Analysis: Counterintelligence dimensions of the Gilboa prison break in Israel

Gilboa Prison break

EARLIER IN SEPTEMBER, FIVE members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and one member of Fatah escaped from the Gilboa Prison in Israel, by digging a tunnel under the prison walls. The escape was a dramatic surprise and caused wonder in the Israeli defense establishment, since the Gilboa Prison is one of the most secure prisons in the country. The Israeli police, together with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Security Service (ISA), immediately began an intense pursuit. About five days later, four of the six men were arrested inside Israel’s borders, after they asked for assistance from Israeli Arabs, who reported them to the Police. The remaining two were arrested a week later in the city of Jenin in the Occupied Territories.

The initial investigation revealed serious misconduct in the Israel Prison Service. Following these findings, the Israeli government decided to establish a state inquiry commission headed by a judge, in order to investigate the prison break and the conduct of the Prison Service. There are already indicators showing a lack of intelligence before and after the prison break.

The Israel Prison Service has a large intelligence unit, whose main purpose is to prevent 6,500 Palestinian prisoners from escaping. In the nine months during which the tunnel was excavated, the Israel Prison Service’s intelligence unit had no information about this activity. Throughout that time, there were various indications that suspicious activity was taking place in the prison, such as blockages of the prison’s sewer pipe with sand. Also, after the six prisoners got out of the prison walls, a system of cameras and sensors did give various signals, but these failed to get the attention of the guards. Serious endemic problems have been found in the intelligence unit, which include its senior director. This individual was allegedly appointed despite having no experience in intelligence and having taken no courses on the subject. Additionally, it is alleged that he does not speak Arabic and is not acquainted with Palestinian culture and outlook.

The second intelligence issue relates to intelligence collection after the prison break. Although some of the most advanced collection tools and significant search resources were used to locate the fugitives, the information that eventually led to their capture came from human intelligence (HUMINT) —namely Israeli Arab citizens, whom the escapees met by chance and asked for help. These Israeli Arabs have demonstrated, contrary to the opinion of right-wing political elements in Israel, their loyalty to the state. Two of the fugitives managed to cross the security fence between Israel and the Occupied Territories and reached the city of Jenin. It then took only a short time for them to be caught, as the ISA has a highly efficient HUMINT system there. Additionally, the two escapees made serious errors, such as when one of them called his father on a cell phone.

Although all six fugitives were captured, they are now considered heroes on the Palestinian street, not just among Islamic Jihad and Hamas supporters.

Dr. Avner Barnea is research fellow at the National Security Studies Center of the University of Haifa in Israel. He served as a senior officer in the Israel Security Agency (ISA).

Author: Avner Barnea | Date: 24 September 2021 | Permalink

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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