Senior Israeli Prison Official Refused to Jam Cellphones Prior to Jailbreak

Transcripts obtained by Haaretz reveal that the deputy prison commissioner disobeyed an order to block cellphone service in Gilboa Prison, a move which assisted six Palestinian prisoners escape in September

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Police officers outside of Gilboa Prison after the escape in September.
Police officers outside of Gilboa Prison after the escape in September.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The deputy Israeli prison commissioner disobeyed an order to block cellphone service at the prison ward from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped last summer, according to the transcript of a meeting of prison officials obtained by Haaretz.

According to the transcript, this decision helped the prisoners in their escape two months later in September, and the cellphone jammer has yet to be activated at Gilboa Prison in the north.

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Moni Bitan, deputy prison commissioner and head of the prison service’s security and operations department, told other prison service officials about his refusal during a meeting that took place in July 2021, just two months before the prisoners escaped from the high-security prison, according to the transcript. The order was issued by the acting prison commissioner, Asher Vaknin. According to several sources, despite being issued in September 2020, the order has yet to be implemented.

Because the cellphone jammer wasn’t activated – a decision senior prison service sources attributed to a desire to avoid angering the prisoners – the escapees were able to communicate with the outside.

The failure to employ cellphone jammers has risen repeatedly at meetings of the inquiry committee appointed by the government to investigate the jailbreak. Several witnesses told the panel that the jammer wasn’t activated because it was only 90 percent effective rather than 100 percent.

But several committee members sharply criticized this decision, hinting that it actually stemmed from a desire to avoid conflict with the prisoners. “It’s hard for me to accept the answer that it wasn’t used solely because it was only 95 percent effective,” said Judge Menachem Finkelstein, the committee chairman.

Senior prison service officials had discussed the jammers, which the service spent 50 million shekels ($16 million) to buy and install, at the July 2021 meeting. They were in use in three other prisons by that time, but not at Gilboa.

Bitan said during the meeting that he had refused to activate the system despite a written order from Vaknin. He said he did so because he was not shown a written agreement with the Shin Bet security service regarding the system’s operation.

Former acting prison commissioner Asher Vaknin testifying last week.

“I demanded the document regarding the understandings with the Shin Bet in writing,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for this document for months, and despite the fact that I received a written order from the acting prison commissioner to approve the jamming at Gilboa within three days even without the document, I refused to do so.”

Bitan also voiced doubts about the jammers, saying, “I recommend that we all consider the project’s aspects very carefully before approving it and transitioning to operational deployment.” He said he had learned that the jammers didn’t prevent all communications, and criticized the fact that the contract with the company operating them didn’t specify how effective the jamming had to be.

Yet testimony to the inquiry committee showed that the system blocks 90 percent of outgoing calls and has been used without problems at other prisons.

“The system was ready to operate,” said Gilboa’s commander, Freddy Ben-Sheetrit. “Had I been allowed, I would have flipped the switch.”

Regev Daharug, head of the prison service’s intelligence department,, testifying in November.

During one committee meeting, Arik Brabbing, a committee member and former head of the Shin Bet’s cyber division, commented that he would have approved the system’s operation even if it were 30 percent less effective. Regev Daharug, head of the prison service’s intelligence department, said he agreed, adding, “From an intelligence standpoint, I was very interested in this.”

“So if it’s 95 percent effective, and you say it’s good from an intelligence standpoint, why wasn’t it activated?” Finkelstein demanded.

Daharug replied that it was due to “technological gaps” in the system. Another committee member, Prof. Efrat Shoham, promptly retorted, “You’re telling me that if the jamming is 90 percent effective, then zero is better than 90 percent?”

“The story at Gilboa is completely different from other places,” Daharug replied. “I recommended doing the jamming.”

Brabbing implied that the real reason for not activating the jammers had nothing to do with their effectiveness. “Perhaps there are problems with the prisoners and the prisoners’ leadership and quiet at the prisons,” he said.

Finkelstein agreed. At another meeting, he said the committee had repeatedly heard hints from the witnesses “that if they activated it, perhaps it would have sparked unrest.”

The jammers, however, were not the only issue laid bare during the committee’s hearings. For instance, it emerged that both Daharug and Gilboa’s intelligence officer, Shai Chakala, knew only minimal Arabic.

Moreover, prison intelligence officials are evaluated based on how many pieces of intelligence they collect rather than the quality of this intelligence. “I can bring 50 worthless items, and I’ll meet the target, or I can bring two bonanza items” and fail to do so, Brabbing summarized.

“You’re right,” Daharug admitted. “But this has already changed.”

“We have to recognize that we didn’t manage to provide the goods,” he added. “I do recognize it. It’s my responsibility.”

Chakala concurred. “I’m not evading responsibility, this was my department’s failure,” he said. “The tunnel was dug on my watch. Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up in the morning, or at night before I fall asleep, and think about how this happened.”

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