Israel is looking for 6 Palestinians after a rare prison sentence


TEL AVIV, Israel-Israel launched a massive search in the north of the country and the occupied West Bank early Monday after six Palestinian prisoners tunneled out of their cell and escaped from a highly protected facility in the largest prison sentence of its kind in decades.

The escape marks a shameful breach of security just before the Jewish New Year, when Israelis flock north to enjoy the beaches, camps and the Sea of ​​Galilee. The detainees appear to have been in hiding and there were no indications that Israeli authorities considered them an imminent threat.

Palestinians consider prisoners held by Israel to be heroes of their national cause, and many have celebrated the escape on social media. Efforts to capture the refugees are likely to draw attention to the security coordination of the Palestinian Authority with Israel, which is deeply unpopular among Palestinians. There were no direct comments from the Parliamentary Assembly, but President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party praised the escape.

Israeli officials said they had lifted roadblocks and were patrolling the area. Israeli military radio said 400 prisoners were being relocated as a protective measure against any further escape attempts. The radio said the inmates escaped through a tunnel from Gilboa Prison, north of the West Bank, which should be one of the safest facilities in Israel.

A photo released by the prison service shows a narrow hole in the floor of the cell, and Israeli security forces could be seen inspecting a similar hole in the gravel directly in front of the prison walls.

It appears to have been the largest Palestinian escape from an Israeli prison since 1987, when six Islamic Jihad militants broke out of a high-security prison in Gaza months before the outbreak of the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called it a “serious incident” that requires maximum efforts by various Israeli security branches.

He said he was receiving constant information about his escape from prison, which happened just hours before Israel was due to mark the Jewish New Year. There were no instructions for people to change their routine.

Israeli media quoted Public Security Minister Omer Barlev as saying that extensive planning had escaped and that the detainees probably had “outside help”. Palestinian prisoners are believed to be using smuggled cell phones to communicate with people outside, and the fugitives may have arranged for an escape vehicle.

Police Commander Shimon Ben Shabo said officials had stepped up emergency call centers in the area to respond to all reports of detainees and that “there are forces to come to any location”.

The suspects fled to their hometown of Jenin, on the occupied West Coast, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. The internationally recognized PA has little control in the city, where militants have clashed with Israeli forces in recent weeks. Israeli helicopters were seen flying over Jenin on Monday morning.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents both former and current prisoners, has identified men aged 26 to 49.

The most famous is Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, who was a prominent leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed group linked to Fatah, during the second intifada from 2000 to 2005. He was later granted amnesty along with other militants linked to Fatah, but was re-arrested in 2019 due to, as Israeli authorities said, new suspicions of terrorism.

As a child, Zubeidi was part of a children’s theater troupe in Jenin founded by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli human rights activist, talked about in a 2004 documentary.

Four other inmates were serving life sentences, a group of inmates said.

Palestinian militant groups praised the breakthrough.

“This is a great heroic act, which will cause a serious shock in the Israeli security system and will be a heavy blow to the military and the entire system in Israel,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum similarly concluded the escape, saying it shows “that the struggle for freedom with the occupier is continuous and prolonged, within the prison. and externally to exercise this right. ”

Even Abbas’s Fatah party praised the escape, and the official Twitter account posted a picture of Zubeidi and hailed what he called the “tunnel of freedom”.

The escape poses a dilemma for Abbas, who met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz a week ago at the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years. Abbas said he hoped to revive the peace process after a more than decade-long break under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Abbas’s PA is deeply unpopular. He canceled the first election in 15 years in April, when it turned out that his Fatah party would suffer an embarrassing defeat. Palestinian authorities were largely left out during the Gaza war in May and collapsed in a wave of protests following the death of an activist in PA custody that month.

PA security forces are coordinating with Israel to target Hamas and other militants they both see as a threat. But any attempt to help Israel re-arrest escaped prisoners risks further undermining the PA in the eyes of the Palestinians.


Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Jack Jeffery in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.


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