Israel Steps Up Manhunt for Six Escaped Palestinian Prisoners
Israel’s police continued a massive manhunt for the six high-security Palestinian prisoners that escaped overnight from the country’s northern Gilboa prison.
In recent hours, Israeli police together with the army and intelligence personnel set up more than 200 road checkpoints in search for the escaped inmates, while large forces gathered Monday night around the Beit She’an and Afula areas, close to the prison.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev called the incident a “serious failure.” The six escaped through a tunnel under their cell’s drainage system described as a “structural flaw,” which they discovered for the passage out. According to an initial investigation, it is believed that the warden in the guard tower overlooking the wing above the tunnel shaft from which the prisoners fled fell asleep during his shift.
Israel’s Walla news site cited an investigation indicating that the fugitives began digging the 85 to 98 feet tunnel about a year ago. Following their escape, the fugitives are believed to have walked for about 1.9 miles before getting on vehicles. Two of the terrorists are thought to have crossed into Jordan, with another two potentially hiding out in the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Syrian border.
Following meetings with the Israel Police Department near Gilboa prison and a visit at the facility itself, Barlev said in a Facebook post: “It became clear to me that the Gilboa prison was built in a big rush in 2004, probably in light of the need for the intake of detainees following the Second Intifada.”
“In order to save time and money, the prison was built on top of a ‘construction’ that lifted it slightly above the ground and created a kind of ditch under the prison floor. The terrorists who escaped the prison took advantage of the underground canals and through them went beyond the prison wall, and dug a little upwards,” he added.
One of the six convicts is Zakaria Zubeidi, a high-profile commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was formerly on Israel’s most wanted list. Zubeidi, who is responsible for numerous deadly shootings and bombings, was transferred to a new cell shortly before the escape, from which all of the six fugitives fled, Israel’s Channel 12 reported.
The transfer is seen as unusual as prisoners are generally separated according to the organizations to which they belong. Zabeidi is part of the Fatah military wing, while the five other prisoners who stayed in the cell and fled with him belong to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
There are now fears within Israel’s defense establishment that the escape of the Gilboa inmates could spark a flareup in the Palestinian territories, possibly leading to riots and a possible escalation in the security situation.
Israel had already been preparing for potential escalation in the Gaza Strip over the Jewish holidays following threats by Hamas. On Monday, three fires had broken out in southern Israel, reportedly caused by incendiary balloons launched from Gaza.