Palestinian Inmates Set Cells Ablaze in Israeli Prisons After Major Jailbreak

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A Palestinian man flashes a poster by the militant group Islamic Jihad of the six Palestinians who escaped from an Israeli prison, as people celebrate in the Jenin camp in the West Bank, on Monday.
A Palestinian man flashes a poster by the militant group Islamic Jihad of the six Palestinians who escaped from an Israeli prison, as people celebrate in the Jenin camp in the West Bank, on Monday. Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

Palestinian inmates affiliated with the Islamic Jihad movement clashed with guards and set seven cells in Ketziot Prison on fire on Wednesday, as Israeli security services continue their search for six escaped high-security prisoners, focusing on the Jezreel Valley area.

The Prison Service reported that two cells in Rimon Prison were also set ablaze, but that the fire was under control. The riots follow a decision by the Prison Service to redistribute about 400 Islamic Jihad-affiliated inmates in jails throughout Israel.   

Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry decided shortly after the prison break on Monday to move the Islamic Jihad inmates, in order to ensure that only one Islamic Jihad prisoner is placed in any given prison cell. Israeli authorities said they were preparing for more rioting in other prisons in the coming days.  

Five of the fugitives, all of whom have been accused or convicted of planning or carrying out terror attacks against Israelis, belong to Islamic Jihad. 

Prisoner organizations announced that they have decided not to cooperate with any decisions regarding the transfer of prisoners between prison wings, saying they "have plans" to set more prison cells on fire.

In Ketziot, riots broke out and guards evacuated the wing's 70 prisoners following the fires, which are now under control. No casualties were reported.

Authorities suspect that the prisoners purposely set the cells ablaze due to the Prison Service's decision to separate them. According to Palestinian reports, clashes broke out between guards and inmates at Megiddo Prison as well.  

Earlier on Wednesday, clashes broke out between guards and about 150 Islamic Jihad inmates at Ofer Prison who had refused to vacate. On average, there are currently three Islamic Jihad prisoners per cell in that institution.

According to Israel Prison Service sources, Central District Commander Avichai Ben-Hamo later decided against moving the prisoners, fearing mass disturbances, and they currently remain at Ofer. "They're just scared of them," one senior Israel Prison Service official said.

Islamic Jihad announced on Wednesday morning that its inmates would hold a hunger strike if Israeli authorities continue taking steps against them in their prisons. In the West Bank, there are calls to hold solidarity marches towards Israeli checkpoints in support of the prisoners. 

Israeli security forces man a checkpoint in Israel's northern city of Afula on Wednesday.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

At the same time, a Palestinian source close to the security prisoners told Haaretz that inmates affiliated with other Palestinian groups – chiefly Fatah and Hamas – are expected to join in the efforts against the Prison Service if the limitations imposed on them are not lifted. Among those new restrictions are cell searches and limiting the number of hours the prisoners can walk around freely – cut from four hours to one.

In a few wings, prisoners are refusing to accept Islamic Jihad inmates due to deep ideological and religious rifts between them. 

The jailbreak poses a potential dilemma for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose security forces coordinate with Israel. His Fatah party has praised the prison escape, but he has not commented on it.

Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh condemned Israel's response within its prisons: "Our heroic prisoners are being brutally attacked by the Israeli security services, which is liable to cause a major explosion in the prisons," he said. "We are asking international organizations to intervene in order to stop this aggression and oppression, and calling on the Isreali government to end this aggression."  

Manhunt continues

In a Wednesday meeting, senior security officials assessed that unrest within prisons may lead to an escalation in the Gaza Strip. If that were to happen, security officials believe that Israel's ability to search for the fugitives would be diminished, because forces and attention would have to be diverted to Gaza.

As the manhunt continues, the Israeli military announced it has decided to extend a closure of the West Bank. The closure, imposed regularly on Jewish holidays, was meant to expire on Wednesday night, but instead will continue until Saturday night.

Israel's defense agencies believe all six fugitives are still within Israel, and have not crossed into the West Bank or Jordan. Forces are searching the northern villages of Iksal and Salem in the Jezreel Valley for the Palestinian inmates that escaped from Gilboa Prison on Monday. As part of the search effort, the Israeli military said that it has mobilized six companies, two brigades, two search teams and a number of specialized squads over the course of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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