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Prison official warned of possible Gilboa jailbreak, days before escape – report

Moni Bitan issued letter over lack of action since 2014 attempted breakout; however, in May he praised facility’s functioning without mentioning any shortcomings

A prison guard is seen in a watchtower at Gilboa prison, in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)
A prison guard is seen in a watchtower at Gilboa prison, in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Flash90)

Just days ahead of the escape of six Palestinian security prisoners from Gilboa Prison earlier this month, the Israel Prisons Service’s deputy chief commissioner warned of a possible jailbreak, according to a Sunday report.

Moni Bitan issued a letter on August 31, less than a week before the jailbreak, saying “the security prisoners, regardless of their organizations, have the potential to escape,” the Walla news site reported.

However in May, Bitan, who also serves as the head of the IPS operations and defense division, conducted a survey of both Gilboa and the adjacent Shata prisons, and concluded in a report that they were both operating well.

The report after the May survey did not mention the possibility that security prisoners could escape, but Bitan later raised the issue just a week before the recent escape, the Walla news site said.

“It is clear that the guards are proficient in the task they are performing and are acting in a professional and proper manner,” Bitan wrote in May, according to Walla.

The six prisoners escaped from the high-security facility in northern Israel in the predawn hours of September 6, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison in one of the most severe prison breaks in the country’s history, which prompted a massive manhunt in northern Israel and the West Bank.

Israel Prisons Service deputy cheif commisoner Moni Bitan (Israel Prisons Service)

The same prison saw an attempted jailbreak in 2014, in which inmates tried to dig a tunnel under their toilet. Bitan cited the 2014 attempted escape in his brief warning in August.

He warned that staff had not implemented lessons learned following the jailbreak attempt seven years ago, and called on the prison to search for more areas that could be exploited for an escape route, the report said.

Bitan had previously served as deputy commander of the Gilboa Prison between 2007 and 2011, and may have known of the facility’s weak points.

The prisoners are said to have carried out the digging using plates and sharpened pan handles and to have dumped the excavated dirt in the sewer system, in garbage cans, and in hollow shafts they found in their wing.

Four of the six escapees, including notorious terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi, were caught by security forces last weekend. Early Sunday morning the two remaining fugitives — Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat — were detained in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, ending the 13-day manhunt.

In this photo provided by Israel’s Prisons Service, a hole in a floor is seen after six Palestinian prisoners escaped from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (Israeli Prisons Service via AP)

The escape is considered one of the worst jailbreaks in Israel’s history and the prisons service has faced significant criticism in the wake of the incident, with a reported series of blunders having enabled the six to escape, including unmanned watchtowers and sleeping guards.

Five of the fugitives were members of the Islamic Jihad terror group. They were charged with various terror-related crimes, from illegal weapons trade, to kidnapping and murder. Zubeidi, a commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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