Israel Prisons Service & Police: Time for reevaluation?

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Israel Police and the Prisons Service have been thrust into the spotlight like never before, showcasing their uglier sides. Has the time come for reform?

 AT THE scene of the prison break, September 6.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
AT THE scene of the prison break, September 6.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

The Israel Prisons Service pimping scandal is the latest public security mishap in a slew of incidents that seem to be coming faster and stronger.

The police and the Prisons Service are the only two law enforcement agencies that answer to the public security minister, as opposed to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. The two have never been a strong part of Israeli ethos.

Since the country’s earliest days, the three titans of Israel’s security apparatus – the IDF, the Mossad and Shin Bet – attracted prestige and were widely respected. The Israeli public focused on external threats or on Palestinian terror; and politicians, press and popular culture did not deal much with issues such as policing, law and order, and the jail system.

Zionism successfully introduced the model of the new Jewish fighter, but not of the new Jewish policeman. Haredi protesters still sometimes call Israeli policemen “Nazis.” They do not use this superlative for IDF soldiers.

HOWEVER, SINCE corona hit, the Israel Police and the Prisons Service have been thrust into the spotlight like never before. A confluence of factors – enforcement of corona restrictions and ensuing confrontations with many Israelis, the Balfour protests, the Meron catastrophe, the Gilboa prison escape, unbearable levels of gang violence in the Arab sector, riots during Operation Guardian of the Walls, and now the pimping scandal – have led to heightened interest in the two agencies.

Popular culture has begun to reflect this shift. While IDF soldiers have always been cultural icons, in recent years shows like Manayak and Pamta began to offer insight and commentary – albeit dramatized – into the inner workings of the law enforcement apparatus. 

In the US, for example, cops have taken central roles in popular culture for decades. Shows such as CSI, Law & Order, The Wire and even Brooklyn Nine-Nine, reality court shows such as Judge Judy and countless films, are deeply imbued in American culture. 

With the government finally changing hands and winds of change blowing in many ministries, and with an approved budget, the time is finally ripe for an in-depth evaluation of Israel’s internal security agencies – namely the police and the Prisons Service. 

Operation Safe Track, the six-month operation that began in October to curb the flow of illegal weapons into the country, is giving police a morale boost and is a tangible, measurable operation that may lead to real success. 

This is a start, but a small one. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabati is known as a daring tactical fighter, but not for his ability to create organizational reform. Neither is Prisons Service Commissioner Katy Perry.

ISRAEL IS still a young country and has been, and may still be, too preoccupied with larger existential threats to focus on internal civil security affairs. Yet with no progress expected on the peace front in this government’s tenure, perhaps the time has come for a deep organizational and public reevaluation of the police and Prison Service’s role in the Jewish state. 

How are Jewish values expressed in police and prison work? How should Israeli children be taught about the police and criminal system? How can the police create trust, especially among haredim and Arabs? 

Cleaning up the pimping disgrace and the prison escape fiasco with transparency and integrity is an opportunity to take a step in the right direction.