Warden Tells Inquiry Commission He Was Unfairly Blamed for Palestinian Jailbreak

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Freddy Ben-Shitrit.
Freddy Ben-Shitrit.Credit: Hadas Parush

The commander of the Gilboa Prison told a government commission investigating the escape of the six Palestinian security prisoners he was unfairly "blamed by the Prison Service commissioner for the incident."

After the escape in September, Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry asked Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev to remove Freddy Ben Shitrit from his post at the Gilboa Prison, in an attempt to deflect pressure on her to resign, Ben Shitrit argued before the commission on Wednesday.

“Starting from the night of the incident, I was accused of being responsible for the failure...even before the beginning of any examination or operational investigation,” he said. 

He added that "I know [Perry] also asked the public security minister to fire me, even before someone spoke to me on the matter.”

The commission, headed by retired judge Menachem Finkelstein, began hearing the testimony of senior Prison Service officials two weeks ago. The commission is scheduled to submit its initial conclusions within a few months, at Bar-Lev’s request.

In September, six high risk security prisoners, including convicted terrorists, escaped from Gilboa Prison through a tunnel they dug from their cell, including Zakaria Zubeidi, the former leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in the Jenin area of the northern West Bank and a Fatah activist, who was accused of perpetrating a 2002 attack at the Likud party office which killed six people.

The police investigation of the escape found that prison management had not conducted regular inspections in the prison wings or thorough searches of the prisoners’ cells, and Ben Shitrit’s actions included “serious failures.”

The governmental commission is supposed to examine the series of mistakes that enabled the prison break: Even though all six prisoners were from Jenin, they were kept in the same cell; three of them had been described beforehand as being at high risk for escape; the Gilboa Prison did not have a patrol vehicle for identifying escape attempts; the Prison Service intelligence branch had information on the prisoners’ intentions to escape; cell phone blockers were not in full use; and the prison’s engineering plans were posted on the website of the architects' firm.

In addition to Finkelstein, the other members on the panel are Prof. Efrat Shoham, who chairs the criminology department at Ashkelon Academic College and has studied the Israel Prison Service for many years, and Arik Barbing, a former division head at the Shin Bet security service who has experience foiling terrorist acts at prisons.

According to law, the panel has the authority of an official government commission of inquiry – and may present to the attorney general any suspicions it has of criminal violations.

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