel Prison Service (IPS, SHABAS in Hebrew), which answers to the Ministry of Public Security (as does the Israel Police).

An analysis of the data regarding the incarceration of individuals convicted of "security" crimes (without ignoring the use of the administrative detention tool) will yield a number of phenomena (which, incidentally, are global phenomena).

The phenomenon where "minor terrorists" are imprisoned together with "major terrorists" leads mainly to radicalization and admiration, to the extent that at the time of their release, the "minor terrorists" had already absorbed a sufficient quota of hatred and ideology, along with practical knowledge, so they now possess the potential of becoming "major terrorists."

The percentage of convicted terrorists returning to the cycle of terrorism is high. This fact, in and by itself, should motivate a different way of thinking regarding the method in general.

Convicted individuals who had been involved in the last surge of terrorist attacks, and who enter prison "non-aligned" (with no specific political orientation), as they had operated on their own (the 'Lone Terrorist' theory) must decide whom to associate with, as they must spend their jail time as members of specific organizations. Consequently, instead of remaining non-aligned, the convicted terrorist will associate himself with an organization that adopts him, so now he has become a part of a system that would radicalize his views, as noted above.

Spending their jail time as members of specific political groups immediately creates classes, crowns leaders and bestows power to those who enhance their status in prison only owing to the unofficial organizational/political structure, not to mention their status at the time of their release.

Naturally, one can find other elements, which contribute to the alleged "calm" in the short term while possessing the potential to cause damage in the future.

So, what is actually required? Firstly and above anything else – a different policy. We should stop preferring the so-called "industrial peace" which allegedly enables the Israel Prison Service to go through their shifts peacefully (to quell any doubts, the men and women of the IPS are top-notch individuals who operate within the confines of a highly problematic policy. At the same time, they learned to aspire for nothing more than for their shift to pass uneventfully/peacefully).

We have seen, in the not too distant past that every time the policy attempts to change, the security prisoners and detainees go on a strike or threaten to go on strike, which actually intimidates the Israeli systems.

I would like to outline a new proposal regarding the method for the incarceration of security prisoners, and I am fully aware of the fact that the transition period will not be simple or easy. Sometimes you must pay a price in the short term to resolve a systemic problem in the long run. The example that comes to mind is the manner in which the State of Israel has dealt with the threat of the underground tunnels built in the Gaza Strip to enable intrusion into Israeli territory. At a very high cost, the Israeli Government built an obstacle system that eliminates this threat once and for all.

The principle underlining my proposal is this: the imprisonment of security prisoners should no longer be in groups (of any orientation or cross-section). Instead, the IPS should keep them in custody as individuals. I am not suggesting that they should spend endless periods in solitary confinement, but that each prisoner occupy a separate cell that is sufficiently spacious and has all of the necessary facilities. This method will prevent radicalization and the crowning of leaders and the prisoners/detainees will not be able to acquire a position of power vis-à-vis the system. For example, if a prisoner should go on a hunger strike, no one will know about it.

Obviously, a substantial investment will be required, along with a comprehensive revision of IPS methods of operation and procedures, but control over the prison population will become much more effective and most importantly – future troubles will be prevented.

In order to be practical, I suggest that a new prison facility be erected using sea freight containers converted to prison cells, with each cell containing a toilet and shower, kitchenette, air-conditioner and other elements. In this way, using some 3,000 containers at several sites, within a relatively short timeframe (about one year), we can change the existing incarceration method – whose limitations I have outlined above – into a more effective method that would change the rules of the game.