Safe Haven or Bloodbath: This Will Determine the Fate of Palestinian Fugitives

Israeli security services may say 'no leads' in hunt for Palestinians, but they are employing powerful tools many Israelis only discovered during the pandemic

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Soldiers searching on Wednesday for the six inmates who escaped Gilboa Prison.
Soldiers searching on Wednesday for the six inmates who escaped Gilboa Prison.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israeli authorities’ working assumption is that it will be possible to track down the six security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison in the predawn hours of Monday within a few weeks at most. The six escapees lived in the Jenin area of the West Bank before their incarceration. With the possible exception of a number of totalitarian regimes, the West Bank is subject to as comprehensive and intensive intelligence coverage as anyplace on earth. Sooner or later, it’s likely that an intelligence “signature” will emerge that will indicate to the Shin Bet security service where the six are hiding.

The prison break is an extraordinary, humiliating event for the Prison Service and the government, but the hunt for the fugitives isn’t much different from the effort to track down the perpetrator of a terrorist attack. In this case, the identity of the targets of the pursuit is known, and their network of ties with the world outside has undoubtedly been scrupulously analyzed over the past few days. We can assume that the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence are monitoring all the types of documentation (cameras) and communication (cellular phones, internet) that are relevant with regard to the escapees and their flight route.

Last May, a Palestinian named Muntasir Shalabi shot to death a yeshiva student, Yehuda Guetta, and critically wounded another, at Tapuah junction in the central West Bank. Shalabi was arrested in the Ramallah region, dozens of kilometers south of the murder site, following a manhunt that lasted less than a week. In June 2014, Hamas terrorists kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers who were hitchhiking at the Gush Etzion junction near Bethlehem. The bodies were found buried in a plot of land west of Hebron 18 days later, but it took almost three months before the killers were identified and killed in their place of hiding in Hebron by the Border Police special ops unit.

The Israeli public learned at length about some of the Shin Bet’s coverage capabilities as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Only then, in the wake of its deployment to locate those with whom people infected with COVID had been in contact, was the Shin Bet’s formidable “tool” revealed: a database capable of rapidly monitoring and analyzing almost all the electronic communications traffic in Israel and the territories. With this in mind, the current reports about there being “no clues” about the fugitives’ location should be read with a touch of skepticism. That’s the standard answer of the security forces when they don’t want to update the other side about what they really know.

It’s likely that the fate of the six who escaped will be determined largely according to the area in which they’re hiding. If it turns out that they were able to cross the border into Jordan – a possibility that on Thursday was termed less probable – it’s quite likely that their lives will be saved. Jordan will find it difficult to return to Israel individuals who have already become Palestinian folk heroes; and it certainly will not do so without receiving from Israel guarantees of their safety.

If the six are still inside the Green Line, as the searches conducted in the Galilee could indicate, that could reduce the likelihood that they have armed themselves. And as long as they are not armed, the prospect exists that they will be located and will turn themselves in without a battle.

However, if they fled into the northern West Bank, they may well have sealed their own fate. The most famous of the six, Zakaria Zubeidi, from the Fatah organization, spent most of his life in the Jenin refugee camp, until his arrest by Israel two and a half years ago. For much of the time, Zubeidi carried a personal weapon. If he returned home, he will likely have been supplied with a weapon again. In these circumstances, with Israel apprehensive about casualties being inflicted on the force assigned to arrest the fugitives, the rules of engagement will be quite permissive.

As it is, in the past months every entry by Israeli forces into the Jenin area, and certainly to the refugee camp, has been accompanied by heavy exchanges of fire with armed Palestinians. For the same reason, the Palestinian Authority’s security units rarely enter the camp. If this story, which already looks like it came from an action movie, leads to the refugee camp, it will have only one ending: in blood and fire.

The astonishing escape by the six prisoners has already fomented unrest in the security wings of the prisons in Israel, especially after the Prison Service decided to disperse Islamic Jihad inmates among the various detention facilities. (All the escapees except Zubeidi are from Islamic Jihad.) The security prisoners are at the heart of the ethos of the Palestinian struggle, and every dramatic development in the prisons will aggravate the tension in the territories. Clearly, any harm that Israel inflicts on the escapees themselves will ratchet up the response.

The danger is not confined solely to copycat and solidarity actions in the West Bank, but extends to escalation in the Gaza Strip. Islamic Jihad and Hamas have already threatened to launch rockets into Israel if the prisoners who escaped are hurt. For Hamas an incident like this can be an excellent excuse for a renewed confrontation with Israel. Even without this, the organization’s leadership appears to be heading in this direction, as part of its efforts to force Israel to return fully to the situation that existed before May 10, when Hamas fired six rockets at Jerusalem and Israel responded by launching Operation Guardian of the Walls.

‘Sea of mediocrity’

The series of blunders that is gradually being revealed in connection with the jailbreak has directed the fire, from both the media and the public, at the top ranks of the Prison Service. The services’ commissioner, Katy Perry, appears to be living on borrowed time, in terms of her career, though on Thursday she declared she is “here to continue to lead.” Her predicament was clearly visible in the improvised press conference she held with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev on Monday. The escape itself reflects a disturbing failure that holds out the possibility of an extensive security entanglement. The initial media reports showed a grave picture of negligence and multiple snafus. Perry was not appointed by Bar-Lev, but by the previous government, whose commitment to her was low from the outset.

Furthermore, in recent years there were many reports of persistent involvement by Likud functionaries in Prison Service appointments, along with embarrassing episodes within the organization. And while right-wing ministers and MKs urged the worsening of the security prisoners’ conditions, in practice the Prison Service avoided confrontations with the inmates, in order to maintain quiet. Some of the hitches that enabled the escape from Gilboa Prison – Zubeidi’s transfer, at his request, to a cell of Islamic Jihad prisoners; and the failure to use cell phone jammers, even though they were installed in the prison – apparently attest to the implementation of that policy.

Security forces searching for the escaped prisoners on Tuesday.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“You had one job” – and the Prison Service under Perry failed totally at it. But is the shoddy performance of the Prison Service all that exceptional in the Israeli security landscape? The usual comparison is with the police, whose weakness has also been revealed in recent years, and for reasons that are in part similar: deliberate enfeeblement and erosion by the governments of Benjamin Netanyahu, who frequently clashed with the law enforcement agencies. But what is happening in the Israel Defense Forces, an organization that enjoys prestige, big budgets and an inestimably higher quality of personnel than the Prison Service?

Often it’s difficult to reconcile the two poles of performance that characterize the IDF: the high-quality, precise execution of complex air strikes that are based on superb intelligence, far from Israel’s borders, as opposed to the usual snafu that is revealed after a terrorist attack, the theft of weapons from a secured base, or some other embarrassing episode (such as the way the army inflated the draft statistics of the Haredim, to satisfy the demands of the political decision makers). Recall what Maj. Gen. Yishai Be’er told the new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, in his first visit to the General Staff forum in July 2006, the day before the second Lebanon war erupted. The IDF, Be’er said, is a “mediocre army. It still contains small islands of excellence, but those islands are surrounded by a large sea of mediocrity.”

That was 15 years ago, and numerous changes have obviously been made, but the analysis is still relevant. Many of the biting prophecies of Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, the former IDF ombudsman, which as a rule are sweepingly denied by the top brass, hit the same gloomy mark.

Defective organizational culture is revealed time after time in the Israeli security bodies and in other governmental arms as well. In some cases, at least, this stems from protracted processes in which the public service was voided of its capabilities and talented people left in frustration. The past two years were rich in examples of this, some of them even graver than the prison break.

The outstanding example is the disaster in which 45 people were crushed to death in a human stampede on Mount Meron during the Lag Ba’omer celebrations last April. However, it’s easy enough to find a common denominator with the way Israel handled the coronavirus epidemic, too.

Apart from the exceptional success of the rapid campaign of vaccinations, we’ve seen the same patterns repeat themselves for the past 19 months: an absence of personal and organizational discipline, sloppiness, lax supervision and, of course, exaggerated and groundless boasting about Israel’s capabilities (“We’re getting calls from all over the world”). The Prison Service is probably the weakest of the Israeli security branches, but definitely not the only one that is publicly disgraced from time to time.

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