How Israel's Security Failings Enabled an Unthinkable Palestinian Jailbreak

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Gilboa Prison in the north of Israel
Gilboa Prison in the north of IsraelCredit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The security failures that allowed six security prisoners to escape late Sunday night from Gilboa Prison have been known to the Israel Prison Service and police for a long time – but were never corrected, said senior Prison Service officials on Monday morning.

The blame for these failures falls on the commanders of the Gilboa Prison in the north, and the Prison Service’s intelligence division, who operate the institution. Security oversight has plagued the prison long before the planning for the actual escape began.

The architectural blueprint for Gilboa prison, which opened in 2004 and is considered highly secure, was published online by the architecture firm involved in the prison's construction, making it accessible to the public.

The plan, drawn by Poreh Yaacovi Karni Architects, shows the structure of Gilboa Prison, including Wing 2 from where the prisoners escaped overnight.

Escape tunnel used by inmates at Gilboa prison

Poreh Yaacovi Karni Architects' website was taken offline on Monday, but a Google search can still yield the prison's architectural blueprint, as well as those of other prisons across Israel.

At this stage it remains unclear whether the blueprint helped the prisoners escape, but a senior Israel Prison Service official said that publishing the blueprint online is a grave "security oversight. Publishing construction plans of a prison housing security prisoners is a failure of Israel Prison Service."   

Poreh Yaacovi Karni Architects and Israel Prison Service have yet to comment on the matter.

Moreover, a security source said later on Monday that a prison guard who was responsible for the prisoners admitted falling asleep when they made their escape.

She was stationed in the guard tower just above the tunnel shaft through which the prisoners escaped.  

Israel Prison Service said in response that "this is only an initial stage of a police investigation into the incident, and therefore we cannot comment on the matter. Furthermore, transferring prisoners from one cell to another is being done from time to time and according to internal considerations." 

The six prisoners, all charged or convicted of terrorist acts, were placed together in one cell, despite coming from the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank, not very far from the prison. Three of the prisoners were considered to be “prisoners with a high risk of escape.”

Even though Gilboa Prison is supposed to be a high security prison, it does not have a patrol vehicle that circles the prison to find hazards or escape attempts, said a senior Israel Prison Service official. An official in the service warned about these issues, but the prison commanders ignored it – despite finding systematic faults during training exercises at the prison in 2019 and 2020.

“These things are supposed to be basic in every prison, but they said there was no capacity for it, and they preferred to spend the money on other things,” said the senior official. In 2014, prisoners who tried to escape from the prison through a tunnel were captured at the last minute. The exit shaft of the tunnel was discovered this morning. 

The Israel Prison Service complained Monday morning about the original decision to house the prisoners together in the first place: “You don’t put prisoners from the same place together, moreover – you don’t put prisoners from Jenin in Gilboa Prison, which is the closest to it,” said senior prison officials. “You have a prisoner from Jenin? Put him Ketziot Prison, he will be far from his people who may try to help him escape. It’s an enormous intelligence failure.” The service’s intelligence branch had information on the intentions of prisoners to escape, but it is not clear what was done with this information, said a number of sources.

The preliminary investigation found that the six prisoners, who were housed together in Cell 5 in Wing 2 of the prison, which usually holds inmates associated with the Fatah movement, spent months digging the tunnel under the bathroom floor in their cell. The wing is positioned near the prison wall, and the six managed to dig a tunnel under the wall and the dirt road that surrounds the prison. It's believed that they were assisted by individuals from the outside, communicating with a cellphone smuggled into the prison. As details of the escape become clearer, officials still wonder how the inmates disposed of the dug up sand, and how was it never discovered. 

The most well-known inmate, Zakaria Zubeidi, was transferred from cell 3, where he stayed with Fatah prisoners, to cell 5, from where he escaped with five Islamic Jihad prisoners. Zubeidi requested the transfer, and it is unclear why it was granted without arousing suspicion.   

According to a Palestinian source, the Islamic Jihad prisoners included Zubeidi, who is affiliated with Fatah, in their escape plan because they sought assistance from people outside the prison with whom Zubeidi was in contact.      

The Palestinian source added that guards make fewer patrols at Gilboa compared to other Israeli prisons.

In September 2020, the Israel Prison Service installed cellphone blockers in the prison, in spite of the bitter opposition of the security prisoners. At first, when the blockers began operating public telephones were also installed – the prisoners then began a large protest and threatened hunger strikes, riots and even harm to guards.

The top brass of the Israel Prison Service reached an understanding with most of the security prisoners in which they would turn over their smuggled cellphones in exchange for the blockers operating alongside the public phones. But the Hamas prisoners opposed the agreement saying the blocker could damage their health. Even though the phone blockers were installed, they operated at low frequency – and inmates continue to use cellphones smuggled into the prison to this day. “They invested millions in the blockers project, but in the end, preferred not to operate the blockers and let them continue using cellphones in order to keep the peace with the prisoners, it’s an open secret in the Prison Service,” said a senior Israel Prison Service official.

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