Probe into 2021 Gilboa jailbreak details ‘dangerous’ failures by Prison Service

Commission of inquiry presents 400-page report on series of blunders that led to brazen escape by 6 Palestinian terrorists; prisons chief let off with little blame

Menachem Finkelstein, head of the commission on inquiry into the 2021 Gilboa prison jailbreak, presents the commission's 400-page report on its probe into the failures of the Israel Prisons Service in the brazen escape, in Modiin on May 17, 2023. (Flash90)
Menachem Finkelstein, head of the commission on inquiry into the 2021 Gilboa prison jailbreak, presents the commission's 400-page report on its probe into the failures of the Israel Prisons Service in the brazen escape, in Modiin on May 17, 2023. (Flash90)

A government commission of inquiry into the 2021 jailbreak by Palestinian prisoners from a prison in northern Israel submitted its final report on Wednesday, with a recommendation that a northern official in the Israel Prison Service (IPS) be removed from his position and that meaningful steps be taking to improve the service’s operational procedures.

The 400-page report handed over to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir detailed numerous failures and operational deficiencies in the general handling of prisoners, including in areas of intelligence, prisoner transfers, and prisoner treatment, which the commission said made the brazen escape possible.

The commission of inquiry urged lawmakers to take steps to develop the resources-starved prison service and bring its operational procedures up to speed, including by allocating funds to invest in personnel, train more guards, build more prisons, and make use of advanced technology.

The commission recommended that IPS Northern District Commander Arik Yaakov be removed from his role and that he not hold future positions of command in the IPS. Yaakov is expected to stay in the position until September 2023.

No steps were recommended against IPS Commissioner Katy Perry or her deputy Moni Bitan.

The prisoners, including five Islamic Jihad members and notorious Fatah terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi, escaped from Gilboa Prison in the predawn hours of September 6, 2021, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison floors. Several had been convicted of capital crimes and were serving life terms. Four of the prisoners were captured in northern Israel within the first week, and two others made their way into the northern West Bank city of Jenin and hid out there until they were caught.

In this photo provided by Israel Police, Zakaria Zubeidi, left, and Mohammed al-Arida, two of six Palestinian security Prisoners who broke out of Gilboa Prison, are blindfolded and handcuffed after being recaptured in the Arab town of Umm al-Ghanam, northern Israel, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Israeli Police via AP)

The prisoners dug a tunnel for months before the prison break, using plates, panhandles, building debris and part of a metal hanger. They exited into a road on the south side of the prison and were spotted by eyewitnesses who reported seeing suspicious figures. Gilboa Prison was also the site of an attempted escape in 2014, when prison guards uncovered a tunnel dug underneath a bathroom. Three of the prisoners who escaped in 2021 were also involved in the 2014 attempt.

The 2021 episode was seen as a major failure and embarrassment to the IPS and exposed a series of lapses at the prison, including a failure to learn lessons from previous escape attempts and several operational blunders, such as unmanned watchtowers and sleeping guards.

Gilboa Prison, February 28, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

The jailbreak also incidentally brought to light allegations of rape and sexual abuse of female guards by Palestinian security prisoners, with the implicit knowledge of senior prison officials, a scandal that shocked the nation and has led to a reevaluation of a years-long agreement allowing military conscripts to be drafted to the IPS.

In November, IPS Commissioner Perry dismissed Freddy Ben Shitrit as warden of Gilboa Prison due to his “unsuitability to continue serving” in the wake of the jailbreak and the rape scandal.

Ben Shitrit’s initial testimony to the commission of inquiry a year prior made headlines when he claimed that female IDF soldiers doing their military service in the prison as guards were “pimped” to Palestinian inmates. He was not at the prison when the incidents allegedly took place.

His testimony led to the reopening of a probe into the allegations of sexual harassment and assault which first surfaced in 2018, but then were largely dropped until the investigation into the prison escape.

The commission of inquiry largely probed the jailbreak, but also detailed the rape scandal in its final report.

In the latter affair, prosecutors are set to file indictments against former commander Bassem Kashkosh and the prison’s former intelligence officer, Rani Basha, on charges of fraud, breach of trust and failure to fulfill their duties, and bring charges against imprisoned Palestinian terror convict Mahmoud Atallah, who is suspected of raping a female prison guard and sexually abusing two others while officials looked the other way.

In his testimony to the commission, Yaakov put the responsibility for the jailbreak on Ben Shitrit, claiming that he had “failed at everything.” Ben Shitrit “wasn’t aware of what was happening. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else,” Yaakov claimed, arguing that Ben Shitrit “managed to mislead the entire IPS command structure.”

Investigators inspect the hole used by six inmates to escape Gilboa Prison, on September 6, 2021. (Israel Prison Service)

Perry, who’d come under scathing criticism and calls to resign as head of the IPS, had also put the blame squarely on Ben Shitrit’s shoulders.

In their report, commission members criticized Ben Shitrit but also Yaakov, saying the latter “failed both in his actions, and in avoiding directing his subordinates as required, and performing supervision and control operations in various areas… within his domain.”

The commission of inquiry gathered more than 50 witness testimonies and examined more than 60,000 documents from the IPS and other relevant parties, according to reports.

Palestinians attend a rally in solidarity with the escape of the six Palestinian prisoners from the Israeli prison of Gilboa on September 8, 2021, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Commission chairman Menachem Finkelstein, a retired judge who previously served as deputy head of the Central District Court and chief military prosecutor, called the escape “a serious and dangerous failure” by the IPS in a press conference Wednesday.

“The Israeli Prison Service is an important security body that carries out its work with dedication. We found failures in the organization… The prisoners surpassed the guards in their vigilance and sharpness,” he said, adding that lessons from the previous attempted prison escape in 2014 were not learned.

Perry welcomed the commission’s findings and said she would “study the report in depth” and correct the deficiencies.

Ben Gvir thanked the commission for its work and said he would study the report carefully.

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