Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza celebrated on Monday after six militants carried out an audacious escape from an Israeli maximum security prison.
Israeli security forces launched a massive manhunt, and conflicting Israeli media reports said some of the fugitives may have crossed the border into Jordan while others made it to the West Bank city of Jenin – both close to the Gilboa prison in northern Israel – or were in hiding on the Golan Heights.
The six, who shared the same cell, apparently entered the prison’s drainage network under the sink in their cell, exploiting an empty space under the floor, and exited through a tunnel just outside the prison’s perimeter wall, which probably took months to dig.
The breakout is one of the worst security failures ever to occur in an Israeli prison.
The men were spotted by a farmer walking along the road near the prison at about 3am, prompting him to call the police.
“I just passed by the prison and I saw some suspicious people walking around. Maybe you should tell them to do a patrol or something,” the farmer told police, according to a recording of the call that was shared on social media.
Five of the six were from Islamic Jihad and the sixth is a well-known former commander of the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militant group Zakaria Zubeidi. All six were from the Jenin area of the West Bank and are considered highly dangerous, having participated in deadly attacks on Israelis.
‘Brave and heroic’
Militants in Jenin fired into the air to celebrate and handed out coffee and sweets to passersby.
Islamic Jihad officials described the escape as "an utter failure for the occupation army" and as a "strong slap to the Israeli military and the whole Israeli system" and urged West Bank residents to grant the fugitives shelter. Hamas hailed the escape as "a brave and heroic act".
Israeli security forces set up 200 roadblocks and sent reinforcements to the north of Israel, including military special forces. Helicopters and drones were used in the search. Residents were urged to stay alert.
Hundreds of Palestinian militants were moved from Gilboa to other prisons in order to prevent copycat escape attempts.
Public security minister Omer Bar-Lev described the breakout as a serious incident that should not have happened. He said the escape had been planned meticulously with likely help from the outside.
He vowed that, sooner or later, Israel would catch the fugitives.
A former high-ranking prison warden said basic security procedures had been ignored. For instance, prisoners defined as high risk must be separated from each other and moved frequently to new cells.