Over the last couple of weeks, Israelis, Palestinians and others were treated to the worst and best of Israel’s security forces and services.
First, the worst.
On September 6, six high-level terrorists escaped from Gilboa Prison, a maximum-security prison in northern Israel, through a tunnel which had been dug for many months using rudimentary instruments, some of which were left by construction crews when building the jail.
The escape ensued thanks to a calamitous series of actions, or non-actions, by the Israeli prison guards. One guard responsible for maintaining the sewer system had noticed blockages but did not report them to prison authorities, a watchtower directly over the escape route was unmanned due to a lack of manpower. One guard in the locale of the escape heard noises before returning to sleep, while another supposed to be monitoring a screen that was subsequently trained on the escapees was watching television instead.
Most egregiously, a day before the escape, Zakaria Zubeidi, arch-terrorist and former chief of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, responsible for multiple Israeli murders, was allowed to switch rooms, at his request, to be with the other plotters, with no suspicions raised.
This last detail is just the tip of the iceberg surrounding how Palestinian Arab terrorists are treated in Israeli prisons. In many instances, they are indulged and pampered, holding court and running operations from their prison cells, completing academic degrees and fathering children.
These home comforts give them hope and an easy life, all with the confidence that one day their name might appear on a vaunted prisoner swap list and they be allowed to return to a life of terror and violent rejectionism against the Jewish State.
These are far from browbeaten prisoners who are forced into defeat and made to give up their dreams of destroying the nation which now holds them behind bars.
Thankfully, when necessary, Israel retains a semblance of the victory spirit that can still be counted on to achieve the aim of breaking its enemies’ spirits and will to continue fighting.
The escape of the prisoners significantly raised Palestinian Arab morale, especially those whose role is part of what is euphemistically called the “resistance”, which means in essence terrorists and violent rejectionists. The six prisoners became Palestinian Arab heroes, and the spoon became the vaunted image, in the mistaken belief that the escapees had used simple spoons to dig their way out.
This became so widespread that supporters of Palestinian Arab rejectionism threw hundreds of spoons at the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC.
The capture of four of the escaped terrorists relatively quickly already dampened expectation among the Palestinian public, but the two remaining fugitives had managed to reach the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian terrorist movements went into massive damage control and threatened all manner of responses if Israeli forces should enter a Palestinian Authority-controlled city looking for the two.
There were reports of a "war room" of representatives from Fatah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad in Jenin, meant to coordinate efforts to block the IDF from entering Jenin. Izz Adin El-Qassam's spokesman, Abu 'Abida, issued a special statement, after three months of silence, warning the IDF from approaching Jenin, comparing the Palestinian Arab city to Al-Aqsa Mosque moments before Operation Guardian of the Walls. Every night for the last week, the Jamala checkpoint saw intense gunfire from terrorists in Jenin.
Palestinians were trying to send a strong message that Israel dare not try and capture the escaped terrorists.
However, a plan of action based on ingenuity, distraction, and, most importantly, determination to achieve its goals, was formulated.
In action, the plan was a roaring success, and the two escaped terrorists were captured with little trouble after surrendering, within an hour of the beginning of the operation in Jenin, usually thought of as one of the most complex and difficult arenas for the IDF to operate in.
According to commentators who monitor Palestinian Arab public feeling, the outcome of the operation has proven a great disappointment, especially among those who buy into the brave Palestinian resistance movement. They had been buoyed up by the escape, but have fallen flat with how quickly and easily their “heroes” were recaptured.
Israel should build on this momentum and the disappointment in the resistance factions.
They may not have yet broken the Palestinian will to continue fighting, but they have shown that a victory spirit endures, and can be called upon in exceptional circumstances.
Israel should take resolute steps against these prisoners in particular and others in general to demonstrate that the rules of engagement have changed. The prisons will no longer be the cozy and comfortable places the internees have become used to.
Their infrastructure and atmosphere must be remodeled to convey the impression that this is the end of the road for someone who plans or commits murder and terrorism. They must understand that when they pass through the prison gates, they have been personally defeated with no hope, and this will in turn be reflected to a Palestinian Arab public for whom the prisoners are glorious heroes.
This can change the atmosphere of the conflict for longer than a few days and weeks, and change its paradigm from hope of victory into a stinging defeat.
Israel has to decide which face of its security forces it wants to keep conveying to its Palestinian foes. It can not return to the clumsy and ineffective ‘Keystone Cops’ who run the prisons and indulge prisoners’ hopes and dreams. It must be the effective and punishing face of the Israeli security forces which paid no attention to the threats of its enemies and won the day, despite the risk of escalation, international condemnation if lives were lost, and is hyper-focused on achieving its goals.
Alex Nachumson is an IDF Military Commander (Res) and CEO of Mivtachi Israel, an organization of former senior IDF Officers.