Six Palestinian Prisoners Escape Israeli Prison, Manhunt Underway

Josh Breiner
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Escape tunnel used by inmates at Gilboa prison
Escape tunnel used by inmates at Gilboa prison
Josh Breiner

An extensive manhunt is underway Monday after six high-risk security prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel overnight. 

>> Click here for the latest updates on the Palestinian jailbreak 

View of the tunnel opening in the escapees cell

Police, military and Shin Bet forces have been deployed across the country and some 200 roadblocks have been erected. The defense establishment is focusing most of its search efforts in the Beit She'an area in the north after two suspects were spotted on security cameras.  

The police estimate that the fugitives split into pairs after escaping and that some of them are no longer in Israel.

Officials are concerned that the six escaped to Jordan or will try to carry out kidnappings or attacks. 

The six inmates who escaped Gilboa prison

Three of them were previously deemed a high flight risk, while all of them have either been accused or convicted of partaking in terror activities. Among the runaways is Zakaria Zubeidi, the former leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade and a Fatah activist, who was accused of perpetrating a 2002 attack at the Likud party office which killed six people.

Since the dragnet commenced, the IDF has also set up roadblocks in the West Bank in an attempt to stop the prisoners from escaping into Jordan. 

Northern District commander Shimon Lavi said this morning that the empty tunnel found under the cell was a “structural flaw” which the inmates discovered. He added that they plan to evacuate the remaining prisoners, around 400 people who will be dispersed across other prisons, in order to investigate the escape.

Prison officials surmise that the six escaped via a shaft leading outside the prison walls that they had managed to dig over the past few months, and an initial investigation revealed that the inmates shared a cell. The Shin Bet reported that the escapees coordinated with collaborators outside the prison using a smuggled cellphone and had an escape car waiting for them.

Officials at the Israel Prison Service say the inmates escaped around 1:30 A.M. They were first noticed by a local cab driver at 1:49 A.M. who spotted them at a gas station near the prison and called the police. A dispatched unit arrived at the location less than ten minutes later and started inspecting the area and interviewing gas station employees.

At 2:14 A.M. the deputy chief of the local precinct notified the prison about the growing suspicion. At 3:29 A.M. Israel Prison Service reported three inmates missing to the police, which sends reinforcement to the prison. It becomes evident only at 4:00 A.M. that in fact six prisoners were not accounted for. The tunnel exit was later found a few meters outside the prison walls and was covered with weeds.  

An investigation into the incident is underway, said Israel Prison Service, which includes a probe in to the time gaps in the sequence of events. An official from the Israel Prison Service described the breach as "a major security and intelligence failure."

Prime Minister Bennett spoke with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev following the incident, and is receiving continuous updates on the incident. In a brief statement, Bennett said: "This is a serious incident which will require joint efforts by the entirety of our security forces."

In a statement made shortly after the event the Islamic Jihad called the escape "heroic" and added that it will  "shock the Israeli defense system." Five of the six escapees are affiliated with the movement.

Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum praised the fugitives saying "the escape proves the bravery of these prisoners, achieving freedom despite such strict security measures. It's a heroic and impressive action," while the group also called on the public in the West Bank to provide shelter for the fugitives.  

Meanwhile, Fatah spokesperson Munir al-Jaghoub celebrated the escape saying “the dream of freedom is shared by all prisoners… these six heroes managed to break this system.”

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