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IDF boosts forces aiding prisoner manhunt, as searches focus on northern towns

Security forces said to arrest at least six relatives of escapees, search home of family member of fugitive Zakaria Zubeidi

Israeli soldiers stand guard near a damaged section of the border fence, near the West Bank village of Jalameh, September 6, 2021. (AP/Nasser Nasser)
Israeli soldiers stand guard near a damaged section of the border fence, near the West Bank village of Jalameh, September 6, 2021. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Authorities were operating in Arab towns in northern Israel on Wednesday, on the third day of searches for six fugitive Palestinian security prisoners who remained on the lam after escaping prison.

Israel has launched a massive manhunt to capture the six prisoners, who are considered highly dangerous after they broke out of the high-security Gilboa Prison early Monday in what is considered to be one of the most serious jailbreaks in the country’s history.

The military on Wednesday said it was boosting its aid to the search efforts, with two battalions, six companies, two recon teams, a number of special forces squads and aerial surveillance teams assisting.

According to AFP, authorities arrested at least six relatives of the escaped prisoners, including two brothers of Mahmud Ardah, described as the mastermind of the escape.

After three people were reported detained in the town of Na’ura on Tuesday, security forces began sweeping other towns north of it, Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday.

Na’ura is located some 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) north of Gilboa Prison.

Authorities still suspect that the fugitives split up following the escape from the prison. They ran some 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) after exiting the hole dug underneath the prison walls, police officials said. There, some of them are believed to have boarded a getaway vehicle.

Israeli Border Police in the village of Nau’ra search for six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from a high-security prison in northern Israel, on September 7, 2021. (Flash90)

It was not clear if the escapees were still in Israeli territory, or had crossed into the West Bank or even Jordan.

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.

Channel 12 reported that security forces on Wednesday searched the home of a relative of Zubeidi who lives in an Israeli town. The report did not say if anyone was arrested there.

Overnight and on Wednesday morning Israeli forces reportedly arrested family members of several of the Palestinian fugitives in the northern West Bank, near Jenin.

Monday’s escape has sparked tumult in Israel’s prison system. Senior officials from the prison were summoned for questioning on Tuesday evening, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Earlier in the day, at least 14 Prisons Service staff were questioned by the police amid suspicions that the escapees may have had assistance.

Prison officials and police are being widely castigated for lapses that facilitated the escape, with a litany of blunders allowing the breakout to occur in the first place, and a failure to grasp the severity of the situation for several hours after it occurred.

Authorities said that they had not achieved any breakthroughs in the search for the terrorists as of Tuesday evening.

The six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison on Monday, September 6, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Yaqoub Qadiri, Mohammad al-Arida, Mahmoud al-Arida, Iham Kamamji, Zakaria Zubeidi, and Munadil Nafiyat (Screenshot: Palestinian Prisoners’ Media Office)

The six escaped via a tunnel in 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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