For over a week, Israel and the Palestinian territories have been transfixed by a jailbreak that was initially, albeit ridiculously, compared to Andy Dufresne’s meticulous and fictional escape from Shawshank State Prison.
In contrast to Dufresne’s astounding getaway, Israel’s Prisons Service all but opened the cell door and ushered Fatah terror chief Zakaria Zubeidi and his five Islamic Jihad cellmates to the exit of the “high-security” Gilboa Prison.
From what we have been given to understand, the five Islamic Jihad members were in the same cell from which several of them had attempted to break out in 2014. Zubeidi, from the rival Fatah, obtained permission to move in with them shortly before the escape. Their route via the cell’s lavatory area seven years ago had been concreted off, but not so the area beneath the shower which they broke through this time. From there, they were able to crawl toward the main prison walls by way of a below-floor cavity, and then to dig their way up and out through a small hole in the dirt just outside the walls.
Helpfully, architectural plans of the Gilboa layout were available online. More helpfully still, the guard tower immediately above their breakout hole was not staffed — apparently for budgetary reasons. The guard in an adjacent tower was asleep. Awakened by unusual noises, she reportedly looked around in the dark, saw nothing, and nodded off again.
Eyewitnesses spotted the escapees almost immediately, with a taxi driver quickly phoning in a detailed report of suspicious figures in the area to the local police. When the cops tried to alert the jail, however, they reportedly discovered that the Prisons Service had changed its phone numbers, and they didn’t have the new ones. By the time police officers had driven over to the prison, crucial minutes had passed. Even then, it took the guards a while longer to confirm that anyone was missing; by the time they did so, the fugitives were long gone.
In fictional Shawshank, Tim Robbins’ stoic protagonist, protesting his innocence, was in jail for the murder of his wife and her lover. Back in the real world, Zubeidi was locked up because he is a former commander of Fatah’s mass-murdering Al-Aqsa Brigades; four of the other five were serving life terms for murder or attempted murder in the cause of Islamic Jihad, which seeks Israel’s destruction. These men, it manifestly does not need saying, are anything but Hollywood heroes.
Except that to many Palestinians, plainly, they are. Their escape was widely celebrated in Gaza, where the Islamist Hamas group rules and broadly tolerates the smaller Islamic Jihad, and across much of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority found itself, as so often, pulled in numerous conflicting directions — engaged in security cooperation with Israel, fearful of the boost to its Islamist rivals, and well aware that the “street” was delighting in the fugitives’ humiliation of Israel. “It is the right of prisoners to search for freedom, just as it is our people’s right. We must make every effort to release the prisoners. I salute them, and hope these prisons one day vanish, never to return,” PA premier Mohammad Shtayyeh declared the day after the breakout.
As of this writing, four of the six have been recaptured.
Much was made in the early hours and days after the escape of another Prisons Service failure — to operate a system designed to jam calls from the cellphones known routinely to be smuggled to security prisoners; apparently, prison chiefs were deterred from doing so by fears that it would prompt unrest and worse among the inmates. The assumption was that the fugitives had carefully planned their strategy once outside the jail, coordinating with accomplices outside, possibly including Arab Israelis, to ensure a smooth and complete getaway — and thence victory photos from a safe locale beyond Israel’s easy reach, and a huge psychological boost to the forces of terrorism.
In fact, according to what is being leaked from the Shin Bet interrogations of the four, they had intended to make their way to the Jenin refugee camp area — the training and dispatch center of the Second Intifada suicide bomber onslaught and a virtual no-go zone for the IDF and PA forces — but did not have accomplices waiting to help them get there.
Seeking help from local Arab residents, they were rebuffed. Other locals, indeed, aided in their capture by reporting suspicious sightings.
With the last two fugitives still on the run, and possibly having made it to Jenin, the saga is not yet over. It has already provoked riots and arson in several jails, led to several days of West Bank clashes that spread into East Jerusalem, and is likely a central factor in a spate of rocket fire from Gaza. Monday saw a terrorist attack near Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station and reports of a major attack foiled, and Israel’s security forces are reporting a spate of further terror threats since the breakout and bracing for a further escalation of violence.
If one or both of the escapees makes it to Jenin, the terrorists could still have their victory picture, and the IDF will be extremely wary of venturing into the camp in what would be a highly complex operation to extricate them without killing them and prompting a major escalation.
Praising the escapees and bragging of its own capabilities, Hamas has been assuring the fugitives and their supporters that even if all are caught, it will be able to secure their release in a subsequent prisoner exchange. Such confidence stems in part from the Shalit “exchange” — in which Hamas secured the release of over 1,000 prisoners from Israeli jails, 280 of whom were serving life terms, in return for freeing IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been captured inside his army base and dragged into Gaza in a cross-border raid in 2006. That deal hugely emboldened and empowered Hamas, helping cement its hold on Gaza and marginalizing the PA.
Shalit’s capture was a major tactical failure by Israel that led to a strategic success for the forces of terrorism. It is to be dearly hoped that the Gilboa Prison jailbreak, with the farcical blunders that facilitated it, does not prove to be another such instance.
** An earlier version of this Editor’s Note was sent out Monday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we come to work every day - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.