Behind Bars: The Black Market In Israeli Prisons

By Dima Abumaria | The Media Line

July 17, 2017

Palestinians take part in rally in support of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. (Photo: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

Smugglers can make 200K-300K shekels per month

Behind the scenes of the latest hunger strike, inside an Israeli prison is a booming black market; an extensive underground network in which smugglers set “prices” for the acquisition of goods.

Alnaqab, a prisoner who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, explained that the phone he was using for the interview was smuggled into jail: “I’m speaking to you now with an illegal cell phone; we pay 20-25 thousand shekels to buy one, a price we reached after a long negotiation with the smugglers.”

It is hard to use the cell phone at any time, Alnaqab says. “We can only use the cell-phone freely when there is a Jewish holiday or during Ramadan; that’s when the prison administration isn’t conducting security checks.”

Prisoners say they urgently need this line of communication, a reality smugglers take advantage of: “We don’t like how they use us,” Ali Ahmad Hasan Beregieh tells The Media Line. “This is one of the reasons behind the hunger strike. I love to hear my family’s voice, which is especially necessary for other prisoners whose families are banned from visiting for security reasons.”

A previous hunger striker, Beregieh, 41, was released from an Israeli prison on June 1. While jailed for twelve years in Naqab prison, he witnessed the black market first hand. He says the “cell phone market in at Naqab is the cheapest; they sell them starting from fifteen thousand Israeli shekels up to twenty thousand. On the other hand, he claims, the prices at Nafha prison are the highest.

According Beregieh, some of those incarcerated  have to sell their wife’s jewelry to buy a cell phone (in Arab tradition, grooms buy gold for their brides), explaining that prisoners are fed up with the exorbitant prices for phones that do not last for more than a month, sometimes as little as a week.

The feeling is widespread. Speaking to The Media Line, Mohammed Abdrabah Hameda, head of the Prisoners Association in Bethlehem and a previous prisoner himself, revealed that when he was in jail, “I and other prisoners shared a cell phone. Each one had to pay three thousand shekels for half an hour a day, and we used to buy credit to make phone calls.

“We used the phone for a week,” he continues, “and then, while we were temporarily at another section, a security check happened. The same person who was the trader, purposely left a phone cover or battery lying. When the phone was found, the guards confiscated took it away.”

After Hameda was later moved to another section, “the cell phone appeared again—but it was being used by a new prisoner. A week later, the same thing happened to him. That way the smugglers make two hundred thousand shekels a month,” he contends.

Most security prisoners are serving life sentences with little chance of parole. The simple act of making a phone call, therefore, takes on great meaning—and explains the willingness to pay top dollar for one. Some have gone so far as to starve themselves for weeks, to fight for the installation of public telephones.

There is another secret to the smuggling networks, Bergieh told The Media Line; namely, that smugglers cannot get their products without  internal help. “They smuggle the phones, sometimes in collusion with the prison administration,” he claims. “And they will get their share too.”

Moreover, Bergieh believes that Israeli authorities are aware the prisoners have phones, but turn the other cheek when it comes to personal, local calls. By contrast, he says, “any prisoner that uses a smuggled cell to make international calls or to call someone in Gaza, for example, would be taken away by the prison administration the very next day.”

While cell phones are the biggest luxury item, the black market includes a variety of products. “In other prisons, they smuggle perfumes, which are sold for 500 Shekels,” Bergieh says. Then there is tobacco, which is the second most coveted item by prisoners. Its smuggling network, according to Mohammed Abdrabah Hameda, one former prisoner The Media Line spoke with, is run by people affiliated with Palestinian political organizations.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), whose delegates have been visiting Palestinian prisoners for over 50 years, distributes the cigarettes to these leaders, who, in turn, sell them to their members, Hameda states. “When you first get into prison, a member of Fatah (the political party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) comes to you and asks whether you’re a smoker of not. If yes, he provides you with a bank account number and you to have your family transfer money to it.”

It is an arrangement, Hameda stresses, that many prisoners do not like.




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