A farcical jailbreak that isn’t funny at all

For more than a week, Israel and the Palestinian territories have been paralyzed by a leakage That was initially, albeit ridiculously, compared to Andy Dufresne’s meticulous and fictional escape from Shawshank State prison.

In contrast to Dufresne’s astonishing escape, the Israel Prison Service almost opened the cell door and ushered Fatah terror chief Zakaria Zubeidi and his five Islamic Jihad cellmates out of the prison in Gilboa’s “high security”.

Of what has been given to us understand, the five Islamic Jihad members were in the same cell from which several of them had tried to escape in 2014. Zubeidi, from rival Fatah, obtained permission to move in with them shortly before the escape. Their route through the bathroom area of ​​the cell seven years ago had been concreted, but not the area under the shower that they passed through this time. From there, they were able to crawl into the main prison walls through a cavity under the floor, and then dig their way up and out through a small hole in the earth just outside the walls.

Fortunately, architectural plans for Gilboa’s design were available online. More useful still, the Tower Guard immediately above its rupture hole there were no staff, apparently for budgetary reasons. The guard of an adjacent tower was sleeping. Awakened by unusual noises, she reportedly looked around in the dark, saw nothing, and nodded again.

Witnesses saw the fugitives almost immediately, and a taxi driver quickly telephoned local police to file a detailed report of suspicious figures in the area. However, when the police tried to alert the jail, they allegedly discovered that the Prison Service had changed their phone numbers and they did not have new ones. By the time the police officers arrived at the prison, crucial minutes had passed. Even then, the guards took a little longer to confirm that someone was missing; By the time they did, the fugitives had already left.

In the fictional Shawshank, the stoic protagonist of Tim Robbins, protesting his innocence, was in prison for the murder of his wife and lover. Back in the real world, Zubeidi was locked up because he is a former commander of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Mass Killing Brigades; four of the other five were serving life sentences for murder or attempted murder in the cause of Islamic Jihad, which seeks the destruction of Israel. These men, obviously, needless to say, are anything but Hollywood heroes.

The six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison on Monday, September 6, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Yaqoub Qadiri, Mohammed al-Arida, Mahmoud al-Arida, Iham Kamamji , Zakaria Zubeidi and Munadil Nafiyat (screenshot: Palestinian prisoners’ Media Office)

Except for many Palestinians, clearly, they are. His escape was widely celebrated in Gaza, where the Islamist group Hamas rules and widely tolerates the smaller Islamic Jihad, and in much of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority found itself, as so often, pulled in numerous conflicting directions: compromised with safety. cooperation with Israel, fearful of the push to its Islamist rivals, and well aware that the “street” reveled in the humiliation of Israel by the fugitives. “It is the right of the prisoners to seek freedom, as it is the right of our people. We must do everything possible to free the prisoners. I salute you and hope that these prisons will one day disappear, never to return, ”said Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. declared the day after the escape.

At the time of this writing, four of the six have been recaptured. Much was done in the first hours and days after the escape of another Prison Service failure: operating a system designed to block calls from cell phones known to be smuggled to security inmates; Prison chiefs were reportedly discouraged from doing so for fear that it would cause disturbances and worse among inmates. The fugitives were supposed to have carefully planned their strategy once out of jail, coordinating with accomplices outside, possibly including Israeli Arabs, to ensure a smooth and complete escape, and hence photos of the victory from a safe location outside. out of the reach of Israel, and a huge psychological boost to the forces of terrorism.

In this photo provided by the Israel Police, Zakaria Zubeidi, left, and Mohammed al-Arida, two of the six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison, are handcuffed and blindfolded after being recaptured. in the Arab city of Umm al-Ghanam, in northern Israel, Saturday, September 11, 2021 (Israeli police via AP)

In fact, according to what has been leaked from the Shin Bet interrogations of the four, they intended to head to the Jenin refugee camp area, the training and dispatch center for the suicide bomber attack of the Second Intifada and a virtual no-go. zone for IDF and Palestinian Authority forces, but had no accomplices waiting to help them get there. Seeking help from local Arab residents, they were rejected. Other locals, in fact, aided in his capture by reporting suspicious sightings.

The scene of a stabbing in front of the central bus station in Jerusalem on September 13, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi / Flash90)

With the last two fugitives still on the run, and possibly having reached Jenin, the saga is not over yet. It has already sparked riots and arson in several prisons, sparked several days of fighting in the West Bank that spread to East Jerusalem, and is likely to be a central factor in a series of rocket fire from Gaza. Monday saw a terrorist attack near Jerusalem’s central bus station and reports of a great foiled attack, and the Israeli security forces report a series of new terrorist threats and prepare for a further escalation of violence.

If one or both of the fugitives make it to Jenin, the terrorists could still have their picture of victory, and the IDF will be extremely cautious in venturing into the field in what would be a very complex operation to get them out without killing them and cause a great escalation.

Liberated Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (second right), walks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second left), Defense Minister Ehud Barak (left) and Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz (right), at Tel Nof air base in southern Israel, October 18, 2011 (Ariel Hermoni / Ministry of Defense / Flash90).

Hamas, praising the fugitives and boasting of its own capabilities, has been assuring the fugitives and their supporters that even if they are all captured, it will be able to secure their release in a subsequent prisoner exchange. That confidence stems in part from Shalit’s “trade-off,” in which Hamas secured the release of more than 1,000 prisoners from Israeli jails, 280 of whom were serving life sentences, in exchange for freeing IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, that he had been captured within his army. base and dragged into Gaza in a cross-border raid in 2006. That deal greatly emboldened and empowered Hamas, helping to consolidate its control over Gaza and marginalizing the Palestinian Authority.

Shalit’s capture was a major tactical failure for Israel that led to a strategic success for the forces of terrorism. It is sincerely hoped that the Gilboa prison break, with the ridiculous nonsense that facilitated it, will not turn out to be just another case.

** An earlier version of this editor’s note was sent Monday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel community. To receive these editor’s notes as they are published, join the ToI community here.

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