A report Friday claimed that the Palestinian Authority had agreed to cooperate with an Israeli manhunt for six inmates who escaped from prison earlier this week, some of whom are thought to be hiding out in the West Bank.
If correct, the report in the Lebanese paper al-Akhbar would mark a stark shift for Ramallah, which had joined the overwhelming chorus of support for the six escapees in the Palestinian street and had been seen as unlikely to possess the political will for cooperating with Israel on bringing them in.
For Israel, which has struggled to track the whereabouts of the former detainees and has contended with an upsurge of violence linked to the escape, help from the PA would provide a welcome boost to reach certain areas of the West Bank.
According to the report in al-Akhbar, which was based on an unnamed source in the PA, an agreement was reached earlier this week that will see the Palestinian Authority cooperate on finding the escapees, in exchange for an Israeli commitment to capture them alive and ease conditions for the thousands of Palestinians remaining incarcerated in Israel.
There was no comment from Israeli authorities on the report.
The newspaper is seen as closely linked to both Hezbollah and Hamas, which is a rival of the Palestinian Authority and often accuses it of betraying the Palestinian cause by cooperating with Israeli security agencies.
The six Palestinians escaped from the high-security Gilboa Prison in northern Israel in the predawn hours of Monday morning, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system in one of the most serious prison breaks in the country’s history, and prompting a massive manhunt in northern Israel and the West Bank.
Four of the six fugitives were in jail for life in connection with deadly attacks against Israelis; the sixth — a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, Zakaria Zubeidi — was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder. Another was held in administrative detention.
Police believe that some of the suspects may have fled the country for Jordan — something Jordanian officials have denied — while the Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday that authorities believe a number of them are still in the West Bank and are being aided by local Palestinians.
Tensions have escalated since the prison break as Israeli troops have carried out raids during searches for the escapees, and as authorities have taken actions to move high-value security prisoners to different facilities and separate members of the Islamic Jihad terror group.
Israel has deployed drones, road checkpoints, and an army mission to Jenin, the West Bank hometown of many of the escaped prisoners. 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.
Palestinians from across the political spectrum have rallied around the escapees, who captured the public’s imagination with what was seen as a daring operation that exposed weaknesses in Israel’s heavily fortified prison complex.
Large-scale demonstrations in support of them have occurred across the West Bank and Jerusalem, some of them violent.
Thursday night saw clashes in the flashpoint city of Hebron, where dozens of Palestinians threw rocks at Israel Defense Forces soldiers. There were no immediate reports of injuries. At least one Palestinian was arrested for allegedly throwing stones at Israeli troops. Troops and police were gearing up Friday morning for the possibility of renewed violence after Hamas called for a “day of rage” in support of the prisoners.
The wide popularity enjoyed by the six has tied Ramallah’s hands, making it difficult to justify helping nab the latter-day folk heroes. “The PA won’t cooperate with Israel on the escaped prisoners via the security coordination mechanism,” former PA prisoners’ affairs minister Ashraf al-Ajami told Army Radio Thursday.
But according to the al-Akhbar report, the PA was interested in putting the affair to bed amid fears that the continuing unrest could destabilize the West Bank and Gaza, and boost rivals Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Before the prison break, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had made moves to warm ties with Israel, after several years in which the sides had little meaningful contact beyond security cooperation, which was itself frozen for several months before US President Joe Biden took office.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abbas late last month and said he agreed to a series of goodwill gestures. He noted that it was in Israel’s interest to bolster the PA’s hold on power.