Israeli security forces have launched a massive search operation in northern Israel and the occupied West Bank after six Palestinian prisoners escaped from one of the country’s most secure prisons using a rusty spoon in an unprecedented jailbreak.
The six, including five members of Islamic Jihad and a high-profile leader from al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade from Jenin refugee camp, had shared a cell at Gilboa prison and reportedly excavated their escape route behind a sink.
While initial reports suggested the men had tunnelled out, Katy Perry, the commissioner of the Israel prisons service, said the escapers exploited a flaw in the prison’s structural design, exposing a gap behind a wall.
Jailbreaks by Palestinian security prisoners held in Israeli jails are almost unheard of and the profile of the prisoners led Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, to describe it as a “grave incident”.
“From our initial investigation, it appears that there was no digging; rather, a plate that covered the space was lifted out of place,” said Perry.
Omer Barlev, Israel’s public security minister, suggested the men may have already reached the West Bank after the escape was discovered at 3am on Monday morning.
“There was very precise planning, very detailed, and therefore there was probably external assistance. We’re examining [it] at the moment. We will catch the fugitives.”
Officials said they had erected roadblocks and were conducting patrols in the area, while the 400 other prisoners in the jail were being moved to prevent further escape attempts.
Images released after the escape showed a narrow gap in a wall that had been dug out behind a sink, allowing the men to reach the prison’s drainage system.
Bennett said he was receiving constant updates on the prison break, which occurred hours before Jewish new year celebrations.
The escapers were believed to have been heading for Jenin, where the internationally recognised 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.
According to reports in the Israeli media, the prisoners spent several months working on their tunnel using a spoon which they had kept hidden behind a poster in their cell.
The Palestinian Prisoners Club, which represents former and current prisoners, identified the men as ranging in age from 26 to 49 years old.
They include Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, who has been detained since 2019. Zubeidi was a leader in al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with the Fatah movement, during the second Palestinian uprising more than 20 years ago. He had been in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.
Palestinian militant groups 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 spokesperson for Islamic Jihad.
Four of the other prisoners had been serving life sentences, the prisoners’ group said. Photos in Israeli media purportedly show the end of the escape tunnel, with one image showing an Israeli security man in a black T-shirt inspecting a hole in the ground.
The Hamas spokesperson, Fawzi Barhoum, said the escape showed “that the struggle for freedom with the occupier is continuous and extended, inside prisons and outside to extract this right”.
Gilboa prison was the site of a failed escape attempt in 2014 when a tunnel was found leading from a bathroom, which appears to have exploited the same structural issues used in the latest escape.