For those who thought that Israel's security forces were models worthy of international praise and emulation:
The issue is not the army or the intelligence services. Whether or not they lived up to their myths last August in Lebanon is being probed by several official committees.
The issue is the police and the prison service. Spokespersons of each are blaming the other. The precise allocation of responsibility is the subject of an official inquiry.
The story would be hilarious if it did not involve a rapist with an especially sadistic pattern of activity. Nevertheless, the follies involved in his escape, and the efforts to find him over the last week have been the subject of two newspaper cartoons in the usually serious Ha'aretz. One depicts the anxiety of women who see the rapist's face on all the men they see on the street; another shows Prime Minister Ehud Olmert escorting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who visited recently) into a police station for their meeting, telling her that it was dangerous outside.
The story begins with a message sent to the prison, ordering that Benny Sela be brought to Tel Aviv for a court hearing at 7 AM last Friday morning. Apparently, officials in the prison did not know that the court does not sit on Friday morning, and never begins its sessions at 7 AM. These are not exotic bits of information. Israeli government bodies do not open for business on Friday, or start work at 7 AM on any day.
The next scene is at the court house. The vehicle bringing the prisoner parked in a walled enclosure; the guard put handcuffs on Sela, but not chains on his legs as may be required. There is some question as to whether the handcuffs were locked, or simply slipped over his wrists.
Sela left the vehicle and walked toward the court house. He said that he left a file in the vehicle. The guard left him alone, and returned to the vehicle to search for the file.
Guess what Benny did at that point?
He jumped onto and over the wall.
Another prisoner noticed that Benny was leaving, and said something. The guard did not jump on and over the wall, but waited for someone to open the gate.
Benny had disappeared.
When the police chief heard the news, he was having breakfast at a Tel Aviv restaurant. Some say that he finished his meal before going into the field.
Women are terrified. Benny has a long record of particularly ugly stuff. Some letters to the media are full of praise. He may be acquiring the status of a folk hero. Not exactly Robin Hood, but someone who has outwit the authorities.
Thousands of police were sent to patrol Tel Aviv, pass out pictures of the escapee, and beat the bushes in the countryside. Television news showed them beating the bushes. Stations elsewhere are left with minimum personnel. Who knows what is happening in their surroundings. Speculation is that criminals who specialize in house break-ins and car thefts are having a field day.
Hundreds of police were sent to Netanya. A taxi driver reported that a passenger was suspicious. He was barefoot, and fled when the driver showed concern. After a few hours, the police concluded that they had been chasing a petty thief, who simply ran from the taxi when it got near his destination in order to avoid paying the fare.
The next alarm and substantial reallocation of personnel focused on a man on a motor scooter, who abandoned his vehicle and fled on foot when approached by a police officer. When finally captured, this character was found to be innocent of rape, but feared that the police were after him for driving a motor scooter without a license.
Then the hunt focused on the town of Safed. Again hundreds of police brought from other places were sent to poke around the alleys, footpaths, ruins, burial places, and synagogues of that old city. Safed was a religious center from the Middle Ages, and attracts pilgrims to pray at the graves of revered rabbis. A few years ago it was an artist colony. Those of you with paintings of flying rabbis and other religious themes, perhaps in the styles of Marc Chagall or Grandma Moses, may have something from Safed. Now it is largely a place of ultra-Orthodox study and prayer. The artists and non-religious tourists are gone.
The police transferred their personnel from Safed. The evening television news showed one of the city's residents, a religious Jew in skull cap and beard, who bore some resemblance to Benny Sela. He asked the public to notice that he was not Benny Sela, and to stop calling the police when they see him.
Lock your doors. He may have left the country.