Fires break out in Israeli prisons amid manhunt for 6 escapees
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Pressure built around Israel’s prison system on Wednesday after fires broke out at several facilities and the government searched for six Palestinian escapees since they dug a tunnel two days ago earlier.
Fires have been reported in several prisons amid efforts to try to move inmates as a precaution. A coordination group representing prisoners from all Palestinian factions called on prisoners to resist being transferred to other facilities and to start fires in their cells if the guards tried to forcibly move them. The group of prisoners also threatened a widespread hunger strike.
The Israeli Prison Service said through a spokesperson that a fire had broken out in two cells in different wings of Ramon Prison and the blaze had been brought under control. The group of Palestinian prisoners reported fires in Ketziot prison, and the media reported further unrest.
The recriminations are said to have spread through Israel’s prison system, meanwhile, following the country’s largest such escape in decades. The six men who escaped, aged 26 to 49, reportedly tunneled out of Gilboa prison, near the occupied West Bank, and escaped on Monday morning.
The massive manhunt across northern Israel and the occupied West Bank continued on Wednesday as the new coalition government sought to maintain calm and Jews celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
The best known among the escapees is Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, who was a prominent leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed group affiliated with Fatah, during the second Intifada of 2000-2005. He was later granted amnesty along with other Fatah-affiliated activists, but was arrested again in 2019 on what Israeli authorities described as further suspicions of terrorism.
As a child, Zubeidi was part of a children’s theater troupe in Jenin created by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli human rights activist, which was the subject of a documentary in 2004.
The other five prisoners were members of the Islamic Jihad militant group, and the prisoner group said four were serving life sentences.
Inside the prisons, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions each have an organized presence and appear to act together in the wake of the escape.
The escape poses a potential dilemma for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose security forces coordinate with Israel. His Fatah party hailed the prison break, but he did not comment.
Palestinians regard prisoners held by Israel as heroes of their national cause and have celebrated the escape from prison. If the escapees are apprehended in the occupied West Bank, many Palestinians are likely to blame the Palestinian Authority, which is already facing a popular backlash after the death of an activist held by the Palestinian Authority in June.