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Israeli press review: Jailbreak manhunt could end ‘in blood and fire’

Israeli analysts warn of violent escalation if any Gilboa prison escapees are hurt
Palestinians watch as Israeli forces stand guard following a reported attempted stabbing in Jerusalem's Old City, 10 September 2021 (AFP)

Raid on Jenin could end in bloody confrontation

Israeli analyst Amos Harel said in his Friday column for Haaretz newspaper that Israeli authorities believe they will be able to find the six fugitive Palestinian prisoners “within a few weeks at most.

“Sooner or later, it’s likely that an intelligence 'signature' will emerge that will indicate to the Shin Bet security service where the six are hiding,” he wrote.

He argued that while the prison break is “an extraordinary, humiliating event” for the Israeli Prison Service and the government, finding the six men will likely be similar to previous successful Israeli efforts to track down people involved in attacks.

“In this case, the identity of the targets of the pursuit is known, and their network of ties with the world outside has undoubtedly been scrupulously analysed over the past few days. We can assume that the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence are monitoring all the types of documentation (cameras) and communication (cellular phones, internet) that are relevant with regard to the escapees and their flight route.”

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Harel argued that the fate of the jailbreakers is dependent on where they seek refuge. If they cross the border into Jordan their lives “will be saved”, he argued, before ruling out that option. 

“Jordan will find it difficult to return to Israel individuals who have already become Palestinian folk heroes; and it certainly will not do so without receiving from Israel guarantees of their safety.”

If they are still in Israel, it is unlikely that they have armed themselves, and therefore they will likely surrender without a violent confrontation, according to Harel.

Another possibility, that they flee to the Jenin refugee camp, will mean that the ex-prisoners “may well have sealed their own fate”, as by then they would likely be armed.

“In these circumstances, with Israel apprehensive about casualties being inflicted on the force assigned to arrest the fugitives, the rules of engagement will be quite permissive.” He referred to past Israeli raids on Jenin that usually involve gunfire exchanges with armed Palestinians. 

“If this story, which already looks like it came from an action movie, leads to the refugee camp, it will have only one ending: in blood and fire.”

He also warned against possible Hamas and Islamic Jihad retaliation if the prisoners are hurt. 

“For Hamas an incident like this can be an excellent excuse for a renewed confrontation with Israel.”

Jenin refugee camp a potential hideout

In his Thursday column for Yedioth Ahronoth, intelligence analyst Ronen Bergman said the Shin Bet expressed fear to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Minister of Internal Security that as long as the six prisoners are at large "the perceptual dimension of this event - much more than the immediate danger they pose - constitutes a source of energy for violent outbreaks inside prisons and among the Palestinian population in general”.

Bergman added that the assessments of the security services indicate that the likelihood of the six seeking to carry out an armed operation is “very small”, and so are the chances of the outbreak of a third Intifada. 

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"But intelligence assessments also admit that it is difficult to anticipate the effect of a single spark, especially since the place where the fire will start - and one of the places the escapees may reach - is the refugee camp in Jenin," Bergman argued.

Bergman pointed out that the Jenin camp, which is the "centre of strength" of one of the six escaped prisoners, Zakaria Zubeidi, will be the most difficult target for Israeli forces.

“The inability of the Palestinian Authority to rule, the continuous neglect [of the camp] and the coronavirus pandemic have empowered street gangs and various armed parties to control the place. Israeli raids on the camp have usually led to an exchange of fire, often resulting in fatalities and wounded.”  

Bergman pointed to the absolute lack of clarity in the Israeli security services about the whereabouts of the six prisoners, and said that they are possibly dispersed in more than one place. 

He added that the search for the six prisoners is focused in three directions: the first is that they are still inside Israel and have taken refuge in an uninhabited place, such as a cave or a well. The possibility of them receiving assistance from residents in one of the villages is also being investigated, but the belief is that they will not remain in an inhabited area, nor in an Arab region either, for fear of the presence of informants.

The second scenario is that at least the prisoners affiliated to the Islamic Jihad group will try to reach Jordan. 

"Dozens of activists from Islamic Jihad and Hamas have done this over the past tens of years," he argued. 

But Bergman quoted the current Knesset member and former head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, as saying that “it is difficult to see activists from the West Bank integrated into the Damascus leadership, which is made up of activists from the Gaza Strip. If they manage to get out of Israel’s borders, Gaza is the safest place for them. They will try to get there."

The third possible destination is Jenin camp, where the six escapees might stay for a certain period, using Zubeidi's relations there, according to Bergman.

Call to investigate joint failure of security agencies 

Meanwhile, political analyst Nahum Barnea accused the prison authority of deeply entrenched corruption in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday. He argued that the work of the fact-finding committee, ordered by the Minister of Internal Security, will need to investigate all prisons across the country, not only Gilboa. 

“The failure of the prison authority [to stop the jailbreak] cannot be attributed to one prison, one director, or one government. It must be investigated extensively, in all prisons in the country, and the investigation should go back tens of years to probe questionable appointments, negligence, poor use of budgets and security arrogance."

Barnea added that the intelligence and police agencies should also be held accountable. 

“It seems that Shin Bet shares part of the responsibility for the intelligence failure in Gilboa prison. It did not know the escape plan, and what is more worrying is that it has not succeeded in finding the fugitives so far,” he wrote in the print edition of the paper.

“Shin Bet is not the Prison Service: it is an elite unit. Expectations from it are high.” 

*Israeli press review is a digest of news reports not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye.