Guard Tower Had Been Unmanned for Over a Month Before Palestinian Prisoner Escape

Israeli officials say 'understaffing' at Gilboa Prison led to the decision. At another watchtower overlooking the inmates' route, the guard was asleep during the escape

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The watchtower at Gilboa Prison, Monday.
The watchtower at Gilboa Prison, Monday.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The guard tower directly above the exit of the tunnel through which six high-security Palestinian prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel was unstaffed on the night of the escape.

Corrections officers at the facility and people involved in the search for the fugitives say the prison warden eliminated staffing at all guard towers except for two at the corners of the compound, citing "understaffing" at the facility. Security cameras installed on the perimeter walls monitor activity.

The corrections officers said there have been no guards in the tower above the tunnel exit for over a month.

The Israel Prison Service and the director of the prison have not yet commented.

It was earlier reported upon that the guard on a second watchtower on the escape route had fallen asleep. In reference to this tower, police and IPS officials say that a guard stationed at the watchtower would have noticed six people walking near the prison wall and even crossing the road, as testified by a taxi driver who called police.

"There is no way to miss such a thing," several officials said.

Between 1:20 and 1:40 A.M. on the night between Sunday and Monday, Rosh Hashana eve, six security prisoners escaped from cell No. 5 in Wing 2 of the prison in the Jezreel Valley. The six escaped through a tunnel they dug from within their cell, apparently over the last six months.

Their escape from Gilboa Prison exposed a raft of failures in the work of the Prison Service. 

Meanwhile, the extensive manhunt for the escaped inmates, five of whom were affiliated with the Islamic Jihad, has now entered its fourth day, focusing on the areas of Beit She'an, Wadi Ara and Jenin.

The investigation of the prison break is expected to be transferred on Thursday to the Israel Police's international crime unit from the central unit of the Northern District Police, in order to allow the latter unit's investigators to focus on other events.

At the same time, the national unit for investigating prison staff is still probing whether jailers aided in the escape. So far, 19 guards have been questioned, some twice.

A senior police official said that there is no indication that any guards cooperated with the escaped prisoners.

Government commission of inquiry

Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev wants a government committee to be convened to investigate the escape by six prisoners. He is expected to seek cabinet approval for the move shortly. For the committee to have the authority of a committee of inquiry, it will probably be headed by a retired judge, which would require the approval of Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar. By law, if the panel finds reason to believe that criminal offenses were committed, it must inform Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who would then decide what further steps to take.  

Prior public security ministers established a number of similar inquiry committees, such as the one headed by Justice Vardi Zeiler that investigated police ties to criminal figures in the south in 2005.  After the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Winograd Committee was formed to investigate the failures of that war. 

If a committee is convened on the prison break, it is expected to examine a number of failings that facilitated the prisoners’ escape: The six prisoners were housed in the same cell even though they are all are from the Jenin area; three were previously deemed at “high-risk for escape”; Gilboa Prison has no patrol vehicle that can be used to monitor for suspects and escape attempts; the Prison Service’s intelligence department had obtained information about prisoners planning to escape; the system that blocks the prisoners' cellphone reception was not fully activated; and the engineering blueprints for the layout of the prison were published on an architecture firm’s website.

In making their escape, Zakaria Zubeidi – a Fatah activist and former Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades commander in Jenin – and the five prisoners from Islamic Jihad removed a metal cover from the floor of their cell’s lavatory and found an empty space underneath, through which they dug a tunnel dozens of meters long that extended beyond the prison walls.

Prison guards also noted that a roll call of prisoners was only begun about 40 minutes after the six fled because the police delayed informing them of suspicions of a prison break. A police volunteer who went to the vicinity of the prison after the cab driver reported seeing suspicious figures near the prison wall immediately called the number that the police had for the Prison Service control center, but the number had been changed several weeks ago and the police had not been informed

As a result, the volunteer rode with a policeman to nearby Shata Prison, notified a sentry of the suspicions and asked for the correct number for the control center. But that caused a delay of several minutes in reporting the suspicions.

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