Ahmed Jabari and the prisoner dilemma

time for prisons to stop serving as terrorist training camps

Israel’s targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari last Wednesday may have been front-page news, but in many ways the life of the head of Hamas’s so-called military wing is more instructive than the circumstances of his death. Jabari was of course instrumental in both the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and the hostage-for-prisoners exchange he negotiated with the Netanyahu government last year, but lost in the obligatory summaries of his career “achievements” is the little remarked upon fact that he began his professional career as a terrorist as a man of Fatah, not Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although Jabari attended the Islamic University of Gaza (at the time, a cornerstone of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin’s burgeoning Islamist movement), he was first arrested and incarcerated by Israel for his violent handiwork in the ranks of Fatah. In a pattern repeated hundreds of times in the past decade, it was during his time in an Israeli prison in the early 1990s that Jabari switched allegiances to Hamas.

Slain Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari in 2011 (photo credit: AP/Khalid Farid)

Israeli and Palestinian prisons have in fact proven to be a vital source of recruitment for the movement. For example, when he was arrested by Israel, Abbas al-Sayd, the mastermind of the 2002 Passover massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya, told investigators that he cemented his ties to Hamas while serving time in a Palestinian prison with Hamas leader Jamal Mansur in 1999.

To a lot of Americans, thinking about prison brings to mind Morgan Freeman’s iconic role in the “Shawshank Redemption,” or episodes of “Law and Order” depicting the jail on Rikers Island in New York. But these images are far from the reality of  Israel’s security prisons. Unlike maximum security prisons in the U.S., in Israeli jails the various Palestinian factions are separated from each other and encouraged to police themselves, but they are permitted to eat meals, study and pray communally with members of their political faction. While this approach is more cost-effective because it requires fewer guards and reduces friction between the inmates and the prison service, it also permits the jails to serve as a de facto trade school for terrorism. Whereas on the outside, men like Jabari and Al-Sayd were once wanted men who needed to constantly stay a step ahead of the Israeli security services, behind bars, they could relax and safely meet and plan, and learn from their fellow operatives.

To make matters worse, men like Jabari pioneered Hamas’s efforts to place special emphasis on the financial well-being of their comrades in prison. When he was again arrested in 1998 – this time by the Palestinian Authority – Jabari was already deeply involved in Hamas’s terror apparatus, but his claim to fame inside the movement stemmed in large part from his work as the head of the Gaza-based Al Nur Society, which collects and distributes funds to the families of terrorists held in Israeli jails.

In 2001, while working under the tutelage of Salah Shehadah, then head of Hamas’s military wing (later killed by an Israeli airstrike), Hamas arranged for Jabari to receive a $2,655 payment from a Saudi charity to compensate him for his time served in a Palestinian jail. That payment alone was equivalent to two years’ salary in the Gaza Strip at the time. But he was hardly alone. Many of Hamas’s senior leaders in Gaza today have received similar stipends. For example, Ra’ed Atar, a senior Hamas commander who apparently survived an Israeli assassination attempt the same day Jabari was killed, received an almost identical payment from the same Saudi charity – as did Hamas’s current Interior Minister Fathi Hamad and Jabari’s deputy, Mohamed Shamala.

In fact, Hamas has been so successful in promoting its financial subsidies to the families of its operatives in Israeli jails that even the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority has devoted vast sums – financed primarily by US and European taxpayers – to reward the families of terrorists imprisoned by Israel. The PA regulation defines the beneficiaries of U.S.and European Union aid as “[a]nyone imprisoned in the occupation’s [Israel’s] prisons as a result of his participation in the struggle against the occupation.”

In its effort to compete with Jabari’s Al Nur Society, the PA under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, compensates the families of men like Abbas al-Sayd, who helped murder 30 people at a Passover Seder, including an elderly American woman, approximately $1,500 a month. Thus, Abbas Al-Sayd continues to act as a key Hamas leader in the West Bank – from prison – and his family can look forward to receiving monthly payments from the PA and Hamas equivalent to what the average Palestinian family earns in a year.

If the rules of this dreadful game are ever going to change, the U.S. and its European allies would be wise to invest in helping Israel build American-style maximum security prisons rather than subsidizing Hamas’s inmates in Israel’s current jails. A facility that holds 500 prisoners costs approximately $75 million dollars and represent a small fraction of the foreign aid lavished on the PA each year. By redoubling their efforts to cut off the flow of money to Hamas and its network of charities that subsidize terrorists and their families, and by helping Israel build facilities that separate and isolate the terrorists it apprehends, Western governments can finally teach Hamas and its leaders to learn a new game. It’s called Solitaire.

About the Author
Gary M Osen is the managing partner of Osen LLC, a boutique litigation firm specializing in terror financing, money-laundering and looted art cases. Mr. Osen has what the Washington Times described as “a penchant for tackling larger-than-life cases” and developing new and creative legal theories that challenge some of the world's largest companies and most powerful governments. The New York Times has recognized him as “an internationally consulted legal authority on terror financing.” He has been quoted and featured in most of the leading newspapers and magazines in the United States and around the world, including Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the Economist, Der Spiegel and Haaretz.