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After Palestinian Escape, Israel’s Prison Chief Faces Moment of Truth

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A demonstration in support of Palestinian inmates who escaped from prison, Nazareth, last week.
A demonstration in support of Palestinian inmates who escaped from prison, Nazareth, last week.Credit: Rami Shllush

At a cabinet meeting early this week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the escape of six high-security inmates from Gilboa Prison two weeks ago revealed a long string of failures, while “some of the state’s systems have atrophied in recent years.”

>>Israeli forces capture last two Palestinian inmates in Jenin

Obviously Bennett has an interest in shifting responsibility for the escape to his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, but in this case he’s right. The cumulative damage of 12 years of Netanyahu’s rule, particularly the last three under the shadow of criminal proceedings, is vast. Cronies promoted, overly-political hirings, loose oversight and at times a deliberate weakening of the law enforcement system – all this comes with a price.

The damage caused by Netanyahu won’t provide Bennett with an excuse for every foul-up uncovered in the next few years, but it certainly provides mitigating circumstances. Interrogations of the Palestinians who were captured revealed that contrary to early claims, when they were on the run they received no significant aid from Arab Israelis. On the contrary, most of the people they encountered refused to help them, and two even reported that they bumped into suspicious-looking characters.

The burning issue for the Arab community isn’t the (relatively limited) aid to Palestinian terrorism, but the crime wave running wild in Arab municipalities and affecting every aspect of life. The past few weeks have seen murders in the Arab community almost every day.

Bennett appointed Deputy Public Security Minister Yoav Segalovitz to head a task force to deal with crime in the Arab community. This issue must remain a high priority, otherwise it will continue to cast a shadow over the lives of Arab citizens and spill over into the Jewish community, whether criminally or like the nationalist riots in May during the fighting with Gaza.

As for the investigation into the escape that will begin next week, a commission has been appointed headed by a retired judge, Menachem Finkelstein. Gen. (ret.) Finkelstein was military advocate general for most of the second intifada. The other members of the commission are also highly experienced. Based on the failures already uncovered, it’s likely that Prison Service chief Katy Perry will struggle to keep her job.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev, center left, his deputy Yoav Segalovitz, left, and prison chief Katy Perry, right, at Ketzion Prison last week. Credit: Israel Prison Service

The fact that she was appointed not by the sitting public security minister, Labor’s Omer Bar-Lev, but by his predecessor, Likud’s Amir Ohana, reduces Bar-Lev’s commitment to her, regardless of the lip service he has been forced to pay in public statements. Whether Perry is fired or, as is more likely, resigns, replacing her will be an easy solution, letting the government signal that housecleaning will follow.

Interviews with former senior people at the Prison Service confirm many of the troubling details at Israel’s weakest security service revealed in the past two weeks by Haaretz’s Josh Breiner.

It’s clear that the mechanism for promoting officers has been usurped at the Prison Service by Likud. In recent years many appointments, including mid-level ones, have been made due to the influence of Likud members. Meanwhile, officers seen as too independent, or as suspected leftists (heaven forbid), have been shown the door.

The government’s supervision of the Prison Service has been weak; it wakes up only when problems threaten to deteriorate the situation in the occupied territories. The main example was the security prisoners’ hunger strike in 2012 that lasted almost a month. The strike was led by Hamas members, who protested the holding of 21 prisoners in total isolation.

For years, the Shin Bet security service dictated this tactic of solitary confinement in which family visits are denied as well. Usually it’s done to settle scores with inmates who planned terror attacks from prison. To end the strike, amid fears it would ignite violence in the territories, Israel abolished the isolation policy. The deal was crafted via indirect negotiations with Hamas in Cairo.

Three years ago, then-Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan appointed a committee to discuss tightening the conditions of security prisoners, due in part to criticism from families of terror victims. Erdan wanted to ban cellphones from the security wings, end cooking by the prisoners and limit the satellite TV channels available to them.

Some of his attempts fizzled out, or the Prison Service was drawn into useless pursuits such as preventing the prisoners from watching the soccer World Cup in 2018.

Prison chief Katy Perry testifying at a committee meeting in the Knesset this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Channel 11 was deliberately left among the channels open to the Palestinian prisoners, in the belief that it would reflect the government’s messaging. But when it turned out that this channel would be carrying the World Cup, an outcry ensued and prison officials found themselves cutting off the soccer broadcasts (thus also punishing the criminal prisoners, who complained, of course).

Now we’ve learned about other decisions; for example, in some security wards, the disruption of cellphone traffic has gradually petered out. Also, it has been claimed that a blind eye was turned when a senior Hamas prisoner was caught with smuggled phones. The Prison Service has also reneged on putting all senior Hamas prisoners in a single ward under heavy security and no cellular reception.

Some of these processes began long before Perry’s term. But the appointment of a new commissioner, with a young and inexperienced staff under her while many solid senior officers were pressured to resign, contributed to the failure.

This was seen in the escape. Ten prisoners helped dig the escape tunnel or knew about it – and the Prison Service had no clue. Even before that, the service and the police were run by substitute commanders due to the paralysis caused by Netanyahu as he led the country into four straight election campaigns.

The living and the dead

The Hamas leadership in Gaza, which issued a statement of support for the escaped prisoners, has said it will demand the release of the captured fugitives in any future hostage deal.

The escape, as well as the difficulties in achieving a lasting agreement for the Gaza Strip, refocus attention on the civilians and soldiers’ bodies being held in Gaza – the civilians are Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, the soldiers Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. 1st Class Oron Shaul. Just before Yom Kippur, Bennett met with members of the Mengistu family for the first time.

A demonstration in Jerusalem last year to get civilian Abera Mengistu released from Gaza.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The gap between the two sides is well known. The Hamas leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar, is dictating the group’s position, which also stems from his history. Sinwar spent over 20 years in Israeli prisons for the murder of Palestinians suspected of collaboration with Israel, only to be released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011.

Sinwar’s younger brother, Mohammed, a Hamas brigade commander in the Khan Yunis area in southern Gaza, took part in the operation that captured Shalit, leading to the release of 1,027 Palestinians from Israeli prisons. Sinwar knows that the value of the “assets” held by his organization is different this time, but he’s still demanding the release of hundreds of prisoners, murderers among them. Israel rejects his demands – and here there is little daylight between Bennett and Netanyahu so far.

Throughout the negotiations, held on and off since the 2014 Gaza war, no real distinction has been made between the living prisoners and the soldiers’ remains. Mengistu and al-Sayed, both of whom are mentally challenged and have been hospitalized in Israel, crossed  into Gaza of their own volition (and separately). As far as Israeli security officials know, the two are still alive. A long captivity, the more so for people with mental disabilities, means immense suffering and irrevocable damage.

The international community has less tolerance for the holding of mental patients in such conditions. It's possible that an Israeli campaign targeting this issue will stoke global pressure on Hamas to release the two on humanitarian grounds. But Israel, like Hamas, bundles Mengistu and al-Sayed with Goldin and Shaul, and the negotiations seem stuck.

The Goldin and Shaul families’ struggle to have their sons' remains  returned is admirable. Even though they’ve had plenty of harsh criticism for Netanyahu and now Bennett, they haven’t opted for disgusting personal attacks. Their desire to see their sons receive a proper Jewish burial is completely understandable – and there is importance in the message sent to combat soldiers and their families if the army finds itself at war in Gaza or Lebanon again.

And yet, their decision to always speak publicly about the two as if they were still alive (an approach adopted by the media as well) creates confusion among the public. After all, defense officials have concluded that the two were killed, not just wounded, in the 2014 Gaza war, and their bodies were snatched by Hamas.

It seems the time has come to consider tweaking the Israeli position: Put pressure on the humanitarian front to release the two mentally challenged civilians, whose lives can still be saved, while continuing negotiations to return the soldiers’ remains.

Such a move may contradict the sentiments of everyday Israelis, who identify with the families of the brave soldiers and are almost indifferent to those of mental patients from the margins of society. And yet, both morally and practically, it seems like the right thing to do.

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