JERUSALEM—Israel’s prisons are confronting a rebellion as inmates associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad rioted and set fire to cells following the spectacular escape, on Monday, of six fellow prisoners held in one of Israel’s most secured jails.
A dozen cells in two penitentiaries were set on fire, and prisoners threatened further harm to wardens after attacking one Gilboa prison jailer with boiling water, according to briefings by prison authorities. The prisoners were reportedly protesting a decision to have them moved from their wings, one of the measures taken by Israeli authorities in the aftermath of the staggering jailbreak of half a dozen men accused of crimes of terror, who bolted from the high-security Gilboa prison in Galilee with cartoonish ease.
Despite more than 90 checkpoints set up by the police, which impacted holiday traffic over the Jewish New Year, and support from 14 army infantry companies and special units, there has barely been sighting of the fugitives, Zakaria Zubeidi, Iham Kamamji, Monadal Infiat, Yakub Kadari and the brothers Mahmoud and Mohammed Aradeh.
A shop owner in a northern Israeli village reported that Zubeidi, the best known fugitive, entered his store and asked for bread, and a ride, in the early dawn hours on Monday. He was turned down and left.
Hours after the jailbreak, Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry ordered inmates displaced so as to ensure that only one Islamic Jihad prisoner was placed in any given prison cell at a time.
The six fugitives, five of whom are members of the Islamic Jihad, shared a single cell. Following Perry’s announcement, some 400 Islamic Jihad-affiliated prisoners were dispersed among Israel's maximum-security prisons.
Widespread rioting ensued in several top security wards, with close to a dozen cells set on fire.
For now, it looks like the jailers are backing down.
The Israel Prison Service (IPS) decided against continuing to move Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners in several Israeli and West Bank jails after prisoners threatened mass riots, including further acts of arson if they were separated and transferred to other wards or prisons.
“Morale is high among the prisoners since the Gilboa jailbreak,” a senior prisons service official told Israeli outlet Walla News. “And we’re stretched to the ends of our abilities.”
The Israeli army arrayed for possible mass protests in the occupied West Bank, and for an uptick in violence along the Gaza border, where there have been ongoing clashes for several weeks.
On Wednesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that the breakout “has the potential to affect several arenas,” adding that Israel “is prepared for every scenario.”
The Palestine Prisoners’ Society issued a press release announcing that “all Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails would respond to “the IPS’s punitive measures” with an “open confrontation” against prison authorities. Hamas, the Islamist militia that rules the Gaza Strip, warned Israel in a statement “against the continuation of these repressive and retaliatory measures against the prisoners,” adding that Israel alone would be responsible for the ensuing consequences.
In a Tuesday press conference, and in a social media campaign underway Wednesday, the Islamic Jihad called on Palestinians to confront the Israeli army “at every site.”
The military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, another extremist group, declared that “our fighters are on standby, ready, and all options are available to respond and defend our brave prisoners,” should harm come to them.
In the Palestinian administrative capital of Ramallah, in the West Bank, a few dozen people gathered in sympathy with the fugitive prisoners on Wednesday night, and both Israeli and Palestinian authorities fear an escalation of violence similar to the eruption that occurred last May, leading to the ten-day Israel-Gaza war.
Following the calls to action, Palestinian Jerusalemites clashed with police at the Old City’s Damascus Gate on Wednesday, in scenes harking back to the disturbances that led to the battle. The radical factions hope to ignite the region in a sustained uprising similar to the first intifada that erupted after a notorious Palestinian prison break in 1987.
Concerned that the inmates may have received help from inside the jail, Israeli police are questioning prison guards about The Great Galilee Escape. At least 14 IPS employees were questioned on Wednesday.
Retired prison service deputy commissioner Makleb Tapash said in an interview with the tabloid Yediot Ahronot that the jailbreak is “a disgraceful incident, the worst that has taken place here in decades.”