Six Palestinian prisoners escaped one of Israel’s most secure jails this week, while a guard was sleeping in the watchtower.
The inmates, including five members of Islamic Jihad and a high-profile leader in the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades militia, had shared a cell at Gilboa prison in northern Israel before they tunneled out of the high-security facility in the early hours of Monday morning. Police, soldiers, and agents from Israel’s powerful internal security agency Shin Bet are now searching the area with sniffer dogs to try and track down the escapees.
Prison officials have described it as the biggest Palestinian jailbreak in 23 years.
An initial investigation into the escape indicated that the men had entered the bathroom in their cell at about 1:30AM and lifted an object that covered a hole on the floor, Al Jazeera reported. They then jumped into the hole one after the other and crawled through a tunnel to freedom.
When they reemerged, popping up out of the hole at the other end, they were just metres from the prison’s wall and directly under a watchtower, where one of the guards on duty was asleep. None of the guards in the control room noticed that the prisoners had escaped until 3:30AM – by which time they may have already reached the West Bank, according to Israel’s public security minister Omer Barlev.
“There was very precise planning, very detailed, and therefore there was probably external assistance,” said Barlev. “We’re examining [it] at the moment. We will catch the fugitives.”
The escapees are believed to have been heading for Jenin, a city in the northern West Bank where their families are located and where the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority wields little control. Militants in Jenin have openly clashed with Israeli forces in recent weeks.
Initial reports suggested that the men had dug their escape tunnel using a rusty spoon, which they hid behind a poster in their cell. It has since been revealed that they in fact exposed a gap in the wall and dug out behind a sink, allowing them to reach the prison’s drainage system. The spoon’s involvement is unconfirmed. A spokeswoman for the prison service, however, told The New York Times that the men evaded 40 prison guards, three watchtowers, two walls, two barbed-wire fences and a pack of sniffer dogs.
At least four of the escapees – whose ages range from 26 to 49 years old – had been serving life sentences. Another one of them was Zakaria Zubeidi, who was accused during the 2000s of orchestrating several terrorist attacks on Israelis, and was arrested in 2019 for his alleged involvement in recent West Bank attacks, including an attempted murder. He was being held in Gilboa pending a trial verdict.
Prior to Monday’s jailbreak, the Israeli prison service had classified the six inmates as “highly dangerous,” and warned that three of them were “highly likely to escape.” Now authorities are having to deal with a rare and humiliating breach of their security infrastructure: a Hollywood-style prison break that Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett described as a “grave incident.”
At the time of writing the men had not been found, despite Israeli police having deployed some 200 checkpoints and Israeli forces encircling the city of Jenin. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad has warned Israel not to harm the fugitives, while Palestinian militant groups praised their escape.
“This is a great heroic act, which will cause a severe shock to the Israeli security system and will constitute a severe blow to the army and the entire system in Israel,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad.
Qadura Fares, a former inmate of 18 years and head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club – an NGO set up to support the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails – told Al Jazeera “We are happy with this escape.
“We have called a lot for the necessity of liberating all Palestinian prisoners,” Fares said. “If the prisoners can free themselves, this is a great thing.”
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