High-profile jailbreak exposes holes in prison security, sparks copycat fears

Israel Prisons Service emerges as a weak link in Israel’s security, with 6 inmates escaping through same structural defects used in a similar, failed attempt in 2014

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape outside the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape outside the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The escape of six inmates from Gilboa Prison on Monday is primarily a major security risk, putting several hardened criminals, including a major terrorist leader, back onto the streets of Israel, the West Bank or Jordan, but it is also a deeply humiliating moment for the Israel Prisons Service.

All of Israel’s security services were called in to assist with the manhunt: police established checkpoints throughout northern Israel, including near the Jordanian border, and sent additional officers to cities and towns in the area; the Israel Defense Forces also set up roadblocks around the northern West Bank and dispatched reconnaissance aircraft to help gather intelligence; and the Shin Bet security service is bringing to bear its technological capabilities and well-placed human intel sources.

The immediate concern in Israel is that the fugitives will attempt to carry out an attack, but there is also a worry that the longer the prisoners are on the run, the harder it will become to find them.

The six inmates are considered extremely dangerous — particularly Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who played a key role in the Second Intifada.

The other five were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. One was in prison for his role in murdering an Israeli teenager in the Itamar settlement in 2006; two brothers were serving life sentences for terror offenses; another was serving a life sentence for planning terror attacks; and the fifth was being held indefinitely under administrative detention.

In addition to the immediate threat posed by these six fugitives, highly public security-related events have a tendency to encourage further terrorist acts. Military officials refer to this concept by the Hebrew phrase Pigua rodef pigua, literally, “A terror attack chases a terror attack.”

Supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement celebrate the escape of six Palestinians from an Israeli prison, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 6, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

For that reason, the IDF’s heavier deployment in the West Bank is not only geared toward catching the fugitives, but also towards being able to respond quickly to any attack or security incident.

This is especially critical around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which began Monday evening and kicks off the month-long Jewish High Holiday season. This period regularly sees heightened tensions and attacks.

Israeli security forces patrol along the security fence in the village of Muqeibila near the West Bank town of Jenin, on September 6, 2021, following the escape of six Palestinians from an Israeli prison. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Tensions were already high, with many clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in the northern West Bank in recent weeks and ongoing violence along the Gaza border, including a deadly riot last month during which a Palestinian gunman opened fire at an Israeli border guard from point-blank range, killing him.

Palestinian terror groups have gleefully commented on the prison break, calling it “an utter failure for the occupation army” and a “strong slap to the Israeli military and the whole Israeli system.”

Yom Kippur before Rosh Hashanah

While the prison break occurred on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a senior Israel Prisons Service official told the Haaretz newspaper that this escape was “Judgement Day for the organization,” a reference to Yom Kippur.

The comment spoke both to the severity of the event and to the major intelligence failure that preceded the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which the country was caught off-guard by a surprise attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces.

The head of the Israel Prisons Service, Katy Perry, promised in a press conference that her organization would “study the event and learn lessons.”

But while heads will certainly roll for this dramatic prison break, which evoked scenes from classic prison movies like The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape, the lessons that will be learned from this event will be ones that the Israel Prisons Service should already have internalized.

The six fugitives made their escape by digging through the concrete and metal rebar flooring in their bathroom and removing a slab that led to a series of gaps in the prison’s structure.

They used these to leave the compound underground and then tunneled their way up to a road on the south side of the facility.

A hole used by six Palestinian prisoners to escape from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (Israeli Prisons Service via AP)

Prison officials have been aware of this structural problem in Gilboa Prison — that there are large gaps in the prison floors and walls that can be used for escape — since 2014, when the service foiled a nearly identical escape attempt by eight inmates, also members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Israeli security officials believe that the men relied on outside help for their escape, using contraband cellphones. But the Israel Prisons Service is acutely aware that cellphones are regularly smuggled into its facilities in a variety of ways — which have been used to coordinate attacks in the past — and it has advanced cellphone service blocking capabilities in many of its facilities, including Gilboa Prison.

This jamming equipment was installed in the prison a year ago, but hasn’t been used, likely to avoid a strike by the prisoners, as has happened in the past when such systems have been introduced.

These two failures are not new lessons to be learned, but known problems with known solutions, however difficult, that must be addressed. An area in which the Israel Prisons Service does need to study and determine how best to address is in the way it responded — or failed to adequately respond — to warning signs that a prison break had occurred.

The six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison on Monday, September 6, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Yaqoub Qadiri, Mohammad al-Arida, Mahmoud al-Arida, Iham Kamamji, Zakaria Zubeidi, and Munadil Nafiyat (Screenshot: Palestinian Prisoners’ Media Office)

According to the service, the men broke out of the facility around 1:30 a.m., but it was not until after 3 a.m. that a search was conducted and they were confirmed to have escaped, despite the Israel Police receiving a call about suspicious men walking near the prison within half an hour of the jailbreak.

In 2014, the Israel Prisons Service was able to thwart the prisoners’ escape because it received advanced intelligence about the attempt. It had no such warning this time, despite the fact that the group’s tunneling efforts likely took months to complete, and this too must be investigated, especially as the service’s internal intelligence department has been gutted in recent years.

While far from perfect, Israel’s security services are highly effective at preventing terror attacks and at catching those who do commit them, often within days. But in Monday’s daring yet surprisingly easy escape, the Israel Prisons Service has emerged as a critically weak link in the country’s security.

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