A hole, a tunnel, a 32-meter ramp: Palestinians still free after escape

JERUSALEM – It was around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning when the first prisoner stuck his head through a hole in a dirt road in northeast Isr...


JERUSALEM – It was around 1:30 a.m. Monday morning when the first prisoner stuck his head through a hole in a dirt road in northeast Israel and hoisted himself above the ground.

Then came a second man, then a third. In about 10 minutes, three more Palestinian prisoners had emerged from the hole, having improbably crawled nearly 32 meters from their cell inside the prison, one of Israel’s seven maximum security prisons.

The six activists have since disappeared, which prison officials say is the biggest Palestinian escape in 23 years.

Against the backdrop of the Jewish New Year celebrations, escape on Tuesday sparked a still unsuccessful manhunt in northern Israel and the occupied West Bank, involving hundreds of police and soldiers at dozens of roadblocks. The incident constitutes a rare humiliation of the Israeli security establishment and has raised alarm bells about security loopholes that may have helped the fugitives escape.

And it sparked a cascade of rumors and humor, filling social media with memes compare the escape to the hollywood movie storylines, as well as unconfirmed rumors of how the activists escaped.

What is certain is that the six men left their shared cell by removing a small part of the floor from their shared shower cubicle, a video released by the prison administration showed. Then they descended into a pre-existing underground cavity that stretched beneath the prison and towards its perimeter, allowing them to escape 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 evacuation route was excavated by the prisoners themselves, the spokeswoman added, although military experts were still assessing the extent of their excavations, the time they took and the tools they used.

Surveillance cameras captured the men emerging from the hole in farmland southeast of the prison at around 1:30 a.m., the spokeswoman said. But prison, police and military officials were unable to confirm widely reported reports that the fugitives dug their way to the surface with a spoon.

The six men were among some 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails after being convicted or accused of militant activities. Five are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant Islamist group, the prison service said.

The sixth is the best known, and also the strangest: Zakaria Zubeidi, a 45-year-old former commander of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group loosely linked to Fatah, the secular political party that dominates Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. .

Mr. Zubeidi has become a leading militant leader in the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, during the 2000s and was accused of orchestrating several terrorist attacks against Israelis but was not apprehended. It was included in a general amnesty in 2007. Around 3,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in the intifada.

Mr Zubeidi then renounced violence, instead turning to political theater and becoming a leader of the Freedom Theater in Jenin, his hometown in the northern West Bank.

But Israeli officials investigated him again in 2019, arresting him for alleged involvement in recent West Bank attacks on Israeli settlers, including attempted murder. He was being held in Gilboa, a maximum security prison about six kilometers north of the West Bank, pending the trial verdict.

Four of his cellmates were long-serving convicts, each sentenced to life in prison for various terrorist offenses, the prison service said. Two of them – Muhammad and Mahmoud al-Arida – were brothers, both convicted of attempted murder. A third, Eham Kamamji, was jailed for kidnapping and killing an Israeli teenager, Eliyahu Asheri. A fourth, Yacoub Kadiri, was sentenced to two life sentences for attempted murder and planting a bomb.

The fifth fugitive, Munadil Nafayat, had not yet been charged.

All six were from the Jenin area, about 10 miles southwest of Gilboa – a fact that has left Israeli commentators wondering why such famous prisoners were allowed to be held so close to their families and communities. their support network, some of which could have helped the prisoners plan and execute their escape.

Other mistakes that may have helped with the escape included posting a prison plan on an architectural firm’s website; the inability of the prison authorities to activate a jamming device that would have prevented inmates from communicating on cell phones smuggled into the prison; and the decision to regroup these prisoners in the same cell, even though three of them had been considered to present a risk of absconding.

Security officials did not confirm reports in Israeli media that a prison guard fell asleep in a watchtower as prisoners escaped.

Among Palestinians, their flight has been widely hailed as a heroic act of resistance to the Israeli occupation. Israeli prisons cast a shadow over Palestinian life; most Palestinians know someone currently or formerly in detention.

Many Palestinians therefore celebrated a rare and symbolic indignity for the Israeli security establishment, which directly rules over 60% 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 moved by this,” Yehia Zubeidi, younger brother of Zakaria Zubeidi, said in a telephone interview. “It all has more to do with our demand for freedom than the actual escape operation.”

Young Mr Zubeidi said he had not heard from his brother since his escape, nor did he expect him to break his blanket on his way home.

Mr Zubeidi and his fugitives may have been last seen by a taxi driver who saw several figures behaving suspiciously in the fields near the prison early Monday morning, the driver said in a report. interview with Yediot Ahronot newspaper. The driver then alerted the police, when authorities were first notified of the possibility of an escape.

The six fugitives were reported missing two hours after their escape, after a roll call of the 400 prisoners in Gilboa, the prison administration said.

About 80 prisoners have since been moved to other prisons as a precaution, while prison authorities in Gilboa check the site for signs of other escape routes.

As of Tuesday evening, the fugitives were still at large as Israeli officials feared that the longer they remained free, the more likely it was that their flight could lead to a violent confrontation. In 1987, five members of the Islamic Jihad also escaped from an Israeli prison, an act associated with the start of the first intifada.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for an active investigation, a security official said three people were arrested on Tuesday in Naura, an Arab village near the prison in northern Israel, on suspicion of to have helped the fugitives.

A second security official said investigators leading the manhunt believed the six men split into groups soon after the escape.

Rawan Sheikh Ahmad contributed reporting from Haifa and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv.



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Newsrust - US Top News: A hole, a tunnel, a 32-meter ramp: Palestinians still free after escape
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