The prisoners can be heard screaming in terror at the surprise attack. It was a night of brutal and lethal violence that Israeli participants would describe as one that was “beautiful” and “happy.”
One of the Israeli attackers shouts, amid flashes, flame and smoke: “I want to open these gates and take care of these little sons of whores.” Other Israelis shout vulgar Arabic insults at the prisoners regarding their mothers.
Prisoners writhe in agony and fear. One can be seen – in images reminiscent of Abu Ghraib – lying on the ground as an Israeli points a gun at him shouting “lie on your stomach!”
Others are shot without apparent reason.
These are scenes from a video that was shown in April 2011 by the investigative program Ouvda on Israel’s Channel 2 television station. The violent attack it records against the Palestinian prisoners on 22 October 2007 was real, but it was carried out as a “training exercise” for Israeli security personnel at Ketziot Prison to boost their “morale” and “motivation.”
One Palestinian, Muhammad Ashqar, was killed. No one has been charged in connection with his death although Israel recently agreed to pay compensation to his family.
This video, Ouvda said, is one “the whole system” has been trying to keep under wraps for more than three years.
The deputy commander of the Israel Prison Service would rate his men’s performance in this horrifying and murderous violence with a “ten.”
This shocking video and the events around it provide a rare glimpse into the lives of thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel’s jails, more than 2,000 of whom recently completed a 28-day hunger strike against the cruel and inhumane treatment they receive.
Raising “morale” and “motivation”
Control of Ketziot Prison in the southern Naqab (Negev) region of historic Palestine was handed to the Israel Prison Service (IPS) from the Israeli army in 2007. The IPS then promised to toughen its handling of the prisoners, according to the Ouvda narrator.
One of the goals of the 2:00 am “training drill” shown in this video was to “raise the morale and motivation for the prison staff,” according to Ouvda, citing IPS documents.
The video is captioned “Massada Unit Training - archive,” which is described as “the most combative unit in the prison service.”
The “training” task given to the unit was to search for contraband in one of the prison’s wings.
The use of Palestinians – not just prisoners – as training guinea pigs for Israeli violence did not end with this incident. On 27 March, Rashad Shawakha, 28, was killed in cold blood in an attack on the West Bank village of Rammoun that was part of a “training exercise” by an Israeli undercover unit.
A declaration of war
But as far “as the prisoners are concerned,” the narrator says, “the surprise incursion by masked fighters into the prison has only one meaning – a declaration of war.”
The prisoners however are “stunned,” and resistance is “insignificant.” Meanwhile a voice is heard on the video of one of the Israeli personnel saying “the shooting is correct” (3:28) meaning that the shooting we hear in the background is authorized.
“This is not live fire,” the narrator says, meaning regular bullets are not being used, “but these demonstration-dispersing measures could also kill.”
But of course there was no demonstration to be dispersed. The prisoners had been asleep – in barred dormitories and in tents on the heavily-fortified prison’s grounds – when they were attacked with weapons that Israel authorities refuse to identify.
And presumably the prisoners did not know it wasn’t live fire and that they weren’t about to be killed. And the weapons used did kill on that night.
As things got out of hand, two commanders sent the Massada Unit fighters to storm the other wings of the prison.
At one point, an Israeli officer can be seen and heard speaking into a microphone as he faces the burning prison enclosure. He shouts in broken Arabic, “to all the prisoners, for the last time, whoever comes out and lies down on his stomach, we will not shoot him” (7:23).
“This is the last time before we shoot at everyone,” he says (7:50).
The attackers, the narrator notes, shot with abandon despite the darkness.
An unknown weapon
A Palestinian identified as “Nabil” a former prisoner at Ketziot, told Ouvda that the weapons fired by the Israelis caused extreme pain. “It strikes your body, and explodes,” Nabil said (8:15).
A second former prisoner who is not identified said that the weapons contain marbles.
Nabil, showing marks on his back, explained, “I was hit on the back and I couldn’t bear it, imagine if it hit me in the head, or the eye or another sensitive area.”
The IPS, Ouvda said, refused to disclose what weapon they used against the prisoners.
“One of the Arabs is wounded” - the murder of Muhammad Ashqar
“Dani, Dani, one of the Arabs is wounded,” an Israeli attacker is heard saying (9:01).
The camera pans to a man lying on the ground, with blood on his head.
Other voices, off camera: “Is there anyone there taking care of him?” “No, no-one, only Dima [a Russian name] is there with him.”
The man lying on the ground unattended is Muhammad Ashqar, who was due to be released in a few months. There is no evidence he was doing anything to threaten his attackers.
Asqhar “had been jailed nearly two years before the incident for membership in Islamic Jihad,” according to Haaretz which reported on 3 May that Israel agreed to pay 1.2 million shekels ($312,000) in compensation to his family.
But, the newspaper added:
However, the State Prosecution’s Office closed the case against the guards involved in the search, which ended with a dead prisoner, 15 injured prisoners, 15 injured guards and a burned section of the jail.
It also noted:
The authorities first told the family that Ashkar had been shot while trying to escape, his father, Seti Ashkar, told Haaretz. Afterward they said he had accidentally been shot during the riot.
Muhammad’s brother Loai, was also held at Ketziot prison without charge or trial during the 22 October 2007 attack.
Prisoner shot while negotiating with guards
Moments after the footage of Ashqar lying on the ground the video shows another prisoner emerge from one of the buildings into the yard (10:00). The Israeli attackers are negotiating with him. Yet in the midst of talking to him and for no apparent reason, they shoot at him. He falls to the ground with blood pouring from a wound in his leg. No one attends to him.
Sitting on the ground, the wounded prisoner tries to treat himself, shouting at the other prisoners in the tent to come out, presumably lest they suffer the same fate.
Shot without provocation
Smadar Ben Natan, a lawyer representing the family of Muhammad Ashqar told Ouvda that she found:
- The Massada Unit fighters shot the prisoners even when there was no danger to their lives;
- The commanders’ initial plan was to tie the prisoners to their beds while they were still asleep, but that plan was shelved at the last moment;
- The Ketziot wardens were insufficiently trained.
When asked how he’d grade the wardens and fighters involved, Dov Lutzki, Deputy Prison Service commander told Ouvda, “I’d give them a ten. This event ended up with lethal, tragic results of a prisoner being hurt when there was no intent to get to that result, but from then until this very day night searches are a routine way to handle security prisoners.”
When asked if “raising morale” was a good enough reason to mount such an operation, Lutzki responded: “A warden must believe in his own ability. He has to understand that his position is important, that he is protecting the homeland via the way he does his job. Every attempt to express weakness is immediately seen by the other party as an opportunity to achieve additional achievements.”
Unfit prison commander promoted
The commander of Ketziot at the time of this attack was Shlomi Cohen. He had a history of “messy complications” after two prisoners escaped from the Shikma prison in Ashkelon that he previously commanded, according to Ouvda. An investigation committee suggested that Cohen’s suitability to command a “security prison” be “reconsidered” and yet he was promoted and placed in charge of Ketziot.
Cohen’s propensity for brutality is something he attested to himself. In one video clip shown by Ouvda, the commander is seen lecturing two prisoners, “it is true that for the past year and a half you’re living in much harsher conditions, because it turns out that’s the only way to keep you.”
A night of fun and “happiness”
At one point, possibly after the attack the cameraman asks one officer to pose for a picture “as a souvenir of the events in Ketziot.” The officer in a blue shirt and helmet approaches, smiling (6:30).
As we hear gun shots and see flames in another sequence, an off-camera voice says in Hebrew, “what beauty” or fun. Another calls out, “this is really beautiful! Film! Film!”
Dima – presumably the same Dima who filmed the dying Muhammad Ashqar – is summoned to film as the Israeli attackers joke and laugh.
One starts singing a song about how happy things were before he was born.
“It’s happy, eh. It’s a happy day today,” another Israeli says. A comrade responds: “That’s what you wanted. For sure, brother, it’s the most beautiful thing. Excellent.”
The Israel Prison Service issued this statement, according to Ouvda:
Within one hour the whole prison was lying on the ground, yelling that they surrender. We intend to send the prisoners to trial, to punish them and to demand that they pay for the damage.
It is this incomprehensible, gratuitous cruelty and inhumanity that undoubtedly helped spark and will sustain the Palestinian prisoners movement.
With thanks to Dena Shunra for assistance with translation from Hebrew and analysis.