Security officials said Monday morning that they believe six Palestinian security prisoners were able to escape from the Gilboa Prison overnight due to a flaw in its construction.
“From our initial investigation, it appears that there was no digging; rather, a plate that covered the space [where they escaped] was lifted out of place,” Katy Perry, commissioner of the Israel Prisons Service, told reporters at the prison hours following the escape.
Public Security Omer Barlev said security officials were investigating the possibility that the escapees, all of whom were described as highly dangerous, were assisted by outside helpers.
One official called the escape “a catastrophe never before seen by Israel’s prison services.”
“This is a difficult event. We will catch the fugitives,” Barlev said Monday morning. “It could take a day or two, or a week or two, but they will be caught.”
Barlev said it appears that there was “precise and detailed planning” of the escape, “and therefore it is likely that the prisoners had outside assistance.”
The minister said he did not believe the escaped prisoners were planning a terrorist attack, “but I am not a prophet and we are taking all possibilities into consideration.”
The six security prisoners escaped from the high-security Gilboa Prison in northern Israel in the predawn hours of Monday morning, tunneling their way out through their cell’s drainage system in one of the worst prison breaks in the country’s history and prompting a massive manhunt in northern Israel and the West Bank.
Large numbers of police forces were called to the area around Gilboa Prison, located northwest of Beit She’an, near the Sea of Galilee, and were searching for the six fugitives with the help of drones and helicopters.
The military and Shin Bet were also helping search for the suspects, and checkpoints were put up in the area.
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. All six were considered highly dangerous.
The Gilboa Prison was the site of an attempted escape in 2014, when prison guards uncovered a tunnel dug underneath a bathroom. The eight prisoners suspected of collaborating on the tunnel were members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and were sharing the cell and the bathroom. Prison guards uncovered the tunnel after extensive investigation and before the prisoners could attempt to escape.
Barlev said Monday that the 2014 escape attempt was how security officials first realized the flaw in the building — and that it clearly was not adequately dealt with.
“I was in the cell that the prisoners escaped from,” Barlev told reporters. “On one side you can see the concrete that was added after 2014, and on the other side, past the shower corridor, there’s nothing there.”
Arik Yaacov, northern commander of the Israel Prisons Service, said earlier that officials were still probing exactly how the prisoners escaped.
“This incident is still being investigated and studied,” he told reporters. “It is not exactly a tunnel that was dug; rather, it was something that was exploited due to the structures of the prison cells.” He added that it appears there was a “failure of the structures that are built on columns that the prisoners apparently took advantage of.”