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Israeli forces launched a search for a Palestinian militant leader and five other inmates who staged an elaborate escape from a high security prison, raising political pressure on Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as he attempts to burnish his security credentials after leading a wide-ranging new coalition to power in June.

Mr. Bennett, a former commando, called the jailbreak a grave incident as the manhunt got under way. Prison cameras showed the six Palestinian inmates had removed flooring in their cell and broke out at around 1.30 a.m. local time, via a winding passage running through the building’s foundation. When an emergency head count was called after several hours, the six men were confirmed missing, a prison system spokesperson said.

The escape, just hours before Israel begins to celebrate the Jewish New Year, could be an early test for the stability of Mr. Bennett’s government, assembled from eight parties spanning both leftist and hard-line right-wing factions in addition to an Arab party. The coalition has worked steadily to brush aside conflicting view points over the Palestinian issue and the community’s claims to their own state—particularly in the wake of an 11-day round of fighting in May. Instead, coalition members have tried to focus on containing a Covid-19 outbreak and reviving economic growth after a series of lockdowns.

Government forces set up road blocks around northern Israel and the West Bank to catch the escapees, who include Zakaria Zubeidi, who was a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, which carried out deadly attacks on Israeli targets during a Palestinian uprising between 2000 and 2005.

Police officers, supported by the military and other security officials, searched nearby towns and cities.

“Security officers in the surrounding communities were updated on the escape and checkpoints were set up on the roads," the prison service said.

Israel Defense Forces said aircraft were assisting in the search for the fugitives and that units had been deployed in the West Bank.

Early Monday, nearby residents called the police to report what looked like suspicious-looking activity, the prison system spokesperson said.

Footage from the prison service showed officials inspecting an opening in the floor under the inmates’ jail-cell sink, as well as clothes left behind there.

The incident provides an opportunity for former prime minister and current opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to criticize the new government, after he was forced from office for the first time in more than a decade. He and other opposition figures have repeatedly attacked Mr. Bennett’s government for not doing enough for Israel’s security after the death of an Israeli border police officer late last month. The officer had been shot in the head during a protest at the border with Gaza.

The issue of Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons, meanwhile, is important for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza. Negotiations with Israel have often revolved around prisoner swaps. Israel handed over more than 1,000 prisoners to Hamas in 2011 in return for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, while 78 veteran prisoners were handed over to Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, as an incentive to enter peace negotiations with Israel in 2013.

In Gaza, news of the escape was met with celebrations and militants marched in the streets. Hamas, which rules the Palestinian territory, called it a “brave and heroic act." Other Palestinian groups lauded the escape, including Islamic Jihad.

Monir al-Jaghoub, the spokesman for the political wing of Fatah, the political group that governs the West Bank, praised the escape and in particular Mr. Zubeidi.

“The prey defeated the hunter," he said in a tweet.

Of the six prisoners, three were serving life sentences, the prison service said, and all were from the northern Jenin region of the West Bank. While Mr. Zubeidi was part of Fatah, the other inmates were members of Islamic Jihad, which has links with Iran and Hezbollah. Police said the prisoners could be headed toward their native region of Jenin in the West Bank or to neighboring Jordan.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

 

 

 

 

 

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