Sep 8, 2021 - World

Israel prison break sparks riots as manhunt continues

The hole the prisoners escaped from.

The hole the prisoners escaped from. Photo: Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images

With the manhunt for six Palestinian prisoners who tunneled their way out of an Israeli maximum-security prison continuing for the third day, riots have been reported at three additional prisons.

Why it matters: The “Shawshank Redemption” style escape turned the six prisoners into heroes in the West Bank and Gaza, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza threatening an escalation if they are harmed. Thousands of police and Israel Defense Forces soldiers are searching for them.

Driving the news: Two of the three riots reported as of Wednesday afternoon local time included fires, according to the Israel Prison Service. In one case, prisoners from Islamic Jihad allegedly started a fire after guards tried to move them to other prisons.

  • Five of the prisoners are members of the Islamic Jihad militant group and one is from Fatah. Four of them had been serving life sentences.
  • Several family members of the prisoners were arrested in the West Bank by the IDF in an effort to obtain information on their whereabouts.
  • The Israeli Shin Bet intelligence service also began questioning dozens of Islamic Jihad prisoners in different jails to try to find out whether they knew in advance of the escape plot.
  • Palestinian Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh accused Israel of an "unprecedented campaign" of "strict repressive measures" in the prisons.

The initial investigation into the escape revealed serious failures in the prison.

  • The prison was built on concrete posts, leaving space under the cells that prisoners could dig into without anyone noticing.
  • The full plans of the prison were available online for years on the website of the architect who planned the facility.
  • The escape was planned for months, but the prison authorities had no intelligence on the scheme. A day before the prison break, one of the prisoners asked to move into the cell of the other five and was allowed to do so.

The six prisoners, all from the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank, were held in a prison just 10 miles from Jenin.

  • The prison didn’t activate a system to jam mobile phones smuggled into the prison. Israeli officials think the prisoners used a mobile phone during the escape.
  • On the night of the escape, the guard in the watchtower right above the tunnel exit allegedly fell asleep. Moreover, nobody was watching the security cameras that showed the prisoners coming out of the tunnel and running away.
  • Police discovered that two of the prisoners had stopped at a mosque in a nearby Israeli village, took showers, changed their clothes and purchased food at a bakery, all before their escape was discovered.

What's next: Israeli officials are concerned that unrest in the prisons will lead to wider unrest across the West Bank and Gaza, particularly if Hamas and Islamic Jihad decide to escalate the situation in solidarity.

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