Analysis |

Palestinian Prison Break Could Embolden Terror Groups in West Bank and Gaza

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Jenin, West Bank, last month.
Member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Jenin, West Bank, last month.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The unbelievable escape of the six security prisoners from Gilboa Prison early Monday morning was received with a tempestuous mix of Palestinian pride, Israeli embarrassment, a strange joy on social media and too many mentions of the movie “The Shawshank Redemption."

But this Hollywood escape, which exposed hair-raising failures on the part of Israel Prison Service, also includes a certain amount of security risk.

The six fugitives have already become heroes in the Palestinian Territories. Their success is expected to put new wind into the sails of terrorist organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – and if the manhunt for them ends in a collision with Israeli security forces, their deaths could lead to a new wave of terrorist attacks.

The prison escape is presented among Palestinians as a second humiliation for Israel, after the spreading of the pictures of the incident in which Border Police officer Barel Hadaria Shmueli was killed by a Hamas operative who shot Shmueli from close range on the Gaza border.

The escape will boost the image of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which most of the fugitives belonged to. And Islamic Jihad members are reinforced by a figure who is a legend of his own, Zakaria Zubeidi, who was one of the leaders of the Fatah's Tanzim militia in the Jenin refugee camp during the Second Intifada.

Israeli security forces outside Gilboa Prison following the escape of six Palestinians, today.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Zubeidi survived that period, including a long Israeli manhunt for him, violent disputes with the Palestinian Authority and repeated prison terms both in the West Bank and in Israel. Even before the escape he aroused constant attention around him.

In February 2019, after many years during which Zubeidi allegedly had stopped armed operations, he was once again arrested by the Shin Bet security agency after being charged with involvement in an unusual series of shooting attacks, alongside a lawyer from East Jerusalem. His trial is still ongoing.

The six fugitives, residents of the Jenin area in the West Bank, were for some reason put together in the same cell in the Gilboa Prison, only 15 kilometers away from their hometown and in the seam zone that is completely breached. After the escape, and during the blame game between the various security organizations, a joint command post was established to supervise and carry out the manhunt.

The main line of investigation shows that the fugitives took the short and obvious route to the northern West Bank, but as far as is known so far, there isn't sufficient intelligence to support this assumption. The possibility that the escapees will try to cross the border to Jordan hasn't been ruled out and therefore security along the border – which is usually rather sparse – has been increased and the security coordination with the Jordanians has also been tightened.

The northern West Bank is also considered to be a turbulent region, and especially the Jenin refugee camp where Zubeidi lived until his latest arrest.

Security forces near the tunnel exit outside Gilboa Prison, today. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Recently, an increasing dominance of armed groups in the refugee camp has been felt, almost completely preventing the operations of the Palestinian Authority security forces there. At the same time, every entry of the Israeli military and Border Police to the camp to carry out arrests has been met with a volley of fire. 

In August, two incidents occurred in which five armed Palestinians were killed in an exchange of fire with the police’s counterterrorism unit and the Border Police’s mista’aravim undercover unit.

It can be assumed that the Palestinian Authority will keep itself as far away as possible from this hot potato. If Israel finds the fugitives soon, it would have to arrest them using its own forces. The next few days will be accompanied by great security tension surrounding the attempts to locate them. If something goes wrong – and the escapees try to carry out a kidnapping, or some other terrorist attack – the Bennett-Lapid government and Israel's security forces would face serious challenges.

Even now, this incident seems to be the first urgent security crisis facing the new government both because it is fascinating for the public and media in Israel, as well as concerns this would lead to imitation attempts on the Palestinian side.

As expected, the opposition is complaining about the weakness and helplessness of the new government, which seemingly has lost the deterrence against terror groups. Such things, it has been claimed, could never have happened under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Public Security Minister Omar Bar-Lev and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett indeed bear full responsibility for this escape. But it might be appropriate to remember the systematic destruction sowed by recent Likud governments in the ranks of the Israel Prison Service – and to a great extent also among the police’s top brass.

Hole in the ground from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped, outside Gilboa Prison, Israel, today.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The commission of inquiry that will certainly be established is expected to focus on the direct failures that enabled the escape. Bar-Lev and Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry said on Monday morning, to great amazement, that the cell was built on poles and above an empty space. Furthermore, a metal plate that was welded in under the cell's toilet was the only thing standing between the prisoners and their escape route. But this seems to be only part of the story.

According to senior Prison Service officials, at least another 20 meters of dirt separated between the metal plate and the escape route. This dirt had to be dug through to get under the prison wall. So, it is possible that prisoners had been digging an escape tunnel for many months, without intelligence services – both in the prison and the security establishment – knowing anything about it.

One could also ask if the escapees received help from the outside. The fact that they disappeared from the scene relatively fast could indicate that someone picked them up in a vehicle outside the prison. In addition, the prisoners’ uniforms were found on the scene, near the tunnel shaft. Did the fugitives manage to stay in touch with people who helped them on the outside?

The Prison Service has a dubious history of making deals to maintain general quiet with security prisoners, like removing blockers that prevented cellular phone reception inside the prison.

Up until a few months ago, Zubeidi and other senior Palestinian militants were housed in the special wing known as the "safe" in the Hadarim Prison, where powerful cellular phone blockers are installed. For some unknown reason, the prisoners in the wing were moved elsewhere and Zubeidi was transferred to the Gilboa Prison. As far as is known, the effective custom of moving all the prisoners between prison wings every few months to prevent escape plans has been abandoned. And there is a suspicion, at the very least, that the prison did not use the cellular blockers intensively enough.

In their excellent book, “Intifada,” Zeev Schiff and Ehud Yaari describe one of the incidents that heralded the outbreak of the First Intifada. On May 18, 1987, six Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners escaped from prison in Gaza City, which was still under Israeli control at the time. The hunt for the six continued for about five months, during which they carried out a series of deadly terrorist attacks throughout the Gaza Strip. Five of them were killed. The sixth, Imad Siftawi, managed to escape to Egypt. A Shin Bet officer was also killed in a fight with the terror cell.

“The daring escape was the opening point of the heroic legend, that was woven quickly around the small organization … the stories of the escapees were the match that set fire to the straw of the distress and humiliation,” wrote Schiff and Yaari. About two months after the killing of the members of the cell, the First Intifada erupted in the territories.

History never repeats itself exactly, but it seems that if Israel does not take control of the situation swiftly – it could very well find that the Palestinian organizations have once again found the match they have been looking for.

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