Six Palestinians escape Israeli jail, including top ex-militant

Six Palestinians broke out of an Israeli prison Monday through a tunnel dug beneath a sink, triggering a massive manhunt for the group that includes a prominent ex-militant. 

The Israel Prison Service said an alert was sounded around 3:00 am (0000 GMT) by locals who spotted “suspicious figures” outside the Gilboa prison in the country’s north. 

The group includes Zakaria Zubeidi, a former militant leader from the flashpoint city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

In footage that recalled the iconic 1994 prison escape film “The Shawshank Redemption,” the IPS released a video which showed agents inspecting a narrow tunnel beneath a sink and another showing a hole just outside the prison walls. 

Gilboa — which opened in 2004 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising — is a high security site where hundreds of Palestinians are detained among other inmates. 

The prison service said all those held at Gilboa over “security offences” were being relocated in case additional escape tunnels have been dug beneath the facility. 

– ‘Unprecedented surveillance’ –

Hours before much of Israel was set to shut down for Jewish New Year celebrations that begin at sundown Monday, police, the army and agents from Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency were conducting a manhunt, a police statement said. 

The search included aerial surveillance vehicles, sniffer dogs, roadblocks and checkpoints. 

In Jenin governorate, where some Palestinians fired into the air to celebrate the escapees, Israeli forces were deployed heavily, an AFP reporter said. 

Jenin governor Akram Rajoub told AFP: “For the moment the situation is calm, but the surveillance is unprecedented.”

With rumours about the escapees’ whereabouts spreading rapidly online, Jenin has become an area of focus, partly given Zubeidi’s ties there. 

The Jenin refugee camp, which adjoins Jenin city, is used to Israeli incursions despite being in a West Bank area officially under Palestinian control, said Hassan al-Amouri, a community leader.

“Anything is possible” in a camp where many residents are armed, he told AFP. 

Unrest has spiked in Jenin in recent weeks. A gun battle broke out last month as Israeli forces came under fire while looking for suspects, leaving four Palestinians dead.  

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, an observant and religious Jew, held consultations with defence and prison chiefs in the final hours before New Year, or Rosh Hashanah, begins. 

– Prominent militants –

He called the escape “a serious event that required a comprehensive effort by all of the security services”.

All six who escaped were accused of planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.

Zubeidi was the former head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and a well-known figure among Palestinians and Israelis.

He was arrested over “terror allegations” in 2019 in a West Bank village near Ramallah.

He had previously faced charges from the Palestinian Authority for taking part in deadly a shooting attack on the residence of Jenin governor Qaddura Musa in 2002.

Zubeidi in 2007 agreed to lay down his arms and went on to help found Jenin’s Freedom Theatre.

In 2011, the theatre’s well-known Israeli-Palestinian director Juliano Mer-Khamis was gunned down in Jenin’s refugee camp, in an attack that remains unsolved.

Another of the escapees is Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, a prominent member of the Islamic Jihad militant group who had been serving a life sentence since 1996. 

Islamic Jihad supporters in Gaza were distributing goods across the Israeli-blockaded enclave on Monday — gifts to celebrate the jail break, AFP reporters said. 

Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, called the escape “a heroic act and a victory for the will and determination of our heroic detainees”.

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