Presenting foreign journalists a rare glimpse of life inside a maximum-security penitentiary for Palestinian terrorists, Israeli authorities opened up the controversial Nafha Prison deep in the Negev Desert yesterday -- and said afterward they had demonstrated that conditions there are as humane as anywhere.
For two weeks, human rights activists and the families of Arab prisoners at Nafha have been staging demonstrations to call international attention to their charges that the inmates have been living in "subhuman" conditions.
The protesters charged that the prisoners in the Negev facility have been locked in suffocating "hotboxes," beaten, tortured and deprived of work opportunities because they are Arabs. A lawyer for the inmates said Nafha must have been designed by "somebody with a sick mind."
Twenty days ago, the Nafha inmates went on a hunger strike, and two of them died from pneumonia after they were forced-fed through a tube inserted into their mouths. The deaths sparked a new round of hunger strikes by Palestinian inmates throughout Israel's prison system and impatient demands by foreign journalists to be allowed to see the prison conditions.
After permission was finally given, about two dozen of the reporters arrived at the remote Negev site yesterday for a carefully controlled tour of the facility. For both the inmates and prison authorities the visit proved to be a public relations tour.
A stern-looking officer who is in charge of Israel's prison services warned the reporters that under no circumstances would they be allowed to speak with any of the 47 Arab security prisoners still there.
"We didn't bring you here to enable them to voice their political opinions to the world. There are enough people outside doing that well," said Haim Levy, the prison commissioner.
"I remind you, these prisoners have blood on their hands," he added.
But a few minutes later, an obliging guard put a ladder against the side of a cellblock and let reporters climb to the roof to look down into a barbed wire-covered exercise yard. There, about 15 inmates seemed to be well prepared for the arrival of their camera-laden visitors.
Jabril Mahmound Jaroub, who is serving a live sentence for killing three Israeli soldiers in a ambush 10 years ago in the Gaza Strip, raised a clenched fist and began a speech in commendable English.
"Here is Haim Levy, the man in charge of all the prisons," Jaroub shouted, as the television cameras whirred and Levy and other prison officials scurried about trying to steer the reporters in a different direction.
"I challenge Haim Levy to debate me on the television screens about the justice of our demands . . . I am in prison because I love my motherland," Jaroub shouted, with occasional prompting from his fellow inmates in the exercise yard.
"These are not cells. They are graves for the dead," Jaroub added.
Levy, not looking as if he wanted to debate anyone on television, quickly led the reporters back down the ladder and into the cellblock to view the conditions of the lockup, which was opened May 3 to house 76 Palestinian prisoners accused of major crimes of terrorism.
Levy had said that instead of suffering 100-degree-plus heat in the cells, as the protesters have charged, the prisoners enjoyed ventilated comfort from an air-duct system designed by the Technion in Hafia, Israel's most prestigious institute of technology.
Indeed, when the steel doors were finally opened, each 10-by-20 foot cell contained eight inmates -- wrapped in woolen blankets as they napped in comfortably cool temperature. The sophisticated ventilation system turned out to be a hole in the roof with a curved hood, but inexplicably, it kept the cells cool despite the oppressive desert heat outside. Each cell has three narrow ventilation slits at the top of the front and rear walls, providing an addition flow of air.
Levy explained that by the standards of most Israeli jails -- for Jewish prisoners as well as Arabs -- eight men in a room that size is hardly overcrowded. Some prisons put 20 men in a similar-sized room, he said.
But the rooms are windowless and are sealed with a solid steel door, prompting the inmates to demand barred doors so they can communicate with other prisoners in the two small cellblocks. This demand has been turned down.
Similarly, the prison officials have rejected an inmate demand for beds, instead of the foam mattresses on the floor. Levy said the beds could be dismantled and turned into weapons.
On the complaint that inmates are loccked in their cell 23 hours a day, Levy responded that Arab security offenders throughout the prison system have refused jobs in the workshops because they do not want to contribute to Israel's economy. (Of Israel's 6,000 prisoners about 2,850 are Arabs convicted of terrorist acts.)
"Any one of these men who wants to work will be transferred to a prison with a workshop," Levy said.
But inmates shouted to reporters through small peepholes in the cell doors that they would continue their hunger strike, in which they are refusing sold food but are taking a milk, sugar and egg potion twice a day. Prison officials said they can subsist indefinitely on that diet.