Israeli forces launched a massive manhunt on Monday following the prison break of six “highly dangerous” Palestinian terrorists serving terror charges at a maximum security facility.
The fugitives, five Islamic Jihad members and former senior commander Zakaria Zubeid of the Israeli-designated terrorist group Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, escaped Gilboa prison, located in the country’s north, through a tunnel dug beneath their cell’s drainage system.
Head of Israel Prison Service Arik Yaakov said the escapees appeared to have accessed passages formed by the prison’s construction after opening the hole from their cell’s toilet floor.
“Six prisoners escaped by means of an opening that was discovered in their cell,” a statement from the prison’s service said, calling it an extremely rare breakout. Four of the men were serving life sentences over capital crimes.
In various local media reports, the fugitives were reportedly between the ages of 26 and 49 and were jailed for being involved in attacks on Israel about two decades ago.
Northern District Police Commander Shimon Ben Shabo said that authorities are urging residents in the area to exercise increased vigilance, but no extra security advisories were put in place.
“There is no reason to change your routines, but there will be large numbers of troops within the cities of Afula and Beit She’an and in other towns,” Shabo said in a statement, The Times of Israel reported. “I do request additional awareness of anything suspicious,” he added.
Israeli officials said they have erected roadblocks and are conducting patrols in the area. Israel’s Army Radio said 400 prisoners are being moved as a protective measure against any additional escape attempts.
A video of the hole through which a prisoner escaped was shared widely on social media, portraying a scene from the iconic prison break film “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which Portland banker Andy Dufresne, the main character, escaped to freedom through a sewer pipe after passing through a hole he dug in his cell.
Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, called it a “grave incident” that required a maximum effort response by Israel’s various security branches. He said he was receiving constant updates on the prison break, which occurred just hours before Israel was to mark the Jewish New Year.
Palestinian terrorist groups swiftly praised the breakout.
“This is a great heroic act, which will cause a severe shock to the Israeli security system and will constitute a severe blow to the army and the entire system in Israel,” said Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.