Israel Prisons Service Commissioner Katy Perry pushed back against demands that she resign following the escape earlier this week of six Palestinian security prisoners from the high-security Gilboa Prison, in one of the most serious prison breaks in the country’s history.
In a letter to IPS guards and staff Wednesday evening, which was made public Thursday, Perry acknowledged that the incident had shaken the organization. She said 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.
“I am here to continue to lead you,” she wrote, “and together serve the State of Israel and its citizens.”
Yariv Cohen, chief warden of the Hermon Prison in the north, told the Ynet news site on Thursday that there was no reason for Perry to resign.
“You have to distinguish between responsibility and guilt,” said Cohen. “We are responsible, but where does the guilt lie? We’re still investigating that… we need the commissioner as she is — determined, steadfast and providing us with the strength to work.”
Cohen told the news site that the investigation “is not yet at the level where we know how much of a failure [of prison officials] there was. It is clear that those six terrorists need to be now behind bars — and they’re not.” He added that there is “no doubt that we have to investigate how our intelligence did not know about this, because the fact is we did not know.”
On Thursday, Public Security Minister toured the prison and bemoaned the jailbreak as a “failure” and vowed 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 earlier in the day.
The investigation into the prison escape was transferred on Thursday from the Israel Police Northern Command to the Unit of International Crime Investigations within Lahav 433, the Israel Police’s special investigative division.
The Israel Prisons Service said 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 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 it “has been informed by the Israel Prison Services of the cancellation of the family visit program between 12 and 14 September 2021.”
The nationwide search for the six escapees, who are 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.
The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday said it was boosting its aid to the search efforts, with two battalions, six companies, two recon teams, a number of special forces squads and aerial surveillance teams assisting. The army also announced it was extending its closure of the West Bank, amid fears of escalating violence in the area.
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said two brothers of Mahmud Ardah, described in local media as the mastermind of the escape, have been arrested. The army has also taken into custody four other people — fellow family member Dr. Nidal Ardah, along with two brothers of a second fugitive and the father of Munadel Infeiat, another escapee.
Palestinians held large-scale demonstrations across the West Bank and Jerusalem Wednesday night, some of them violent, in solidarity with the escaped prisoners. Five of the fugitives are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group; the sixth is a notorious Fatah terror chief.
A total of some 400 Palestinians confronted IDF troops at eight West Bank flashpoints, burning tires and throwing rocks.
In at least one case, rioters near the Judea and Samaria Square in the Ramallah district of the West Bank were reported to have used live fire against Israeli soldiers, but missed them. A similar incident occurred at the same place amid a violent demonstration in May during which two Israeli soldiers were wounded.
Unrest was reported near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, in the East Jerusalem Issawiya neighborhood, in Hebron, in Hawara, in Azzoun, near Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and in other locations in the West Bank.
In the days following the escape, security prisoners in several Israeli facilities have held riots. Wednesday saw major unrest at Ketziot Prison, where inmates burned several cells, as well as at several other facilities.
On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was “prepared for every eventuality,” following a meeting with the defense minister, public security minister, IDF chief of staff, Shin Bet chief, Israel Police commissioner, Israel Prisons Service commissioner, national security adviser and other top defense officials.
The West Bank closure, a routine procedure during Israeli and Jewish holidays, was put in place ahead of Monday’s Rosh Hashanah two-day holiday. It had been set to end on Wednesday at midnight, but will instead continue through Saturday night, the military said.
The six escapees 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 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 Islamic Jihad.
It was not clear if the escapees were still in Israeli territory, or had crossed into the West Bank or even Jordan.
Judah Ari Gross, Aaron Boxerman, and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.