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Jailbreak probe said to find 11 Gilboa prisoners started tunnel dig in November

Inmates reportedly used plates and pan handles to burrow escape path; dumped excavated dirt in the sewer system, garbage cans, and hollow shafts they found in their wing

Investigators inspect the hole used by six inmates to escape Gilboa Prison, on September 6, 2021. (Israel Prison Service)
Investigators inspect the hole used by six inmates to escape Gilboa Prison, on September 6, 2021. (Israel Prison Service)

The investigation into the jailbreak of six Palestinian security prisoners from the Gilboa Prison last week has found that inmates of the facility began late last year to dig the tunnel used to escape, with the help of at least five additional prisoners, the Haaretz daily reported on Tuesday.

The six fugitives — two of whom are still at large — escaped by digging through the concrete and metal rebar flooring in their bathroom and removing a slab that led to a series of cavities in the prison’s structure. They used these to leave the compound underground and then tunneled their way up to a road on the south side of the facility.

According to Tuesday’s report, investigators probing last Monday’s escape believe that at least 11 prisoners were involved in the digging of the tunnel, which began as early as November 2020. The Shin Bet security agency, which is leading the investigation, is reportedly questioning the five prisoners believed to have helped the escapees dig.

The prisoners are said to have carried out the digging using plates and pan handles and to have dumped the excavated dirt in the sewer system, in garbage cans, and in hollow shafts they found in their wing.

According to the reports earlier this week, a prison guard who was responsible for maintaining the prison’s sewer system knew of recent blockages in the system due to sand, but did not report the blockages to the prison authorities.

Security officials additionally suspect that many other prisoners in the Gilboa Prison may have known of the escape, according to the Haaretz report, and that another inmate was set to take part in the jailbreak, but changed his mind at the last minute.

In this photo provided by Israel’s Prisons Service, a hole in a floor is seen after six Palestinian prisoners escaped from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (Israeli Prisons Service via AP)

The Israel Prisons Service would not comment on the report, citing the ongoing police investigation.

The escape is considered to be one of the worst jailbreaks in Israel’s history and the prisons service has faced significant criticism in the wake of the incident, with a reported series of blunders having enabled the six to escape.

The escape was filmed in real-time by the facility’s security cameras, but no one was monitoring them at the time of the jailbreak, the Walla news site said on Monday. The guard in the control room at the time is reportedly suspected of watching television and noticing neither the live feed of the six escaping nor the warning system that was activated. A Channel 12 report Monday gave a different account, saying a single guard had the “impossible” task of monitoring dozens of security cameras and therefore missed the escape.

Additionally, according to Walla, guard dogs in the prison yard began barking as the prisoners started emerging from the tunnel outside the prison walls, activating a warning system in which the security cameras focus on the area where the dogs are barking. The prisoners reportedly remained around the hole for some 20 minutes before taking off on foot, but the guard in the control room did not notice the warning system.

A guard keeps watch from an observation tower at Gilboa Prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021, after the escape of six Palestinian security prisoners from the facility. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Israeli security forces have recaptured four of the prisoners, among them notorious Fatah terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi and reported mastermind Mahmoud al-Arida, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative. The other four are also members of Islamic Jihad, including Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, who are still on the run.

According to Haaretz, security officials believe that Nafiyat succeeded in making his way to the West Bank city of Jenin, after he was identified in security footage crossing the border fence last week. While forces are still searching for Kamamji in Israel, he is also thought to have crossed into the West Bank on his way to Jenin, the report said.

Visiting the West Bank Tuesday to meet with Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi and other top officers involved in the search for the fugitives, Defense Minister Benny Gantz warned Palestinian terror groups not to conduct attacks ahead of the Yom Kippur holiday.

“Security forces are spread out and prepared to defend the citizens of Israel against any threat,” Gantz said.

Israeli police officers set up a roadblock at the Jezreel junction on Road 60 which leads to Jenin, in the search for Palestinian prisoners who escaped the Gilboa prison, on September 9, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

“If terror organizations try to raise their heads, we will take care to knock them down. This is true for the West Bank and for the Gaza Strip,” he added.

Recent days have seen an uptick in violence from the Gaza Strip, with five rockets being fired from the enclave over the course of the past week, as well as a stabbing attack in Jerusalem that left two men moderately wounded and a thwarted stabbing in the central West Bank.

The defense minister said that while the military is working to find the fugitives and to protect Israeli civilians, it does not intend to unduly impose on the West Bank’s Palestinian population.

“Israel has no intention of harming the daily routines of Palestinians and we are ready to bring economic and humanitarian concessions and to strengthen the coordination with the Palestinian Authority,” he said.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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