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Israel launches massive manhunt after breakout from high-security prison

Police officers and prison guards stand outside prison walls.
Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a jailbreak outside the Gilboa prison in northern Israel on Monday.
(Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press)

Israeli forces on Monday launched a massive manhunt in northern Israel and the occupied West Bank after six Palestinian prisoners escaped overnight from a high-security facility in an extremely rare breakout.

The escape marks an embarrassing security breach just ahead of the Jewish New Year, when Israelis flock to the north to enjoy beaches, campsites and the Sea of Galilee. The prisoners appear to have gone into hiding, and there was no indication that Israeli authorities viewed them as an immediate threat.

Palestinians consider prisoners held by Israel to be heroes of their national cause, and many celebrated the escape on social media. Efforts to capture the escapees will likely draw attention to the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel, which is deeply unpopular among Palestinians. There was no immediate comment from the PA, but President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party praised the escape.

Officials said they had erected roadblocks and were conducting patrols in the area. Israel’s Army Radio also said 400 prisoners were being moved as a preventive measure against any additional escape attempts. The radio said the prisoners escaped through a tunnel from the Gilboa prison, which is supposed to be one of Israel’s most secure facilities.

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A photo released by the prison service showed a narrow hole in the floor of a cell, and Israeli security forces could be seen examining a similar hole on a stretch of gravel just outside the walls of the prison.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called it a “grave incident” that required maximum effort by Israel’s various security branches.

The Israel-Hamas war has helped catalyze a newfound sense of Palestinian solidarity that could mark a new moment in the Middle East, activists say.

He said he was receiving frequent updates on the prison break, which occurred just hours before Israel was to mark the Jewish New Year. There were no instructions for people to alter their routines.

Police Cmdr. Shimon Ben Shabo said officials had reinforced emergency response call centers in the area to respond to any reports about the prisoners and there were “forces available to arrive at any location.”

The escapees were believed to have been headed for the West Bank city of Jenin, about a 15-mile drive away, where the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority wields little control and where militants in recent weeks have openly clashed with Israeli forces. Israeli helicopters were seen flying over Jenin on Monday morning.

The Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents both former and current prisoners, identified the men as ranging in age from 26 to 49. They include Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, who has been detained since 2019. Zubeidi was a leader in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with the Fatah movement, during the second Palestinian intifada from 2000 to 2005.

Mahmoud Abu Jubbah and his family have the grim task of clearing the aftermath of war, removing what’s left of homes, offices and personal belongings.

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Four of the other prisoners had been serving life sentences, the prisoners group said.

Palestinian militant groups swiftly praised the breakout.

“This is a great heroic act, which will cause a severe shock to the Israeli security system and will constitute a severe blow to the army and the entire system in Israel,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum cast the escape similarly, saying it shows “that the struggle for freedom with the occupier is continuous and extended, inside prisons and outside, to extract this right.”

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Even Abbas’ Fatah party praised the escape, with an official Twitter account posting a picture of Zubeidi and hailing what it called the “freedom tunnel.”

The escape poses a dilemma for Abbas, who met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz a week ago in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years. Abbas has said he hopes to revive the peace process after more than a decade-long hiatus under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is deeply unpopular. He canceled the first elections in 15 years in April when it appeared his Fatah party would suffer an embarrassing defeat. The PA was largely sidelined during the war between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza in May, and it has cracked down on a wave of protests following the death of an activist in PA custody that month.

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PA security forces coordinate with Israel to target Hamas and other militants that both view as a threat. But any effort to help Israel re-arrest the escaped prisoners risks further undermining the PA in the eyes of Palestinians.


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