Avi Gil

In Gilboa Prison, a glimpse of Israel’s impending disaster

In not working for a real solution to conflict with the Palestinians, the country is simply playing warden to a population liable to eventually erase the Zionist dream

The harsh criticism leveled at the Israel Prison Service (IPS) following the escape of six inmates from Gilboa Prison reflected the Israeli conventional wisdom that focused on the defects the IPS’s performance rather than on the general national predicament. In this spirit, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was quick to announce, once the last fugitives were apprehended, that since “deterrence has been restored” we can now turn our attention to “fixing what is needed.”

For Bennett and many others, the necessary repairs begin and end with the management of the facilities in which some 4,600 Palestinian security prisoners are held. The blame is directed at the policy in Israeli jails of “buying” the inmates’ quiet by granting power to prisoners’ own leadership, and, in so doing, abdicating control to terrorists.

Naturally, the escape blunder obscures the very real benefits of the IPS’s “buy quiet” policy. This policy empowers a leadership to impose discipline among their fellow inmates and enables a social framework that provides meaning to the lives of the inmates, without which they might feel they have little to lose. Many of them are doomed to spend their best years behind bars. Ultimately, Israel does not want to find itself forced to contend daily with violent prisoner outbursts, hunger strikers dying under the watchful eye of the international media, and violent demonstrations in the territories expressing solidarity with the inmates.

The strategy of buying quiet is not confined to the prison system. The ongoing occupation of another nation places Israel and the security forces operating on its behalf in a constant state of wardenship in which Israel deprives a large population of varying degrees of freedom. To be sure, there are despicable terrorists among them who have been locked up, but there are also masses of innocent people living in areas under Israel’s control in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since Israel does not seek a permanent solution for these territories, but rather prefers to “manage the conflict,” Israel employs an approach much like that in Gilboa Prison — buying quiet. After all, people who have been deprived of their liberty may try to reclaim it by violent means. In the territories, as with the prison, Israel also needs local leadership that can be motivated to maintain discipline among the Palestinians. For that purpose, sufficient power and incentives must be given to them. A situation where acts of despair are commonplace is not in Israel’s interest. What is happening near the Gaza border fence offers a taste of where such a reality could lead. What if a million furious Palestinians were to march on al-Aqsa every Friday?

As long as Israel makes no political move toward a permanent solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, the “buy quiet” policy is the only practical option. This strategy, which admittedly has achieved relative calm until now, is leading Israel to a tectonic eruption down the road. The lack of a solution to the conflict threatens to create a violent binational reality that erases the Zionist dream of a state that is Jewish and democratic.

Many Israelis rationalize dodging the Palestinian issue as a necessity that enabled the formation of the Bennett-Lapid government, a government that defines itself in terms of restoring the “normalcy” lost during Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign. In those years, Netanyahu labored to systematically weaken the Palestinians as a partner and, at the same time, shrewdly succeeded in convincing the majority of Israelis that, indeed, there was no reliable partner among the Palestinians.

It was Netanyahu’s very success in neutralizing the Palestinians as partners that helped pave the way for the political coalition that ousted him. With no one to talk to on the Palestinian side, the right and the left could skip over the chief bone of contention between them to unite, oust Bibi and “restore normalcy to Israel.”

But is this really “normalcy”? Netanyahu’s successors are no different than he was in perpetuating the occupation and the wardenship entailed in controlling another people. Historians will find a great variety of conceptual terms to describe the Israeli decision to ignore the Palestinian issue; “normalcy” will certainly not be among them.

About the Author
Avi Gil is a former director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). His new prose book, 'Where is the Head,' is being published by Steimatzky.
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