Hassan Jmassi was a prisoner for five years in the Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation. Now Hamas are masters, he has risen to the dizzy height of prison governor armed with lavish reforming zeal.The Saraya, built by the British during their Mandate of Palestine from 1920 to 1948, was for years both Gaza’s only prison and the headquarters of the security apparatus that Hamas smashed in its armed takeover last month.
The day after the Islamist movement declared victory over Fateh on June 15, 34-year-old Jmassi was promoted from Hamas’ armed wing to prison governor.
Before the Palestinian Authority was created in 1994, the Saraya symbolised the Israeli occupation, and then Islamists came to embody “repression” meted out by the security services dominated by the secular Fateh Party.
In the wake of their armed victory, Hamas has set up a committee to re-examine prisoners’ files with a view to granting possible re-trials.
“The justice system is not working as it should,” says Jmassi. “We are not the Taleban. We are not going to set up Islamic courts but implement the existing law properly,” he adds.
Kalashnikov and Koran in his office, Jmassi inherited a room decked out in luxury by his predecessor, General Hamdi Al Rifi, a Fateh leader.
Still haunted by painful memories of his own incarceration, Jmassi plans to change things for the better.
“We are going to knock down this prison. It’s full of painful memories for anyone who was held here. Not even basic living conditions can be guaranteed,” says Jmassi â€” his beard thick, his build imposing.
After he got his new job, he went back to the cell where he spent five years from 1987 to 1993 before being transferred to a prison in Israel.
Then a fighter in the “Fateh Hawks,” he was sentenced to 258 years in prison by an Israeli military court for taking part in a deadly anti-Israeli attack.
He was released in 1996 with hundreds of other Palestinian prisoners granted amnesties in the flush of new hope after the 1993 Oslo accords gave birth to the Palestinian Authority.
After getting out of prison and returning to the Gaza Strip, he joined the police force and, clandestinely, Hamas’ Izzeddine Al Qassam Brigades.
“Investigators used to beat the prisoners and extract their confessions by force,” he says, referring to the Fateh loyalists who ran Saraya before.
“The Jews tortured and humiliated our prisoners and the Palestinian Authority arrested our sheikhs, and humiliated them,” says Jmassi, who says he has been sleeping in the prison for four days to restore order.
After Hamas routed the Fateh-dominated security services, 570 prisoners escaped. About 50 of them have come back and Hamas has put out an ultimatum through the media for the others to return voluntarily or face forcible re-arrest.
“We inherited a destroyed prison without prisoners,” says Jmassi. Determined to make a clean break with the Fateh regime, he maintains political arrests are a thing of the past.
Outside the main entrance to the prison flutteres the green flag of Hamas as five Ezzedine Al Qassam gunmen stand guard in the wilting heat.
In the courtyard, Jmassi barks orders to police and paramilitaries while workers clear away piles of oozing and stinking rubbish.