Six Palestinian militants broke out of a maximum security Israeli prison on Monday in a Hollywood-style escape that left their jailors peering through a hole in the floor of a cell, and had Palestinians celebrating in the streets.
Israeli security forces mounted a search in northern Israel after farmers tipped off police about suspicious figures seen in their fields in the early morning hours. Police then alerted officials at Gilboa prison, who discovered that the men had gone.
Hours after the escape, prison officials transferred some other inmates – Palestinians convicted or suspected of anti-Israeli activities including deadly attacks – to other jails, fearing similar tunnels had been dug.
Five of the fugitives belong to the Islamic Jihad movement and one is a former commander of an armed group affiliated with the mainstream Fatah party, the Prisons Service said.
Four were serving life sentences after their conviction on charges of planning or carrying out attacks that killed Israelis. Another man was held under a special detention order, and the sixth fugitive was awaiting a verdict in his trial.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said he had spoken with Israel’s internal security minister and “emphasised that this is a grave incident that requires an across-the-board effort by the security forces” to find the escapees.
A police spokesman said security forces believed the fugitives might try to reach the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule, or the Jordanian border some 14 km (9 miles) to the east.
In Gaza, Islamic Jihad supporters handed out candy on the street to motorists and passersby in celebration.
“Today, Islamic Jihad heroes achieved a new victory in the Gilboa prison. This victory smashed the image of the occupier,” said Islamic Jihad official Khamees El-Haitham in Gaza.
A video released by the Israeli Prisons Service showed authorities inspecting the opening that the prisoners had dug adjacent to the cell’s toilet.
Terrorist prison break: Take a look inside the tunnel that 6 terrorists dug to escape an Israeli prison.
Read more: https://t.co/jWXNA2QWho
— The Jerusalem Post (@Jerusalem_Post) September 6, 2021
On social media, Palestinians and Israelis alike swiftly posted photos of a similar scene from the 1994 prison escape movie The Shawshank Redemption.
Arik Yaacov, the Prison Service’s northern commander, said that after escaping through the hole, the inmates used passages formed by the jail’s construction to make their getaway.
The facility, about 4 km (2 miles) from the boundary with the occupied West Bank, is one of the highest-security jails in Israel.
One of the escapees was identified by the Prisons Service as Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank city of Jenin who once received Israeli amnesty. He was rearrested by Israel in 2019 after his alleged involvement in new shooting attacks.
His trial is ongoing.
(By Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Hugh Lawson)
Copyright 2021 Thomson/Reuters