Prisoner manhunt enters 4th day as minister vows to catch ‘terrorist fugitives’

IDF extends closure of West Bank after riots; violence also spreads to East Jerusalem and within prisons; army deploys hundreds to aid in search for dangerous fugitives

Israeli police border special ops seen in the Nau'ra village as they search for the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from a high security prison in northern Israel. September 7, 2021. (Flash90)
Israeli police border special ops seen in the Nau'ra village as they search for the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from a high security prison in northern Israel. September 7, 2021. (Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev vowed Thursday morning to capture six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped on Monday from the high-security Gilboa Prison, and to deal with the failures that allowed the prison break to happen.

“We will get our hands on the terrorist fugitives, we will correct the failures that led to the escapes — and if we find professional negligence, we will take care of that as well,” Barlev told reporters.

The investigation into the prison escape was transferred on Thursday from the Israel Police Northern Command to the Unit of International Crime Investigations within Lahav 433, the Israel Police’s special investigative division.

The Israel Prisons Service said Thursday that those who were being held at Gilboa Prison — who were transferred to other facilities following the escape — will not return to the high-security prison nor any other facility in the north, and will instead be distributed among other prisons in the south and center of the country.

Prison authorities also said that they will be boosting security at the prisons including regular searches of cells, and will work to disperse Islamic Jihad prisoners among different facilities in order to separate them from each other.

With significant military backup, Israeli security forces pressed on with the nationwide search on Thursday for the prisoners, whose jailbreak earlier this week sparked riots in prisons around the country, as well as in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israeli police are seen at a temporary checkpoint in the Gilboa area, as they search for the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from a high security prison in Northern Israel, on September 7, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Since Monday’s jailbreak, Israeli forces have been conducting a massive manhunt to capture the fugitives, who are considered highly dangerous, after what is considered to be one of the most serious prison escapes in the country’s history.

The Israel Defense Forces 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. The army also announced it was extending its closure of the West Bank on Wednesday night, amid fears of escalating violence in the area.

Israel has deployed drones, road checkpoints and an army mission to Jenin, the West Bank hometown of many of the escaped prisoners for their roles in terror attacks on the Jewish state. The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said two brothers of Mahmud Ardah, described in local media as the mastermind of the escape, have been arrested.

The army has also taken into custody four other people — fellow family member Dr. Nidal Ardah, along with two brothers of a second fugitive and the father of Munadel Infeiat, another escapee.

All three of these escapees are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group.

Palestinians held large-scale demonstrations across the West Bank and Jerusalem Wednesday night, some of them violent, in solidarity with the escaped prisoners. Five of the fugitives are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group; the sixth is a notorious Fatah terror chief.

A total of some 400 Palestinians confronted IDF troops at eight West Bank flashpoints, burning tires and throwing rocks.

In at least one case, rioters near the Judea and Samaria Square in the Ramallah district of the West Bank were reported to use live fire against Israeli soldiers, but missed them. A similar incident occurred at the same place amid a violent demonstration in May, during which two Israeli soldiers were wounded.

Unrest was reported near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, the East Jerusalem Issawiya neighborhood, in Hebron, Hawara, Azzoun, near Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and in other locations in the West Bank.

Two Palestinians were hurt from police’s rubber bullets, and another from a stun grenade during the clashes at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

In the West Bank town of Beita, two Palestinians were hurt by Israel Defense Forces’ live fire, the Red Crescent said.

And in Hawara, at least 100 Palestinians were treated by Red Crescent medics, most of them for inhaling tear gas fire by Israeli forces.

Also amid the clashes at Damascus Gate, an Israeli Egged bus was struck by stones reportedly hurled by Palestinian demonstrators.

No injuries were reported in the incident.

A bus is damaged after stones were hurled toward it, near Jerusalem’s Old City on September 08, 2021.(Jamal Awad/Flash90)

In the days following the escape, security prisoners in several Israeli facilities have held riots and Palestinians have held at times violent demonstrations in support of the fugitives.

Wednesday saw major unrest at Ketziot Prison, where inmates burned several cells, as well as several other facilities.

A burnt prison cell is seen at Ketziot Prison following rioting by Palestinian security prisoners there, September 8, 2021 (Courtesy)

Israeli defense officials also fear that Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip, specifically Islamic Jihad, may renew rocket fire from the enclave in solidarity.

On Wednesday evening Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was “prepared for every eventuality,” following a meeting with the defense minister, public security minister, IDF chief of staff, Shin Bet chief, Israel Police commissioner, Israel Prisons Service commissioner, national security adviser and other top defense officials.

The West Bank closure, a routine procedure during Israeli and Jewish holidays, was put in place ahead of Monday’s Rosh Hashanah two-day holiday. It had been set to end on Wednesday at midnight, but will instead continue through Saturday night, the military said.

The extension of the closure is meant to aid in the manhunt and to contribute to the military’s efforts to tamp down tensions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians rally in support of six fugitives who broke out of a high-security jail, in the West Bank town of Hebron on September 8, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

It will not apply to goods, which will still be allowed through West Bank crossings and will resume in Gaza Thursday. Palestinians who work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank will also be able to work as normal beginning Thursday, the IDF said.

The military added that exceptions to the closure will be made in “humanitarian, medical and irregular cases.”

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.

Four escapees were in jail for life in connection with deadly attacks against Israelis and affiliation with the Islamic Jihad terror group. The remaining prisoner was being held in administrative detention and had not been charged with a crime other than belonging to Islamic Jihad.

Zakaria Zubeidi, then the local commander of Fatah’s terrorist wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, sits in a car decorated with a poster of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, December 2, 2004. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ballas)

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

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)

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 Israel Prisons Service staff were questioned by the police amid suspicions that they may have aided the escapees.

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, ignoring early warning signs of a breakout.

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

Judah Ari Gross, Emanuel Fabian, and AFP contributed to this report.

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