Bennett says Gilboa prison break a ‘wake-up call,’ blames previous policies

Prime minister says some state institutions have ‘deteriorated’ under past governments and have suffered due to political appointments

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry office in Jerusalem, on Sunday, September 12, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett attends a cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry office in Jerusalem, on Sunday, September 12, 2021. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday slammed the failures that enabled six Palestinian security prisoners to escape from the high-security Gilboa Prison last week, and suggested that his predecessor’s policies were to blame.

“The amount of energy and efforts needed to fix the series of mistakes and failures that simply did not need to happen is enormous,” Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “It requires an investigation and for lessons to be learned.”

Bennett said the prison break last week — one of the worst such incidents in Israel’s history — “is a wake-up call” for authorities.

“Some state systems have deteriorated in recent years and must go through processes of correction, of efficiency, of striving for excellence,” he said. “It is possible and it is required to operate differently… what has gone wrong can be repaired.”

Bennett took office in June, replacing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years on the job.

Four of the six escaped prisoners were caught in Nazareth over the weekend, and two remained at large as of Sunday afternoon.

“We’re two-thirds of the way there; we have caught four of the six terrorists, and the efforts to return to prison the additional two individuals is underway at this very moment,” Bennett said.

The prime minister said he and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev had decided to open a commission of inquiry into the incident. Bennett also implied that under past governments, appointments to top positions were made for political reasons, but that moving forward there must be “clean and quality appointments, made for professional reasons only.”

Mohammed al-Arida arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Bennett also thanked the citizens in Nazareth who “showed civic responsibility and general responsibility and reported to the police what was needed,” assisting in the capture of some of the escapees.

The six men escaped from Gilboa Prison in the predawn hours of Monday morning, digging out a concrete slab from their shower floor, which gave them access to a crawlspace underneath the penitentiary. From there, they dug a tunnel to just outside the prison wall and continued on foot.

Investigators believe the fugitives — four of whom were serving life sentences for terror-related crimes and all of whom had ties to terrorist organizations — had worked for several months to remove the slab and dig the escape tunnel.

The prison break, one of the worst in the country’s history, was made possible by a litany of apparent oversights, mistakes and blunders by prison guards.

In a Channel 12 interview on Saturday night, Barlev called the escape a “major failure” that he said was caused in part by allowing the prison to be built with a gap between the floor and the ground.

“This was Israeli corner-cutting in every way. There was a push to set up the prisons, but they built them in the air in order to save money,” he said.

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