Time for Israel to take back control of its prisons

The autonomy enjoyed by the Palestinian security prisoners is an abysmal anomaly.

Israeli troops confront Palestinian rioters in Hebron, protesting on behalf of the six terrorists who escaped the Gilboa Prison, Sept. 8, 2021. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Israeli troops confront Palestinian rioters in Hebron, protesting on behalf of the six terrorists who escaped the Gilboa Prison, Sept. 8, 2021. Photo by Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90.
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.

The escape from Gilboa Prison is becoming, as expected, an event with strategic implications. What began as a terrible and unfathomable mistake on the part of the Israel Prisons Service now threatens to ignite every security prison in the country, and even undermine stability in Judea and Samaria, Gaza and perhaps mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, as well. The IPS bears full responsibility for the failure.

The list of blunders under its watch is embarrassingly long: The fact that no one was aware of the prison’s problematic structural design; the approval given to high-risk prisoners to live together in the same cell, despite their shared history of trying to dig out of the same prison years ago; the lack of intelligence about their plan and its actual execution; the prison guard falling asleep; the hesitant response after the police initially reported suspicious movement outside the prison on the night of the escape; and then the inability to quickly and properly account for all the prisoners; the approval given to Zakaria Zubeidi to move cells; putting prisoners in jails located in the general vicinity of their home towns; the elementary lack of professional experience of intelligence officers; and above all else, the shirking of responsibility.

The last issue points to a defective organizational culture and a skewed understanding of the situation. Former IPS Commissioner Orit Adato erred during a television interview over the Rosh Hashanah holiday when she said that current IPS Commissioner Katy Perry doesn’t need to resign because senior commanders shouldn’t pay the price for operational events.

This is not an operational event, however. It is, rather, a resounding failure of utter negligence that illuminates the deep decay within the prisons’ service. It is a decay that requires a complete systematic overhaul.

To be fair to the IPS, it must be noted that it suffers from a lack of manpower and resources (although this still doesn’t explain or justify the chain of errors). The prisons are outdated and overcrowded, and the available personnel don’t come close to suiting the mission. Even worse, the inmates, not the state, appear to be running these security prisons. This defect requires amendment, and now is the time.

If an outburst of violence indeed occurs—and all indications certainly point to this being the case—Israel must act to immediately segregate the various sectors and maintain quiet in the mixed cities. This is the primary lesson from Operation Guardian of the Walls, and an Israeli national interest of utmost importance, also to dissuade other prisoners from toying with similar ideas in the future.

Despite the concerns over riots (which have already erupted) in the prisons, and despite the concerns over the general security ramifications, the time has come to overhaul the prisons—which are more like resorts and which more than a few public security ministers have sought to change, only to concede—and restore control to Israeli hands.

A move in this direction must be made by the government in tandem with the hunt for the escaped terrorists. Six people need help, food and hideouts to survive, and all of this generates quite a bit of intelligence information. The high degree of control on the ground by Israeli security forces, along with advanced technological capabilities, should gradually decrease the escapees’ chances of evading capture.

The defense establishment must also prevent them from reaching Jordan, where they will be protected. Fleeing to Judea and Samaria would actually expedite their capture, and also mitigate the threat (which currently appears minor) that they will try harming Israeli civilians. It must also be taken into account that their capture will spark a degree of violence in Judea and Samaria, certainly if any of them are killed in the process.

In such a scenario, the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, which counts five of the six escapees as members, could launch rockets from Gaza in a display of solidarity. Iron Dome missile-defense systems have already been placed on high alert, but Israel must make it very clear to Hamas that any such attack will be met with a harsh response.

Similar messages must also be delivered to the Palestinian Authority. Although the P.A. cannot openly go against the Palestinian street on the prisoner matter, which garners complete consensus in Palestinian society, its interest is to maintain quiet due to the fear that any possible violence could be turned in its direction, certainly in Jenin, which in any case has shown more than a few signs of anarchy.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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