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Palestinians celebrate ‘heroic’ prison break, call to protect escapees

Hamas officials urge Palestinians to provide 6 escapees with cover, calling it the first of more to come; revelers honk horns, wave flags, distribute candy across West Bank, Gaza

A Palestinian man flashes a poster of the six Palestinians who escaped from an Israeli prison, as people celebrate in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, on September 6, 2021. (Jaafar Ashitiyeh/AFP)
A Palestinian man flashes a poster of the six Palestinians who escaped from an Israeli prison, as people celebrate in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, on September 6, 2021. (Jaafar Ashitiyeh/AFP)

Palestinian groups celebrated Monday’s escape of six inmates from the high-security Gilboa prison in northern Israel, calling the jailbreak “heroic,” and urging Palestinian civilians to help the group of terror convicts and suspects continue to evade capture.

In cities in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians honked horns, waved flags and handed out candies to mark the occasion.

“This is a great heroic act, which will cause a severe shock to the Israeli security system,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad.

Hundreds of supporters of the terror group rallied in Gaza, and members sent incendiary balloons across the frontier into Israel in support of the escaped prisoners. Israeli authorities said three fires were sparked by the balloons, but were swiftly extinguished.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas movement that rules Gaza, said the escape shows “that the struggle for freedom from the occupier is continuous and extended, inside prisons and outside.”

Hamas officials urged Palestinians to provide the escapees with cover, calling it the first of more escapes to come. Husam Badran, a top Hamas official, called it a day of “joy and pride, when Palestinians have their heads held high.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party also praised the escape. An official Twitter account posted pictures and videos of the most notorious of the escapees, Fatah’s Zakaria Zubeidi, including with Abbas, and hailed what it called the “freedom tunnel.”

Palestinian youths carry a poster by the Islamic Jihad group reading in Arabic: “the second great escape from the prisons of the Zionist enemy,” as people celebrate in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank, on September 6, 2021. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Abbas spoke to Defense Minister Benny Gantz Monday ahead of the Jewish New Year, but neither side said whether the escape was discussed.

The escape poses a dilemma for Abbas, who met with Gantz a week ago in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years. Abbas has said he hopes to revive the peace process after more than a decade-long hiatus under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. PA security forces coordinate with Israel to target Hamas and other terrorists that both view as a threat. But any effort to help Israel re-arrest the escaped prisoners risks further undermining the PA in the eyes of Palestinians.

The six escapees include Zubeidi, a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group from nearby Jenin, 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 terrorist attacks against Israelis.

The sixth was being held in administrative detention and had not been charged with a crime. All six are considered highly dangerous.

Israel launched a massive manhunt to nab the six, who were thought to have split into two separate groups, setting up roadblocks nationwide, deploying aerial surveillance vehicles and sniffer dogs and bringing in the Shin Bet security service to aid the search.

In the Jenin governorate, where some Palestinians fired into the air to celebrate the escapees, Israeli forces were deployed heavily, an AFP reporter said.

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 Jenin city, 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.

A spokesperson for Islamic Jihad warned Israeli soldiers that the Jenin refugee camp would “turn to hell” if troops sought to enter.

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.

An unnamed Israeli security official was quoted telling Channel 12 news that capturing the six would help tamp down on Palestinian euphoria, which some fear could inspire copycat escape attempts or give would-be terrorists the confidence to carry out attacks.

“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 ethos in the street is now: If they can escape from the severest prison in the land & attain freedom, then nothing is impossible,” tweeted Fadi Quran, a director at citizen action NGO Avaaz.

Rutgers associate professor Noura Erakat praised the escapees and hoped others would “break free of their chains and prisons.”

Yara Harawi, a scholar with the Palestinian al-Shabaka think tank, called the escape “epic.”

 

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