The Gilboa Prison breakout showcased the Israel Prisons Service and the state in general at its worst and most incompetent, Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev told the commission probing the incident.
“In some ways, Israeli bumbling was revealed at its worst,” including vast “intelligence and operational failures,” he said on Wednesday.
Bar Lev said that in parallel to his testimony to the commission of inquiry, IPS officials had just discovered a write-up of plans for an escape from Ofer Prison by prisoners there during an inspection. Ofer Prison is right off Route 443, a main artery between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Like former public security minister Gilad Erdan, who also testified before the panel, Bar Lev said that he was unaware of the history and concerns of potential breakouts until the Gilboa incident had already occurred.
Commission head and former Tel Aviv District Court president Menachem Finklestein asked him about the recommendations of past task forces to end the practice of allowing prisoners to choose their cell area based on different political affiliations, such as Fatah, Hamas and others.
Bar Lev responded that this was a broader issue, implying there were diplomatic implications beyond his purview. However, he also said that perhaps the whole cabinet should start discussing the recommendation.
Six prisoners broke out of Gilboa Prison on September 6.
Although they all were caught later that month and indicted in October, the breakout itself – and all the failures of several layers of IPS personnel who could have prevented it – were considered a national scandal.
Various IPS officials have been fired, and some expected prison chief Maj.-Gen. Katy Perry to be fired as well, but so far she has weathered the storm.
Of the six escapees, the most prominent was Zakaria Zubeidi, a Fatah commander who was responsible for multiple terrorist attacks and for killing many Israelis.
Munadil Nafayat, Iham Kahamji, Yaquob Qadiri and brothers Mahmoud and Mohammed al-Arida rounded out the rest of the escapees, all of them members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and from towns near Jenin.
The escape by the six men exposed a series of failures at the prison, including that the IPS had not learned lessons from a previous escape attempt there, as well as several other major issues.
The failures included sleeping guards, unmanned watchtowers due to a shortage of staff, and the sense of boldness security prisoners felt vis-à-vis the guards.
The six escapees and the five defendants who assisted them divided up the tasks of digging under a part of the shower floor, while others performed look-out functions or blocked other prisoners from entering the area.
Some escapees also took turns dropping off portions of what had been dug up on a daily basis to areas that would avoid raising suspicion. The tunnel they dug eventually ran for 30 meters.