Manhunt continues for Palestinian prisoners who escaped jail

Police search Arab towns arresting three as manhunt continued for its second day.

View of the Israeli Prison Authorities, Gilboa Prison, near Israel Valley. (photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)
View of the Israeli Prison Authorities, Gilboa Prison, near Israel Valley.
(photo credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

A massive manhunt for six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from the Gilboa Prison in Israel’s North via a tunnel they dug in their cell continued throughout the holiday with no progress despite expansive search efforts by Israeli security forces.

Police, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Border Police and troops from two battalions and another 14 IDF companies, as well as Special Forces, are taking part in the manhunt and have placed some 200 roadblocks throughout the country to catch the escapees.

Security forces are also utilizing special units in the search involving dogs and aerial support.

The escape occurred early Monday morning, when “we received a number of reports about suspicious figures in agricultural fields and from the [Israel] Prison Service, which discovered very quickly that prisoners were missing from their cells and that six had escaped,” police spokesman Eli Levy said. “Our goal is to catch and arrest them, as long as there is a possibility that they are in Israel.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said troops in the West Bank have been alerted to the escape and are on high alert.

Walla News reported that two of the escapees crossed into Jordan, and of the four that remain in Israel, two are hiding out in the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Syrian border.

Police are also investigating the possibility that the escapees may have managed to escape to Jenin.

The six prisoners shared a cell, discovered a structural flaw in the construction of the prison and dug the tunnel for over a year.

According to Walla, a preliminary investigation of the incident found that the warden who was in the guard tower above the escape tunnel shaft had fallen asleep.

They coordinated the escape with people outside the prison using a smuggled cell phone. After they escaped, it is believed that they got away in a car that was waiting for them nearby after they changed clothes and were given arms.

OVERNIGHT TUESDAY, the Israeli military arrested five of the escapees’ relatives in Arabbe near Jenin, according to the Wafa News Agency. Israeli forces also conducted a house-to-house search in Arabbuna, Anin, Faqqua and Bir al-Basha.

Police on Tuesday searched the Arab towns of Na’ura and Tamra, entering mosques and setting up checkpoints. Three people in Na’ura were arrested in connection to the escape. Police also searched the Palestinian town of Jalama near the city of Jenin.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke with Interior Minister Omer Bar-Lev and said this was a “serious incident that will require the efforts of all security services.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a situational assessment with Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, IDF Operations Division head Maj.-Gen. Oded Basiuk and Central Command head Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs following the escape.

Gantz was updated on both the intelligence and operational efforts to find the prisoners and ordered that troops at border crossings and crossings in the Seam Zone be reinforced, a statement from his office said.

The police are preparing for the possibility that the terrorists might attempt to carry out an attack, including the possibility of kidnapping Israelis as bargaining chips in order to release other prisoners.

Officials held several situational assessments over the holiday.

The escape tunnel dug by the prison escapees with discarded clothes in it. (Credit: IPS Spokesperson)

A senior police official said this was one of the worst incidents of its kind to have ever happened in the country. According to public broadcaster KAN, police are investigating whether or not guards were involved in the escape.

THE SIX escapees were high-security prisoners who were all in jail with life sentences for deadly terrorist attacks against Israelis. According to Hebrew media reports, three of them had previously attempted to escape.

The escape, which began at around 3:30 a.m., was reportedly discovered when a farmer saw the six prisoners running in his field, after which he notified the police.

 View of the Shita prison, located next to Gilboa,and intended for 800 primarily security convicts.  (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90) View of the Shita prison, located next to Gilboa,and intended for 800 primarily security convicts. (credit: MOSHE SHAI/FLASH90)

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) released the names and affiliations of the escaped prisoners.

One of the escapees is Zakaria Zubeidi, a Fatah commander who was responsible for multiple terrorist attacks and for killing many Israelis.

Zubeidi was arrested by the Shin Bet in 2019 following intelligence that he was planning a serious attack in the West Bank, and for two shooting attacks against Israeli buses in the West Bank near Beit El and Psagot.

He was once considered a “symbol of the Intifada,” but renounced militancy over a decade ago and was awarded clemency by Israel after he agreed to give up arms.

Fatah's ZAKARIA ZUBEIDI 370 (credit: Reuters)Fatah's ZAKARIA ZUBEIDI 370 (credit: Reuters)

The other five escapees were identified as Munadil Nafayat, Iham Kahamji, Yaquob Qadiri and brothers Mahmoud and Mohammed al-Arida. They are all members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and from towns near Jenin.

In a statement, PIJ called the escape “heroic” and said it was “an utter failure for the occupation army.”

PIJ leader Khaled al-Batash was quoted by Shehab News Agency as saying that if there is “any attempt to assassinate the heroes of the operation, we warn the occupation that they will pay a heavy price for it.”

They also quoted Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum as saying the escape was a “great victory proving that the will and determination of the resistance fighters and Mujahedin cannot be defeated regardless of the challenges” and that the “Zionist enemy has never and will never win, no matter how much power it possesses. The struggle for freedom from the occupier continues.”

The IPS said following the escape that it would be sending the other security prisoners at Gilboa Prison to other facilities across the country as a precautionary measure in case there are other tunnels.

Inmates from Gilboa and Megiddo prisons in the North were moved to other jails in the South, but on Wednesday the IPS backtracked on moving some 150 PIJ inmates from Ofer Prison in the West Bank after prisoners threatened to riot, commit arson and harm guards if they were transferred.

Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.