JERUSALEM – It was around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning when the first inmate poked his head through a hole in a dirt road in northeastern Israel and hoisted himself above the ground.
Then came a second man, then a third. Within about 10 minutes, three more Palestinian prisoners had emerged from the hole, after crawling improbably nearly 32 meters from their cell in the prison, one of Israel’s seven high-security prisons.
The six militants have since disappeared, in what prison officials say is the biggest Palestinian escape in 23 years.
Against the backdrop of Jewish New Year celebrations, Tuesday’s escape sparked a still fruitless manhunt across northern Israel and the occupied West Bank, involving hundreds of police officers and soldiers in dozens of roadblocks. The incident represents a rare humiliation for the Israeli security institute and has raised the alarm about the security problems that may have aided the fugitives in their escape.
What is certain is that the six men left their shared cell by removing a small part of the floor of their communal shower cubicle, according to video released by the prison service. They then lowered into a pre-existing underground cavity that extended under the prison and toward its perimeter, allowing them to dodge 40 prison guards, three watchtowers, two walls, two barbed wire fences and a pack of sniffer dogs, a spokeswoman said. for the prison service, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the details of the escape.
At least part of their escape route was dug by the prisoners themselves, the spokeswoman added, although military experts were still assessing the size of their graves, how long they lasted and the tools they used.
Surveillance cameras captured the men emerging from the hole in the farmland southeast of the prison around 1:30 am. said the spokeswoman. But prison, police and military officials were unable to confirm widespread reports that the fugitives had dug their way to the surface with a spoon.
The six men were among about 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons after being convicted or charged with militant activity. Five are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant Islamist group, the prison service said.
The sixth is the most famous and also the odd one out: Zakaria Zubeidi, a 45-year-old former commander of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an armed group loosely associated with Fatah, the secular political party that controls Palestinian institutions in the Western world. Jordan bank.
Mr Zubeidi became a prominent militant leader in the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the 2000s and was accused of orchestrating several terrorist attacks against Israelis, but was not apprehended. He was taken into a general amnesty in 2007. About 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the intifada.
Mr Zubeidi later renounced violence, turning instead to political theater and became a leader of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, his hometown in the northern West Bank.
But Israeli officials re-examined him in 2019 and arrested him for alleged involvement in recent attacks on Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including an attempted murder. He was held in Gilboa, a maximum-security prison about four miles north of the West Bank, pending trial.
Four of his cellmates were longtime convicts, each sentenced to life in prison for various terrorist offenses, the prison service said. Two of them – Mohammed and Mahmoud al-Arida – were brothers, both convicted of attempted murder. A third, Eham Kamamji, was jailed for the kidnapping and murder of an Israeli teenager, Eliyahu Asheri. A fourth, Yacoub Kadiri, was sentenced to two life terms for attempted murder and planting a bomb.
The fifth fugitive, Munadil Nafayat, has yet to be charged.
All six came from the Jenin area, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of Gilboa — a fact that led Israeli commentators to question why such high-profile prisoners were allowed to be locked up so close to their families and support network, some of whom could have helped. the prisoners plan and execute their escape.
Other errors that may have aided the escape included the publication of a blueprint of the prison on an architectural firm’s website; The Failure to turn on a jamming device that would have prevented the inmates from communicating on cell phones smuggled into the prison; and the decision to group these prisoners in the same cell, even though three of them were considered a flight risk.
Security officials have not confirmed reports in Israeli news media that a prison guard fell asleep in a watchtower while the inmates escaped.
Among the Palestinians, their escape was widely hailed as a heroic act of defiance against the Israeli occupation. Israeli prisons cast a long shadow over Palestinian life; most Palestinians know someone who is currently or previously in detention.
Many Palestinians therefore celebrated a rare and symbolic humiliation for the Israeli security institution, which directly controls more than 60 percent of the West Bank and exercises some control over the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.
“The lack of freedom we experience as Palestinians is why everyone was affected by this,” Yehia Zubeidi, Zakaria Zubeidi’s younger brother, said in a telephone interview. “The whole thing has more to do with our demand for freedom than with the actual escape operation.”
The younger Mr Zubeidi said he hadn’t heard from his brother since his escape, nor had he expected to break cover by returning home.
Mr Zubeidi and his fellow refugees may have been last seen by a taxi driver who spotted several figures behaving suspiciously early Monday morning in the fields near the prison, the driver said in an interview with Yediot Ahronot newspaper. The driver later alerted police when authorities were first notified of the possibility of a jailbreak.
The six fugitives went missing two hours after their escape, after a roll call from all 400 inmates at Gilboa, the prison service said.
Since then, about 80 inmates have been transferred to other prisons as a precaution, while Gilboa prison authorities are scouring the site for signs of other escape routes.
As of Tuesday night, the fugitives remained at large amid fears from Israeli officials that the longer they remained free, the more likely it was that their escape could lead to a violent confrontation. In 1987, five Islamic Jihad members also escaped from an Israeli prison, an act associated with the start of the first intifada.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to speak of an active investigation, a security official said: Three people were arrested Tuesday in Naura, an Arab village near the prison in northern Israel, on suspicion of aiding the fugitives.
A second security official said the investigators leading the manhunt believed the six had split into groups shortly after the escape.
Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed from Haifa and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.