Prison building plans posted online, guards blind to digging occurring under their noses, a watchtower manned by a sleeping recruit, and a fumbled report of suspicious figures.
These were just some of the blunders and oversights that helped six highly dangerous Palestinian security prisoners tunnel out of one of Israel’s most secure prisons in the early hours of Monday and evade capture for a day and counting.
Hebrew media reports detailed the laundry list of missed clues and mess-ups, as authorities vowed to both collar the escapees and fix holes they exploited to break free.
A day before the breakout, the most senior prisoner of the group, Zakaria Zubeidi, requested a transfer into the cell where the five other prisoners were located, Channel 12 news reported, adding that the transfer was accepted without any red flags raised. The Israel Prisons Service typically separates prisoners based on their terror group affiliation, but Israel did not have any intelligence that an escape was being planned, the network said.
Zubeidi, a notorious former commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was rearrested in 2019 after supposedly giving up armed struggle for artistic pursuits, was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.
The rest of the prisoners were affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group, with four of them in jail for life in connection with deadly terrorist attacks on Israelis.
The cell Zubeidi was transferred to had been the scene of surreptitious excavation work for weeks or months, as inmates dug out a hole from the bathroom and hid it under a floorboard, Channel 12 said. According to Walla news, the preparations lasted a year.
They didn’t have to dig too far underground, as the prison is supported by stilts that they simply crawled under until they reached an area beyond the fence. From there, they crawled out of a hole.
The Gilboa Prison was the site of an attempted escape in 2014, when prison guards uncovered a tunnel dug underneath a bathroom. The eight prisoners suspected of collaborating on the tunnel were members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and were sharing the cell and the bathroom. Prison guards uncovered the tunnel after extensive investigation and before the prisoners could attempt to escape.
Apparently, the prison service failed to alter its operational practices after that attempt to prevent a similar incident.
Walla news reported that three of the escapees had been involved in the previous escape attempt. Incredibly, they were still allowed to share the same cell.
In what may have further assisted the prisoners in their escape, the blueprint of the Gilboa Prison was available online on the website of the architectural firm that designed the jail, Hebrew media reported.
The opening from which the group emerged outside the prison was directly below a watchtower, but the guard at the post had fallen asleep and did not notice the inmates making their escape, Hebrew media said.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said that extensive planning went into the escape and that the prisoners likely had “outside assistance.”
After emerging from underground, the group quickly changed their clothes before sprinting three kilometers (1.9 miles) away from the prison where a vehicle awaited them, investigators believe. It was there that the group split up, as not all of the prisoners entered the car, Channel 12 reported.
It was unclear where the car went, though at least some suspects are thought to have escaped into Jenin.
At some point before the suspects arrived at the vehicle though, a taxi driver spotted at least some of them at a nearby gas station and called the police.
In the recording of the 2:15 a.m. call retrieved by Hebrew media, the man could be heard saying, “I just saw here about three or so masked men carrying bags quickly crossing the road opposite the prison… They were wearing mud-colored clothes and ran from the area of the prison to an open area. I said [to myself] that I must report this.”
The Beit She’an deputy police commander quickly passed on to Gilboa Prison authorities this and another witness report of suspicious figures, but it was not until over an hour later that the prison authority first reported that inmates were missing. It initially said that three prisoners were unaccounted for, and only later acknowledged that the true number was six.
The escape likely would have required the use of smuggled cellphones, a constant challenge for Israeli prison guards.
Earlier this year, the prison installed a system to block the use of smuggled cellphones by inmates, but it was never activated, Channel 12 reported. It was likely left off because some feared that jamming the calls could lead to protests and hunger strikes by prisoners, which could inflame Palestinians.
The escape was eerily similar to the plot of a 2014 Ramadan-season TV show on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV channel, where six Palestinian prisoners escaped an Israeli jail from a tunnel they had dug from the bathroom of their cell.
Authorities have launched a massive manhunt for the six, with soldiers and cops scouring areas near Beit She’an and Jenin, while attempting to gather intelligence about the escape and the inmates’ whereabouts.
Citing unspecified Palestinian reports, Ynet said that police believe that some of the suspects may have fled the country for Jordan, while others remained in the Beit She’an area or the northern West Bank.
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 at Gilboa, 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 were concerned that the six men could carry out a terrorist attack against Israeli civilians, though leading figures have indicated that it is unlikely. Others indicated that they feared the longer the inmates remained on the run, the greater the danger would be for copycat incidents or attacks by newly confident terrorists.
“The only way to reduce the resonance [of the jailbreak] is to recapture the terrorists as quickly as possible,” a security source was quoted telling Channel 12 news.
The channel noted that Zubeidi has extensive ties in the Jenin Refugee Camp, making the flashpoint town a likely hideout spot for at least some of the group. It was one of the only places in the West Bank where PIJ fighters operate openly while armed, the network said.
Islamic Jihad and Hamas officials issued statements Monday evening urging Palestinians to assist in the escapees’ efforts to evade capture, and warned Israeli authorities that the Jenin Refugee Camp would “turn to hell” if they sought to enter.
In the Jenin governorate, where some Palestinians fired into the air to celebrate the escapees, Israeli forces were deployed heavily. Jenin governor Akram Rajoub told AFP: “For the moment the situation is calm, but the surveillance is unprecedented.”
With rumors about the escapees’ whereabouts spreading rapidly online, Jenin has become an area of focus, partly given Zubeidi’s ties there.
The Jenin refugee camp, which adjoins the city of Jenin, is used to Israeli incursions despite being in a West Bank area officially under Palestinian control, said Hassan al-Amouri, a community leader. “Anything is possible” in a camp where many residents are armed, he told AFP.
The Jenin camp was a center for the training and dispatch of Palestinian suicide bombers targeting Israeli in the terrorist onslaught of the Second Intifada 20 years ago.
Unrest has spiked in Jenin in recent weeks. A gun battle broke out last month, as Israeli forces came under fire while looking for suspects, leaving four Palestinians dead.
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, and where celebratory sweets were distributed on Monday morning.