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Manhunt continues for escaped security prisoners

What happened: The manhunt continues for the six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison on Monday.

  • The latest intelligence assessment suggests the six men have split up; some could still be hiding out in the West Bank and others could have already crossed the border into Jordan.
  • The prison escape is thought to have been months or even years in planning, as the prisoners used a spoon to dig an escape hole under the bathroom floor within their cell.
  • In the early hours of Monday morning the six prisoners were able to climb down into an open space under the floor where they continued digging until they came out under the prison’s walls.
  • Israeli media has since revealed a series of errors that helped facilitate their escape:
    • They escaped through a tunnel under a watchtower, but the guard was asleep at the time.
    • A passing driver called the police saying that he saw several suspicious figures running across the road and hiding in the bushes. However, it took two more hours for the Prison Service to conduct a prisoner count and another hour to realise six prisoners had escaped.
    • The layout of the prison blueprints were available online on the website of the prison’s architect.
    • The prisoners had coordinated their escape with assistance from the outside, as a car was waiting for them nearby and gave them a change of clothes.
    • They were able to coordinate using mobile phones, which were smuggled into the prison. Aware of this phenomenon, the prison authorities failed to use mobile phone reception jammers to avoid prisoners rioting.
  • Over the last couple of days Palestinian security prisoners in other jails have rioted in support and set fire to their cells. Guards were able to get the flames under control and that no one was hurt. 

Context:  Five of the six escapees are from Palestinian Islamic Jihad while the sixth, Zakariya Zubeidi is a former commander of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. All of them are from Jenin, which is geographically close to the Gilboa Prison.

  • Zubeida is familiar character to many Israelis and Palestinians. He became an iconic terrorist leader during the Second Intifada. Zubeidi was responsible for several terror attacks, including dispatching a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv that killed an Israeli woman. He was part of an amnesty agreement but after being suspected of returning to plan terror attacks, he was rearrested in 2019.
  • In a rare showing of unity, all the Palestinian political factions have united around their support for the escapees. Furthermore, the symbolism of Palestinian prisoners resonates as a powerful emotive issue for many Palestinians. This places the Palestinian Authority in an awkward predicament, as they also consider Islamic Jihad as a threat, but overt cooperation with Israeli security forces could further undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian public.
  • The Gilboa Prison is considered one of the highest security prisons in Israel. The escapees lifted a section of the shower stall floor, widened the hole and escaped. In a previous attempted escape in 2014, prisoners tried to dig through the toilet plumbing. As a result the Prison Service reinforced the toilet plumbing with cement, but not the shower floor.
  • As a result of the series of tactical failures Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry is facing pressure to resign. Israeli commentators have focused on the longer-term failures of the prison service.
  • There has been long standing concerns that the prison authorities have acquiesced to prisoner demands just to maintain quiet. Israeli media has documented their relatively comfortable conditions including access to further education, cable television and their own cooking facilities.
  • The Shin Bet security service is also facing criticism as they failed to pick up any intelligence about the escape.

Looking ahead: Israeli security forces are on high alert today with reinforcements preparing for a Palestinian “day of rage” across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. There is concern that if the violence includes rocket fire from Gaza, the situation could quickly escalate.

  • Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev has called to open a commission of inquiry, headed by a retired judge, which will first be approved by the cabinet.
  • Security officials have warned that the manhunt could go on for several more weeks.

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