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Israel: Six Palestinians escape from high-security prison through tunnel

Manhunt underway after cell mates, five of whom reportedly belonged to Islamic Jihad, tunnelled out of Gilboa prison
Israeli media reports identified one of the escaped prisoners as Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank city of Jenin (Twitter)

Six Palestinians escaped from a high-security Israeli prison on Monday, with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett describing it as a "grave incident".

Reports said five of the prisoners belonged to the Islamic Jihad movement and one was a former commander of an armed group affiliated with the mainstream Fatah party.

According to the reports, the six were cellmates and tunnelled out of Gilboa prison in northern Israel.

Arik Yaacov, Israel Prison Service's (IPS) northern commander, said the escapees appeared to have opened a hole from their cell toilet floor to access passages formed by the prison's construction.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that an IPS official had described the breach as "a major security and intelligence failure". 

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Four of the men were serving life sentences, a Palestinian prisoners organisation said.

Israeli media reports identified one of the escaped prisoners as Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of Fatah's Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank city of Jenin.

Bennett's office said he had spoken with Israel's internal security minister and "emphasised that this is a grave incident that requires an across-the-board effort by the security forces" to find the escapees.

A video released by the Israeli Prisons Service showed authorities inspecting the opening that the prisoners had dug adjacent to the cell's toilet.

Haaretz said the men were first noticed by local farmers who notified the police at around 3am.

However, according to Ynet news, the first call to police was made at 1.49am by a driver who had passed on the road connecting Afula to Beit Shean and  had reported seeing several figures running in the fields.

Haaretz said it was discovered that the six prisoners had escaped at around 4am during a head count at the prison.

The tunnel exit was later found a few metres outside the prison walls and was covered with weeds, the newspaper said.

"Overnight, we received a number of reports about suspicious figures in agricultural fields and from the prison service, which discovered very quickly that prisoners were missing from their cells and that six escaped," national police spokesman Eli Levy told Kan Radio.

Celebrations in Gaza

According to Haaretz, Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, said that the men had coordinated with people outside the prison using a smuggled mobile phone and had an escape car waiting for them

Security forces were searching for the men and believed they might try to reach the nearby West Bank, the Israeli-occupied territory where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule, or the Jordanian border, he said.

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In the besieged Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad supporters handed out candy on the street to motorists and passersby in celebration.

"Today, Islamic Jihad heroes achieved a new victory in the Gilboa prison. This victory smashed the image of the occupier," said Islamic Jihad official Khamees El-Haitham in Gaza.

Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, which governs Gaza, said: "This great victory proves again that the will and determination of our brave soldiers inside the prisons of the enemy cannot be defeated."

On social media, Palestinians and Israelis alike swiftly posted photos of a similar scene from the 1994 prison escape movie The Shawshank Redemption.

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