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A prank bigger than the BBC’s “spaghetti tree” hoax or a colossal failure of the Israeli Prison Service?

Maurice Hirsch, Adv.  |
  • PA media describes elaborate university studies for hundreds of prisoners earning academic degrees

  • Israel reports there are no academic studies for terrorists in prison

On April 1, 1957, a well respected BBC documentary show broadcast a three minute section on a Swiss family harvesting spaghetti from the family "spaghetti tree". At the time spaghetti was relatively new to the UK and most people did not know how it was made. The following day hundreds of viewers contacted the BBC to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to "place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best." Years later, CNN would crown the BBC "spaghetti tree" broadcast as "the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled."  

Is the Palestinian Authority out-doing even the BBC?

According to the PA there are literally hundreds of terrorist prisoners studying for academic degrees, under the auspices of the Al-Quds Open University, while serving their sentences within Israeli prisons. Every year there are grandiose ceremonies to award the degrees to the graduating prisoners, with PA officials explaining how the prisoners “have turned the prison and the cells into seminars and courses through their perseverance in studying.”

While no ceremony was held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on Aug. 11, the PA held a combined graduation ceremony for both the 2020 and 2021 graduates.

Introducing the event, the broadcaster on official PA TV news opened saying: 

“Under the auspices of His Honor [PA] President Mahmoud Abbas and in cooperation with the [PLO] Commission of Prisoners and Released Prisoners’ Affairs, Al-Quds Open University organized a graduation ceremony in Ramallah for prisoners who are in the occupation’s prisons.”

[Official PA TV News, Aug. 11, 2021]

Younes Amr, the Al-Quds Open University President said that the university provided all the educational materials but was unable to provide the terrorist prisoners access to the university TV channel:

“We are celebrating the graduation of this group of prisoners, some of whom are still inside the prisons and some of whom are released. Of course, the university provided all that it could, including books and diverse study materials aside from TV broadcasts, since in the Israeli prisons or in any prison it is forbidden to bring in the Al-Quds educational channel.”

[Official PA TV News, Aug. 11, 2021]

The director of the PA funded PLO Commission of Prisoners’ Affairs Qadri Abu Bakr said:

“Today [Aug. 11, 2021] we are giving a degree to 365 prisoners in the prisons. This of course relates to [graduates from] the last two years. This is because last year no prisoner officially received a degree with a diploma, due to the Coronavirus wave.”

[Official PA TV News, Aug. 11, 2021]

Thanking official PA media for broadcasting the ceremony and investing in the cause of the “heroic” prisoners, the Commission of Prisoners issued a statement adding:

“The [PLO] Commission of Prisoners and Released Prisoners’ Affairs praised the great responsibility and the mighty efforts that the official [PA] media is investing in the cause of our heroic prisoners and our wonderful female prisoners in the Israeli occupation’s prisons.

[Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Aug. 13, 2021]

While Abu Bakr said the ceremony was to give degrees to 365 prisoners, the later statement of the Commission of Prisoners said that degrees were given to “more than 400 prisoners who met the requirements to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Al-Quds Open University.” The discrepancy in the numbers is possibly explained by the fact that some of the recipients were already released prisoners, as Younes Amr explained.

Just days after the graduation ceremony, the PA Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Mahmoud Abu Mweis together with Abu Bakr and Amr announced the signing of a new memorandum to provide additional master’s degree programs for the terrorist prisoners. Explaining the PA commitment to providing the “heroic” terrorist prisoners with the degree programs, Abu Mweis said:

“The prisoners’ education is a national obligation and the duty of us all, and it is a double right that is anchored in law and in humanitarian law. The prisoners have turned the prison and the cells into seminars and courses through their perseverance in studying and knowing, while defying the occupier who is attempting to oppress our heroic prisoners... The prisoners’ cause is at the top of the priorities of the Palestinian leadership and all the Palestinian people.”

[Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Aug. 13, 2021]

Calling the ostensible right of the terrorist to study for degrees “a sacred right”, Abu Bakr added:

The prisoners’ education and their excellence [in studies] contributes to building our state’s institutions, and providing them with an education is the obligation of us all, as our prisoners are our pride and providing them with their needs and ensuring their rights is a national duty.

[Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Aug. 13, 2021]

The figures for attendees have varied wildly in previous years. In December 2016, Amr claimed that there were 484 terrorist prisoners, from three prisons, who were studying Arabic Language, Islamic Education, and Social Work and that the university was hoping to add a fourth prison and reach a total of 600 students.

By August 2017 the number of terrorist prisoners studying had risen to 700 [Wattan, independent Palestinian news agency, Aug. 12, 2017] and by December of 2017 the number had risen to 840 [Official PA daily, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Dec. 4, 2017]. By February 2018, the number of terrorists prisoner students had risen to 1,000 [Donia Al-Watan, independent Palestinian news agency, Feb. 22, 2018]. At the 2019 graduating ceremony, Abu Bakr said there were 1,026 terrorist prisoners “currently registered in the education program to complete their first degree.” [Ma'an, independent Palestinian news agency, Jul. 24, 2019]

On previous occasions the PA has explained [The Al-Quds Open University Message, December 2016] that the study materials are brought into the prisons by lawyers visiting the prisoners. The studies themselves are supervised by the prisoners with Master’s degrees or Doctoral degrees who oversee the terrorist students, giving tests and grading them.

While the full cost of the PA terrorist prisoner degree program is unclear, in September 2020, Abu Bakr complained that the due to the PA financial crisis, the Commission of Prisoners had accrued debts totaling “$3-3.5 million” to the universities. [Facebook page of the PLO Commission of Prisoners’ Affairs, Sept. 7, 2020]‎

However, could the whole degree program be nothing more than a scam?

In contrast to the elaborate PA exhibitions, in an official answer to Palestinian Media Watch in 2017, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) claimed that the organization strictly enforces the 2011 decision of the Israeli government following the kidnapping and extended captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to prevent terrorist prisoners from studying for academic degrees.

In a recent meeting with the Head of the IPS and other senior IPS staff, attended, inter alia, by PMW’s Head of Legal Strategies, the Head of the IPS again confirmed that the prisons strictly enforces the study ban. In the meeting, the Head of the IPS mocked the “quality of the degrees” adding that she cannot be held responsible for external organizations who wish to confer dubious degrees on the terrorist prisoners. She stressed that within her jurisdiction, inside the prisons, the ban is enforced completely.

The polarized positions of the PA on the one hand, and the IPS on the other, beg the question: Are there literally hundreds of terrorists studying for degrees in the Israeli prisons, without the IPS even knowing or realizing what is happening or is the subject of the terrorist prisoner academic studies and degrees just an elaborate PA hoax bigger than the BBC's "spaghetti tree" hoax?

Note: In England, April 1st is commonly referred to as “April Fools Day”, a day on which pranks are often planned and played.