Palestinian Fugitives May Have Crossed Into the West Bank, Israeli Officials Believe

Yaniv Kubovich
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Gilboa Prison, pictured on Monday.
Gilboa Prison, pictured on Monday.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Yaniv Kubovich

Israeli intelligence officials have offered a new assessment that at least some of the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from Gilboa Prison on Monday succeeded in crossing into the West Bank and are no longer moving as a group.

Defense officials say that the separation of the fugitives could prolong the manhunt, perhaps by several more weeks. Intelligence agencies also believe the six fugitives are being assisted by people in both the West Bank and Israel.

Security camera footage taken from a mosque the six briefly stayed at in the town of Na'ura shows them leaving in pairs or individually.

Meanwhile, the Israeli military is preparing for a Palestinian "day of rage" across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Any violent clashes, military officials fear, could lead to greater escalation.

In a situation assessment following the escape, a security source said that currently all of the Palestinian factions and organizations are united in a rare consensus in their support for the escaped prisoners. There had been no prior uniform support for violent demonstrations in Gaza near the Israeli border fence, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, the source noted, and even President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti’s hunger strike in prison a few years ago didn’t command unity of the kind that has emerged with the prisoners’ escape.

As a result, the army and the Shin Bet security service understand that the security services of the Palestinian Authority won’t be as quick to cooperate with them as they were with prior manhunts for terrorists. The fugitive prisoners from Gilboa prison have become a symbol to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, one security official noted, and any attempt by the Palestinian Authority to assist in their capture would be viewed as betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

The Israeli security establishment believes the prisoners will eventually be found by Israeli forces, and it is preparing for various scenarios. The one that concerns the officials the most is an encounter between security forces and the prisoners that ends in the fugitives’ deaths. If that were to happen, the concern is that terrorist groups in Gaza would launch rockets at Israel and lead to a new round of fighting following the war that Israel fought in May with Hamas and its allies in Gaza.

The Israeli army and the Shin Bet are attempting trying to lower tensions regarding the search operation on the assumption that pressuring the fugitives could lead them to believe that they have nothing to lose. Special police and army units are on high alert for such a prospect, which might also prompt the fugitives to take Israeli hostages as a bargaining chip. But security officials believe that if the six are captured alive without a fight, the Palestinian response would be very restrained.

The escaped prisoners are from the Jenin area of the West Bank, and the decision take a lower profile in the search explains why the army has not yet sent forces into the Jenin refugee camp and why relatives of the fugitives have not been arrested in the centers of West Bank towns.

Most of the family members who have been detained have been asked to come in for interrogation by the Shin Bet of their own accord rather than requiring their arrest. Arrests by the special army and police units have only been carried out when there was concern that the relatives would attempt to flee or would refuse to come of their own volition.

Meanwhile, the decision by the Israel Prison Service to disperse Palestinian Islamic Jihad security prisoners in Israeli jails throughout the prison system is being criticized by members of the security establishment who say that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the escape of six terrorists from Gilboa Prison earlier this week. Five of the six prisoners were associated with Islamic Jihad.

On Monday, prison service commissioner Katy Perry decided on the step, which will mean that rather than sharing cells with other members of Islamic Jihad, they will share cells with prisoners affiliated with other organizations. Some security officials told Haaretz that the move was taken without thinking it through following the blow to its reputation that the prison service suffered over the prison break.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Islamic Jihad prisoners torched cells at the Ketziot and Ramon prisons. Security officials warned that such unrest could divert the focus from the security establishment’s primary mission at the moment, which is recapturing the six fugitives.

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