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