RAMALLAH // Hamas officials yesterday warned that new legislation before the Israeli parliament that seeks to worsen conditions for Hamas prisoners detained in Israeli jails could spark prison riots that might spill over into the streets.
Human rights organisations also condemned the legislation, which cleared a major hurdle on Sunday when it passed a ministerial committee and received the support of the Israeli government. The two bills, jointly called the "Shalit bill" after an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in Gaza almost four years ago, seek to strip Hamas detainees of family visitation rights as well as take away their access to television, books and education. The bills also seek to grant prison authorities the power to keep Hamas prisoners in isolation for an unlimited amount of time.
The legislation will now go to a second reading in parliament on Sunday, where it is likely to pass, after receiving the backing of the ministerial committee on legislation. Its authors, three parliamentarians from Israel's three biggest parties, Kadima, the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu, say the measure will exert pressure on Hamas to speed up negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal for Cpl Gilad Shalit.
The Shalit bill had in the past been postponed at the behest of Hagai Hadas, the Israeli negotiator with Hamas, according to Israeli media reports. But with all sides conceding that prisoner exchange negotiations are stalled, the Israeli government has now decided to throw its weight behind it. "The only way to prompt a change in the static situation of the Gilad Shalit affair is to press the prisoners so they press their leaders," wrote Hanuch Daum, a pundit in the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper.
Khalid Meshaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, told The National on Sunday that the Islamist movement remained ready to engage Israel over a prisoner exchange deal but said talks had been ended by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, at the behest of the United States. "We understand that America advised Israel to stop the negotiations because they strengthened Hamas. If we were to release him [after talks] it would show we are a strong organisation and would increase that strength."
Mr Meshaal also accused Israel of using the detention of thousands of Palestinian prisoners as a psychological warfare tactic to cow the population. Mahmoud Ramahi, a Hamas politician in Ramallah, denounced the new Israeli legislation. Mr Ramahi was himself released from prison last year and said conditions there were "very bad already". The new legislation will simply leave prisoners with "nothing to lose".
"I believe it will be difficult to implement the new legislation, because it will provoke an uprising against the prison authorities. And whenever there is something inside the jail, it will echo outside. This will cause many problems for the Palestinian Authority, which is negotiating with Israel." Moreover, politically, the move will only cause the price for Cpl Shalit's release to rise, Mr Ramahi said, not, as Israel claims to want, make negotiations easier. Mr Ramahi said the move was perhaps mostly for domestic Israeli consumption.
Israel, he said, had failed to secure the release of Cpl Shalit in negotiations, and with that track stuck, the Israeli public was getting restless. "The government needs to show its own people that it is doing something." Israel holds more than 7,000 Palestinians in prison. The vast majority, nearly 6,500, are classified by Israel as "security prisoners", and are held mostly for their political affiliations, and in some cases, military activities.
Palestinians have long complained of substandard conditions in Israeli prisons and human rights organisations yesterday pointed out that the new legislation will only formalise what has been common practice for several years now. For example, said Sahar Francis, the head of the Ramallah-based Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Organisation, all Gazan detainees have been denied family visits over the past three years, while several jails have denied prisoners of all political persuasions access to books for the past year.
"The Israelis are trying to paint a false picture of the situation of Palestinian prisoners," Ms Francis said. "They are not being held in a five-star hotel. Their situation has always been very poor and they suffer numerous violations of their basic rights, including lack of access to proper health care or hygienic living conditions." The new legislation is being enacted "for revenge" and violates all international standards, Ms Francis said. It is "another measure to go along with the many other laws and hundreds of military orders that discriminate against Palestinians".
@Email:firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Phil Sands in Damascus