Where were the Gilboa guards during the escape?

Former prison guard reflects on the recent Gilboa Prison break: I "played a lot of air guitar on my M-16. Never lost a prisoner, though."

 A guard is seen at an observation tower along a wall of Gilboa Prison, from where six Palestinian prisoners escaped, on September 6. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
A guard is seen at an observation tower along a wall of Gilboa Prison, from where six Palestinian prisoners escaped, on September 6.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

As a former watchtower guard at the Nablus Central Prison, I followed the recent daring escape by half a dozen terrorists with keen interest. As a compulsive reader of tales of real World War II escapes by tunnel from German prison camps, I had a number of questions.

News of the escape was met with numerous theories that proved to be false as time went on during the frantic manhunt for six senior terrorists. Some sophisticates insisted that they were probably already in Jordan, since such a sophisticated escape must have included outside collaborators with a getaway car.

It was surprising and gratifying that, not only did fellow Arabs refuse to help them on the run, but one phoned the police. The first four were apprehended exhausted and hungry.

After the happy ending, accusations, recriminations, calls to resign and to restructure the Israel Prisons Service flooded the media. But amid all the excitement, so far no one has sought the opinion of an actual prison guard.

Since my former fellow turnkeys are probably banned from speaking to the press, especially during an investigation, I feel it incumbent to express some of their likely thoughts on their behalf, with one reservation.

That is whether and how conditions have changed since a rainy December in 1994, which I had spent in a month’s vacation from The Jerusalem Post in miluim, guarding some 450 Hamas terrorists residing in the central prison of Nablus. We did round-the-clock shifts, eight hours on and off, locked inside an unheated watchtower, during a very cold and rainy December.

Among other thoughts during my brief imprisonment – for I, too, was there not of my own volition – was: how could a prisoner escape? I remembered the books I had read as a teenager, like The Colditz Story, or the movie The Great Escape about true escapes by allied soldiers from a prisoner of war camps. 

They managed to tunnel beyond the perimeter and flee after months of digging, which involved disposing [of] the tons of dirt they secretly excavated. This was possible because in those camps they had an outdoor exercise yard and could surreptitiously scatter dirt while walking around.

The Nablus Central Prison is in the center of town, enclosed by high walls. The only place prisoners are outside is the internal exercise yard. No place to scatter tons of dirt. 

Which brings our thoughts back to the Gilboa Prison break. 

Before turning to the role of the watchtower guard, our first question is: How in the world did the tunnelers dispose of the tons of dirt they excavated for a tunnel 30 meters long – and over several months – without being discovered?

No doubt a commission of inquiry will sort things out about possible negligence on the part of the prison management. However, based on my previous experience in Nablus, the possibilities for negligence are abundant and may require a prolonged investigation.

For example, while the reservists in the guard towers on the other three sides of the prison could see the length of the wall between them, my view on the fourth side of the wall was blocked by shrubbery that had been allowed to grow up to the wall. There was a small field between the wall and a rusty barbed-wire fence, only a short throw for a firebomber.

I was more concerned about the terrorists outside than inside and felt threatened by not being able to see an intruder approach the wall, due to the shrubs blocking my view.  New at the prison guard business, I complained to my commander, who relayed the request to the warden, who ignored it. In honest concern that the shrub was endangering our (my) security, I wrote a complaint to the IDF Ombudsman. By the third week of miluim, the shrubbery had been cleared.

No doubt the upcoming probe will find that the Prisons Service has much improved over the intervening 27 years, except perhaps for its ability to detect tunneling. Whether the same might be said for the personnel remains to be proved.

There is a saying in the IDF regarding the distribution of blame, that it always ends up focused on the Shin Gimmel, a Hebrew acronym for shomer gader or gatekeeper. A guard in a prison corner watchtower spends the time watching and fighting off boredom for the length of the shift, night or day.

On the morning last week when six terrorists emerged from their tunnel literally underneath the corner guard tower of Gilboa Prison and slunk off to a brief interlude of freedom, what was the guard in the tower doing?

It was very hot and he was tired and dozed off? Did he go to the bathroom? These are plausible explanations for a critical lapse in time – except how did the escapees know he wasn’t looking?

Looking back at Nablus in ’94, I’m not eager to compare conditions. It was so cold I wore a sweatsuit under my uniform, in a Hermonit coverall, plus a parka, locked inside an unheated guard tower. Played a lot of air guitar on my M-16. Never lost a prisoner, though. 

The writer is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of The Jerusalem Post. His new novel, The Flying Blue Meanies, is available on Amazon.