An initial investigation into the escape of six Palestinian prisoners who tunnelled out of a high-security Israeli prison shows that surveillance cameras recorded the moment the men exited the tunnel, but none of the guards in the control room noticed.
One of the guards at the Gilboa jail, who was on duty in the watchtower overlooking the tunnel opening, fell asleep during the escape, the probe – launched by Israel’s prison authority – revealed on Tuesday.
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Prison authorities realised they had escaped at approximately 3:30am, it said.
According to the findings, the six men had entered the bathroom in their cell at about 1:30am and lifted an object that covered a hole on the floor.
One after the other, they jumped into the hole and crawled towards the end of the tunnel where they exited, a few metres away from the prison’s wall and directly under a watchtower.
The Israeli prison authority has so far evacuated 90 Palestinian prisoners out of a total of 360 held in Gilboa – one of Israel’s most secure facilities. The prison will undergo an intensive inspection in the coming days for other tunnels that may have been dug by other detainees.
The tunnel appeared to have been dug from below a toilet in the cell, which was shared by the six men – four of whom were serving multiple life sentences, according to local media reports.
The prisoners included Zakariya Zubeidi, 46, a former Fatah party leader in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, as well as five Palestinian Islamic Jihad members.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad has warned Israel against harming the six men.
The other detainees were identified as: Monadel Yacoub Nafe’at, 26, Yaqoub Qassem, Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri, 49, Ayham Nayef Kamamji, 35, and Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah, 46.
Prior to the incident, the Israeli prison service had classified the six men as “highly dangerous”, and labelled three of them as “highly likely to escape”.
Israeli daily Haaretz reported that the architectural blueprint for Gilboa prison had been shared online by a firm that was part of the prison’s construction, making it “accessible to the public”.
While it remains unclear whether the blueprint was used to assist the men in their escape, an official in the prison service said publishing the blueprint is a serious “security oversight”, Haaretz said.
The men were believed to have been headed for Jenin, where their families are based and where the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority wields little control.
Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, described the brazen escape as a victory against the Israeli security system.
Some of the men were held for involvement in attacks on Israelis during the Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s. One was held under administrative detention – without charge – which is considered illegal under international law.
Israeli police said some 200 checkpoints have been erected throughout parts of Israel as part of efforts to track down the six men.
Israeli forces have also encircled the city of Jenin, and have been accused of “harassing” the families of the six men, Palestinian news agency Maan reported. Witnesses said checkpoints were installed and soldiers are checking identification documents of residents.
Maan also reported that Kamamji’s father Fouad and brother Majd were summoned by Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet – which is notorious for the controversial methods it uses against Palestinian prisoners. Fouad was asked to hand over his son and was told that his son would die if he did not turn himself in.