image Inmates’ Ingenuity, Sleepy Sentries, Dig Dragnet. Photo: Flash90

Prisons, Prestige, Peace


From Gilad to Gilboa

By Amir Oren

The Israel Prison Service was always known as the weakest link in either of the two chains it belongs to – security and law enforcement. Being a combat arms officer or a Mossad or Shabak intelligence operative has a certain aura. A policeman, especially in an elite unit, is on a lower rung in public esteem, but definitely higher than jail wardens, who get the same pay and perform a duty society cannot do without, but are not getting the same respect.

Some 4500 so-called security prisoners, mostly Palestinians, are held in Israeli jails. Compared to recent years, this is a low number. Some are awaiting trial, some are in administrative detention, but most are serving terror-related sentences. The Oslo Accords released many Fatah-affiliated prisoners, some of whom resumed the same activity and repeated the cycle, but most of the prisoners belong to the more militant organisations, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The September 6 Gilboa jailbreak by six of those die-hards proved to be more than a huge embarrassment for the Israeli government and defense establishment. It can have major repercussions. Statistically, only one in a thousand prisoners makes an unauthorised exit, and at that only once in a couple of decades, but the fact that 99.9% of inmates do not become outmates is as significant as the proverbial Foreign Office analyst who in 25 years, 1913-38, always predicted that a World War would not break next year and was wrong only twice.

As long as the central narrative has been the Arab-Israeli conflict, with hundreds of millions in confrontation states encircling the small Jewish State with the express aim of annihilation, it was a classic David-vs.-Goliath face-off. Israeli military victories were amazing because they showed that qualitative ingenuity is more important than quantitative superiority. Then came the early 1980’s, when peace with Egypt rendered the Eastern Front inoperative – Syria could defend itself with Soviet support, but was not able to wage war on its own, or even with iraqi expeditionary forces which were unavailable, anyway, due to the Iran war. Israel was essentially free to choose its track vis-a-vis Jordan and the Palestinians.

The Begin and Shamir governments then made two catastrophic mistakes – initiating a war in Lebanon and rejecting peace with King Hussein. Both of these moves strengthened the Palestinian National movement inside the Occupied Territories and outside them. A third mistake, which emenated from a desire to lessen the impact of the first two, was encouraging Hamas to serve as a counterweight to Fatah, in the belief that religion and welfare will work for moderation.

In looking for practical solutions, Israel missed the shift in perceptions. The narrative was upended. If the conflict is devoid of Arab militaries as major actors, and the Soviet Union is no longer there to back them up, it becomes an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Israel is Goliath. (This is one reason Binyamin Netanyahu has been trying to reframe the conflict to Jewish-Moslem, with Israel once again David against a monstrous almost-nuclear Iran).

A Goliath, or a Gulliver among the Lilliputians, is expected to win hands down. If that does not happen, he loses pounds of prestige and the other side collects a string of small victories which in themselves may not portend a final triumph, but boost morale and brighten the horizon. Such were the abduction of tank crew member Gilad Shalit in 2006 – which culminated in the release of more than 1000 prisoners, in exchange for his freedom from captivity – and the fatal shooting of Border Policeman Barel Shmueli, last month, by a gunman who sneaked up to his sniper’s position.

Of course, among those who returned to Gaza in the Shalit deal was Yahia Sinwar, who assumed the leadership of Hamas – a model for what happened in Afghanistan this week, when many Taliban interim cabinet officials turned out to be those released in 2014 from Guantanamo and elsewhere on return for American soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

From Gilad to Gilboa, the common denominator is understanding the fragility of Israeli society and acting to outwit it. The myth of the omnipotent Israeli Fighter Pilot-Commando-Mossad-Shabak, built on 1967 and Entebbe and a couple of nuclear reactor strikes, is irrelevant when a Gazan squad is determined to cone out of a tunnel to abduct a soldier, or when a half-dozen prisoners with little to lose save some benefits make an underground dash to the other side of the wall, where a sleepy sentry fails to see them.

Contrary to other escape attempts, successful or otherwise, including the 1958 one from the adjacent Shata prison, there was no riot in Gilboa, no use of weapons, no killing of officers or prisoners. A clean job, with enough time in darkness to get away from the immediate vicinity and cancel the Jewish New Year holiday for the entire top brass of the government and its executive agencies.

Back from his recent White House sojourn and accused by Netanyahu of the terrible crime of agreeing to a restart of the diplomatic process – code for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians, which could lead, God forbid, to compromise, withdrawal and uprooting settlements- Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to deny. Perish the thought. Even a meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, a pariah during Netanyahu’s reign (of which Bennett used to be a militant member), had nothing to do with the abominable process. Peace? What peace? No way, not on my watch.

Not on her watch, believed the Commissioner of the Prison Service, Ketty Perry, will there be such a humiliating jailbreak. She will lose her 30,000$ a month paying job, a scandal in itself, along with several of her subordinates, but the problem runs much deeper. Shabak, the vaunted internal security agency, as distinct from Shabas, the Prison Service, failed to coordinate properly with Shabas intelligence and had no inkling something is brewing. The prisoners and whoever helped them knew how to keep a secret.

Threats by Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israel if the escapees are shot and killed while resisting re-capture, as well as riots and clashes with security forces, reflected the rising tensions. The Palestinians are frustrated. Bennett is fearful of losing the remnants of his right-wing political base, and his more moderate coalition partners are not pressing him, for fear the government would fall and Netanyahu attempt a comeback. Joe Biden, sincerely pro-peace, is otherwise occupied.

But the cumbersome and complacent Israeli machine exposed once again by the Gilboa jailbreak is drawing rather than deterring further prods. Mixed with the promise of no progress on the peace track, it could lead to a new Intifada, but this time on all five Palestinian fronts – West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel proper and across the prison galaxy, where the 4500 inmates are the equivalent of a dormant division.