A guard tower directly overlooking the exit from the tunnel used in the escape of six security prisoners from Gilboa Prison earlier this week was unmanned at the time of the prison break, a number of Hebrew media outlets reported on Thursday.
The tunnel’s exit was just a few meters away from the guard tower. The Ynet news site said the reason for the post being unstaffed was unclear, and that a camera was pointed at the tunnel’s opening, but nobody was watching the video feed.
The Haaretz newspaper reported that the tower had been vacant for over a month at the orders of the prison commander Freddy Ben Shitrit due to a manpower shortage. Channel 13 news cited budgetary considerations.
In another nearby tower, the guard was asleep during the incident. Channel 13 news reported Thursday that the guard told her commanders that she heard noises, got up but couldn’t see anything, and went back to sleep.
The six escapees in the break discovered on Monday morning include Zakaria Zubeidi, a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.
Four escapees were in jail for life in connection with deadly attacks against Israelis and affiliation with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. The remaining prisoner was being held in administrative detention and had not been charged with a crime other than belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The nationwide search for the escapees, who are all considered highly dangerous, stretched into its fourth day on Thursday, with significant military backup joining Israeli police. The jailbreak has sparked riots in prisons around the country, as well as in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
A cell in the Rimon Prison in southern Israel was set ablaze on Thursday, as Palestinian terror convicts in Israeli jails continue to protest changes imposed after the escape.
The Israel Prisons Service said that prisoners started the fire in their cell in Wing 7, and that officials have gained control of the blaze.
The inmates that set the cell on fire are reportedly affiliated with Fatah, not the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group that has been leading the prison unrest in recent days.
Wednesday saw major unrest at Ketziot Prison, where inmates burned several cells, as well as at several other facilities.
The Israel Prisons Service said on Thursday that Gilboa Prison inmates who were transferred to other facilities following the escape would not return to the high-security prison nor any other facility in the north, but would instead be distributed among other prisons in the south and center of the country.
Prison authorities also said that they would boost security, including regular searches of cells, and would disperse Islamic Jihad prisoners among different facilities in order to separate them from each other.
Palestinian media reports indicated that visits by family members to Palestinian security prisoners had been canceled through the end of the month. The International Red Cross later said that it “has been informed by the Israel Prison Services of the cancellation of the family visit program between 12 and 14 September 2021.”
With a number of failures said to have aided the escape, senior officials from the prison service were summoned for questioning earlier in the week amid suspicions that the escapees may have had assistance.
On Wednesday, Israel Prisons Service (IPS) Commissioner Katy Perry pushed back against demands that she resign following the escape, one of the most serious prison breaks in the country’s history.
In a letter to IPS guards and staff, which was made public on Thursday, Perry acknowledged that the incident had shaken the organization. She said that it was necessary to “investigate in depth” whatever negligence had led to the prison break and implement the takeaways from the findings.
Perry, who entered the job in January, offered her staff praise for their work, along with caution against reacting to outside criticism. She vowed to remain at the helm of the organization.
Earlier on Thursday, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev toured the Gilboa Prison and bemoaned the jailbreak as a “failure,” vowing to “leave no stone unturned” in the effort to track down the causes of the incident, according to a readout from his office.
“We will get our hands on the fleeing terrorists, we will correct the failures that led to the escapes — and if we find professional negligence, we will take care of that as well,” he said in a statement.
Judah Ari Gross, Aaron Boxerman, and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.