Israeli police set up hundreds of roadblocks and the country’s top political and military leaders held security consultations Monday afternoon, as a manhunt for six prison escapees, including a notorious leader of a terror group, continued into the start of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
The search for the six has centered around the cities of Beit She’an and Afula, near the high security Gilboa prison that they escaped from in what is considered among the most serious jailbreaks in the nation’s history.
While the prison is only some six kilometers (four miles) from the West Bank, police reportedly believe the escapees to still be inside Israel.
Police and military officials have beefed up security nationwide, fearing that the escapees could carry out attacks against Israeli soldiers or civilians, or inspire copycat attacks, with some Palestinians celebrating the jailbreak.
Some 200 roadblocks have been set up, a police official said, and crossing points to the West Bank were also shuttered, with soldiers dispatched to check all Palestinians returning from work in Israel to the West Bank.
“The police are completely prepared for any terror activity, and officers are in a very high state of readiness,” police operations head Avi Biton told the Ynet news website.
The six escapees include Zakaria Zubeidi, a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder. Another four escapees were in jail for life in connection with deadly attacks against Israelis. All six are considered highly dangerous.
The escape is considered a highly symbolic success for the terror groups, security officials told Channel 12 news. It is being celebrated with “euphoria” among Palestinians, especially in the refugee camp of Jenin, the area from which all 6 come, where celebratory sweets were distributed on Monday morning.
“The only way to reduce the resonance [of the jailbreak] is to recapture the terrorists as quickly as possible,” the TV report quoted security sources saying. The expression “dead or alive” has been used, this report said.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met on Thursday afternoon with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and other top police, military and prison officials to discuss efforts to recapture the six.
Earlier in the day, Bennett expressed concerns that the escapees could endanger those taking advantage of the Jewish New Year holiday for hiking and other outdoor activities.
“Over the coming holidays, very many hikers will come from around the country because fewer people are going abroad and this is most welcome,” Bennett said while visiting soldiers on a base in the northern West Bank.
“Your responsibility will be to safeguard them during the holidays because there are many threats and we must continue to be on guard. You must be especially alert until those who escaped from Gilboa Prison this morning are recaptured.”
The roadblocks could potentially complicate travel for travelers visiting family or taking vacation over the New Year’s holiday, which began at sundown Monday and ends Wednesday night.
Two of the suspects were thought to have been spotted by security cameras in Beit She’an operated by the municipality, Army Radio reported, though later reports indicated that the people seen on camera may not have been the suspects.
Reports also indicated that a cell phone found in the city may have belonged to a suspect.
Police issued a statement urging the public to ignore fake reports, “which damage search efforts,” though they did not specify which reports were inaccurate.
“Be responsible and adhere to the messages of the police spokesperson only,” the statement added.
A court later gagged reporting on details of the investigation into the prison break at the request of police, a routine measure selectively enforced by authorities.
According to Hebrew media reports, police and prison officials had severely mismanaged the situation, allowing the breakout to occur in the first place, and failing to grasp the severity of the situation for several hours.
The six escaped via a tunnel through their cell’s drainage system, though officials said that a security flaw meant that they did not need to excavate to create a passage out.
“From our initial investigation, it appears that there was no digging; rather, a plate that covered the space [where they escaped] was lifted out of place,” Katy Perry, commissioner of the Israel Prisons Service, told reporters at the prison hours following the escape.
The hole from which the prisoners emerged outside the prison walls was immediately beneath a watchtower.
The guard in the tower has acknowledged being asleep at the time of the escape, Channel 12 said.
Police only realized that the prisoners were missing two hours after they disappeared from Gilboa. A taxi driver spotted the suspects next to a nearby gas station wearing their brown prison uniforms and reported them to the police at 2:15 a.m., Haaretz said. A recording of the driver calling the police was played on Israeli TV and radio.
Channel 12 news gave a slightly different timeline, saying a civilian phoned in a first report to police at 1: 49 a.m. of three suspicious figures on the run. At 1:58 a.m. a police patrol vehicle arrived at the scene, and a second witness there reported seeing one suspicious figure. At 2:14, the Beit She’an deputy police commander passed on those reports to Gilboa Prison.
Only at 3:29 a.m. did Gilboa Prison report that three of its detainees were missing, Hebrew reports said. At 4:00 a.m., it updated the number to six missing prisoners.
According to security sources cited by Channel 12 news Monday night, the six escapees changed clothes immediately after emerging from their breakout hole. They then ran some three kilometers to a waiting vehicle. Some of them got into the vehicle, and others continued on foot. “There are no leads” regarding their whereabouts, the report said.
The Palestinian Prisoners Authority reported that several security prisoners affiliated with the Islamic Jihad terror group were taken by Shin Bet security service agents for interrogation following the breakout.
In addition, large numbers of security prisoners affiliated with various terror groups were transferred into separate cells while others were transferred to other prisons entirely, the authority said, as law enforcement sought to prevent additional escapes. Army Radio said that guards at Gilboa Prison carried out searches of 400 prisoners on site.
Security officials are most concerned that the six men could carry out a terrorist attack against Israeli civilians, though leading figures have indicated that it is unlikely.
According to a Ynet report, some defense officials believe the six men have crossed into the West Bank and are receiving assistance in remaining undetected from residents there.
However, police and prison officials have maintained publicly that they believe the suspects are still in Israeli territory, and are working to ensure they do not escape into Jordan.
According to Ynet, Israeli soldiers are not carrying out extensive searches or roadblocks in the areas near their families’ West Bank homes, in the hope that the prisoners slip up and reveal themselves.
Barlev said earlier that he doesn’t believe an attack by the escapees is likely, “but I am not a prophet and we are taking all possibilities into consideration.”