Report: Shin Bet forgoes arresting terror suspects due to prison overcrowding

‘Ongoing and increasing dearth of holding facilities’ thwarted over 30 arrests in past week alone, agency said to have told government, as wartime incarcerations pack jail cells

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a search operation in the West Bank village of Baita, August 21, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a search operation in the West Bank village of Baita, August 21, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

A shortage of prison space has led the Shin Bet to eschew arrests for numerous West Bank Palestinians suspected of links to terrorism, Channel 12 reported on Saturday, citing a letter that the security agency had sent to political leaders the previous day.

“The high threat level requires extensive preventative actions which result in frequent arrests,” read the letter, according to Channel 12. “Absent these, terrorism and violence on the ground will metastasize.”

The letter added that “the ongoing and increasing lack of holding facilities impedes the Shin Bet’s ability to carry out arrests,” warning that the predicament would “force an increase in threat levels on the ground.”

“Just last week, more than 30 arrests in the West Bank were canceled” because of the lack of prison holding space, Channel 12 quoted the Shin Bet’s letter as saying.

In March, Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar informed cabinet ministers that the agency had released some 40 Palestinians from administrative detention a month early to free up space “for detainees of a higher threat level.” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, incensed by the move, told Bar that “if there is a shortage in space — release the Jewish administrative detainees.”

“Administrative detention” is a controversial tool employed by Israeli forces to detain Palestinian — and, more rarely, Jewish — terror suspects without charge or trial, often for months on end without access to legal counsel. The tool is typically used when authorities have intelligence tying a suspect to a crime but do not have enough evidence for charges to stand up in a court of law.

File – National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (left) at a conference in Jerusalem, on February 21, 2023, and Ronen Bar (right), head of the Shin Bet security agency speaks at a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel; Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Usage of the tool has sharply risen amid the current war against Hamas in Gaza and Israel’s fears that the violence could spill over to the West Bank, whose Palestinian administration is run by Hamas’s secularist rival Fatah.

A week after the news of the prisoner releases in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered government ministries to prepare prisons for an influx of thousands of inmates. During a meeting with representatives from the ministries of defense, national security, and finance, the IDF and Shin Bet presented estimates showing that thousands of terrorists are expected to be arrested in 2024, which will lead to a lack of space in the prisons if preparations are not made.

Since the war began on October 7, troops have arrested some 3,850 wanted Palestinians across the West Bank, including more than 1,650 affiliated with Hamas. According to the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority’s health ministry, more than 490 West Bank Palestinians have been killed in that time.

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