Israel Prison Chief Tried to Axe Warden in Palestinian Jailbreak, Says Won't Be 'Scapegoated'

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

Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry has tried to suspend Gilboa Prison’s commander in the wake of the jailbreak of six Palestinian prisoners earlier this month, but has been unable to do so due to legal obstacles.

Haaretz has learned that Katy requested that prison warden Freddy Ben-Sheetrit be suspended and examined the possibility of dismissing him, but she is unable to take steps against him due to the ongoing police investigation of the escape. The Prison Service is not able to conduct its own investigation lest it disrupt the one being led by the police.

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Ben-Sheetrit has told Prison Service officials that he has no intention of resigning and told close associates that “everything I have to say, and I have a lot to say, I will tell the investigating commission,” he said referring to the state commission of inquiry into the jailbreak of six security prisoners, who have since been recaptured.

Other senior officials in the Prison Service also refuse to take responsibility for the escape, among them Northern District Commander Arik Yaakov, head of the service’s security division, Moni Bitan, and Perry herself.

Suspension of a senior officer in the Prison Service also requires the public security minister’s approval. The police investigation has already raised several issues concerning Ben-Sheetrit’s conduct, including the decision not to man the guard tower, aspects of prison security and conduct vis-à-vis the prisoners. At this stage, the Prison Service legal advisors have not approved an independent investigation by the organization.

Israeli authorities searching for the Palestinian prisoners on the day of the escape, near Kfar Yehoshua, September 2021.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The prison commissioner herself has said in closed conversations in recent days that she does not intend to be the “scapegoat” and has no intention of resigning. Noting that she only assumed the position last January, she said that the prison infrastructure has suffered neglect for years as has the country’s attitude toward the Prison Service, which has led to keeping “the most difficult population in the country in obsolete facilities.”

Perry says her resignation would be “an irrational deed” and that it would be inappropriate from a leadership perspective for her to leave after the crisis when the organization needs her to bring it together. “There have also been operational setbacks in other organizations, and they have been examined, investigated, and conclusions drawn with the aim of improving.”

Perry also cast responsibility on her predecessors in the position, saying that they did not invest in advanced technology in the prisons. “The budget was less than 15 million shekels for technology, less than for paving a road,” she said in a closed conversation.

An example is the failure to seal the space beneath the wings of Gilboa Prison through which the prisoners dug a tunnel. This issue was known to the security department and the prison administrators, though Perry herself, she says, learned of the problem only after the escape. A team from the army’s special combat engineering unit and Prison Service personnel, who began an examination of all the prisons since the escape, has discovered similar spaces in other prisons. It’s not clear whether they are the result of the prison structure or human efforts.

Perry and other top Prison Service personnel are waiting for the cabinet’s decision on establishing a state commission of inquiry, which was delayed for two weeks over concern about conflicts of interests of some of the candidates. The commission is slated to be established in the next few days, and will be headed by Judge Menachem Finkelstein.

Gilboa Prison from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped, last week.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Criticism is likely to be directed at three officials: Ben-Sheetrit, the Northern District commander and the head of the security division, according to senior Prison Service sources. It was Perry herself who appointed the head of the security division, Regev Dhrig, even though he had no experience.

Now it emerges that when he took up the position, top people in the division were also replaced, among them the head of intelligence-gathering, so that in effect the entire division was without any experience. Among the questions that will be asked are how no one discovered the preparations for escape which were underway for nine months and why prisoners defined as being at high-risk for escape were allowed to live together in the same cell.

Perry says intelligence personnel must answer for the mishaps. But service insiders say responsibility for the escape is largely Perry’s because of her appointment of inexperienced security division personnel who failed to discover the escape plot.

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