A senior official in the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) railed against Gilboa Prison commander Freddy Ben Shitrit on Monday, blaming him for the breakout of six Palestinian terror convicts from the prison last year.
IPS Northern District Commander Arik Yaakov, who is himself facing potential backlash over the scandal, said in his testimony to the commission of inquiry investigating the escape that Ben Shitrit “failed at everything.”
“It’s not a coincidence that it happened [at Gilboa Prison],” Yaakov told the committee, refusing to accept part of the blame and insisting that the circumstances that led to the escape there do not reflect on the district as a whole.
Yaakov accused Ben Shitrit of serving as a “rubber stamp” and accepting everything he had been told by his intelligence officer, without questioning the information or trying to confirm it.
“He wasn’t aware of what was happening. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else,” Yaakov charged. “For him to say ‘I relied on my intelligence officer’ [in his testimony] is outrageous… Intelligence has to be backed up with actions,” he said.
At the time, Yaakov considered Ben Shitrit to be a good commander, he said, but has since come to believe that the Gilboa Prison chief manipulated him and lied to him.
“I didn’t recognize the huge gap in his conduct… The image presented was of [Ben Shitrit] leading the prison with a firm hand,” he said, adding that “the committee has painted a very different image of his conduct.”
Yaakov argued that Ben Shitrit “managed to mislead the entire IPS command structure.”
He pointed to several red flags that “required action” and were apparently dismissed by Ben Shitrit, including sand residue found in the sewer after the escape. He gave as an example an escape that was thwarted at the Shata Prison after one inmate reported seeing sand on a different inmate’s wrist that got there while digging a tunnel. “The [security] wing shouldn’t have gardens or sand,” he said.
He also said that according to IPS policy, prisoners considered at high risk of escaping should not be partnered in the same cell for long periods of time, as was the case at Gilboa Prison.
He noted the security towers that were not manned on the night of the escape, as well as the prison guard who had heard dog barks but failed to report it.
These failures and others “should have raised a red flag for the ward commander, the intelligence officer and the prison commander,” Yaakov said.
In his testimony to the probing committee last week, Ben Shitrit confessed that he may have made mistakes and took responsibility for the escape.
“People can make mistakes,” he said. “I would like to clarify that I take full responsibility for what takes place in the prison.”
However, he insisted that as a commander, he did what was expected of him. “As far as I’m concerned, I gave the right orders. If my subordinates were wrong, as a commander, I feel like I’m responsible.”
Asked by the committee how he explains the many failures to take place at the time of the escape, Ben Shitrit said: “It was unfortunate, a bunch of factors coming together.”
Meanwhile, a separate investigation is looking into accusations of a female soldier who said last week she was raped and sexually assaulted by a Palestinian security prisoner while serving at Gilboa Prison and with the knowledge of her commanders.
Ben Shitrit, who did not serve as prison commander at the time, confirmed in November some reports about female soldiers being “pimped” to Palestinian prisoners at the prison. This led to the firing of the intelligence officer at the prison, Rani Basha, last month.
Speaking to Army Radio on Monday, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said the IPS was a “rotten organization,” adding that “no one cared about what was going on there.”
“A big part of what we’ve been doing this past year is carrying out steps meant to shed light on the organization, on a leadership level but also on a technical level,” he continued. “There’s still a long way to go before this organization can function properly.”
The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.