TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli forces launched a massive manhunt in northern Israel and the occupied West Bank on Monday after six Palestinian prisoners fled a high-security facility overnight in an extremely rare breakout.
Officials said they put roadblocks in place and are patrolling the area. Israeli Army Radio also said 400 prisoners will be relocated as a safeguard against further attempts to escape. The radio said the prisoners had escaped through a tunnel from Gilboa prison, which is said to be one of the safest facilities in Israel. The men are said to have received outside help.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called it a “serious incident” that required the maximum efforts of the various Israeli security departments.
He said he was kept informed of the prison break, which occurred just hours before Israel’s Jewish New Year. Authorities did not appear to believe the escaped detainees posed a threat to the public, and there were no instructions for people to change their routines. The prison is about 4 km from the West Bank border.
Police Commander Shimon Ben Shabo said the officers had stepped up the emergency call centers in the area to respond to any reports of the detainees and that “forces were available to arrive at any location.”
The refugees are said to have been on their way to Jenin, where the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority exercises little control and where militants have openly clashed with Israeli forces in recent weeks. Israeli helicopters flew over Jenin on Monday morning.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents both former and current prisoners, identified the men as between 26 and 49 years old. One of them is Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, who has been detained since 2019. Zubeidi was a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, part of the Fatah movement, during the second Palestinian uprising over 20 years ago.
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Five of the refugees belong to the Islamic Jihad movement, the prison service told Reuters.
Four of the other inmates had served life sentences, the inmate group said.
Photos appearing in Israeli media show the alleged end of the escape tunnel. One picture shows an Israeli security guard in a black T-shirt inspecting a hole in the ground.
Palestinian militant groups were quick to praise the outbreak.
“This is a great achievement that will shake the Israeli security system badly and cause a heavy blow to the army and the entire system in Israel,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum made similar statements about the escape, saying that it shows “that the struggle for freedom with the occupiers in prisons is uninterrupted and expanded”.