Israeli forces arrested family members of several Palestinian fugitives during overnight raids in the northern West Bank, Palestinian media reports said Wednesday morning, as the massive manhunt continued for the six escaped security prisoners.
Among those reportedly arrested were relatives of Mahmoud and Mohammed Al-Arida in the town of Arraba, near Jenin.
The brothers are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group who were serving life sentences when they and four others escaped from Gilboa prison early Monday in what is considered to be among the most serious jailbreaks in the country’s history.
Videos on social media showed a convoy of armored military vehicles driving through Arraba, where clashes were reported between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.
The Palestinian reports said troops also arrested the father of Munadil Nafayat in the nearby town of Yaabad. He was reportedly released hours later.
Nafayat, an Islamic Jihad member, was being held under administrative detention — which allows the imprisonment of suspects without filing charges for security purposes — at the time of the prison break and is the only fugitive not charged with a crime.
Also Wednesday, Hebrew media reports said the Israel Prisons Service was refraining from transferring Islamic Jihad prisoners held at Ofer Prison in the West Bank to other facilities following threats of rioting.
“They are simply afraid of them,” an unnamed prisons service official was quoted as saying by the Haaretz daily.
The prisons service said in response that it was continuing to carry out the order to disperse Islamic Jihad members among various prisons, adding that an unspecified number of prisoners who expressed opposition to moving will face disciplinary action.
Citing a Palestinian source, the newspaper further reported that a guard at Gilboa prison was attacked overnight, with Hamas-affiliated prisoners throwing boiling water on him. The prisons service said the incident was under control and that the guard was not injured.
On Tuesday, Islamic Jihad sent gunmen to Jenin ahead of expected Israeli raids in search of the six prisoners, who are considered highly dangerous.
Along with the Al-Arida brothers and Nafayat, two of the other fugitives are also Islamic Jihad members. The terror group has issued several threats to Israel since the escape, warning against raids in Jenin and against taking action against the group’s members in Israeli prisons.
“If the IDF enters [Jenin] it will be met with significant firepower from many weapons and explosive devices,” the group said at a Tuesday press conference in Jenin.
The other escapee is Zakaria Zubeidi, a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.
According to Channel 12 news, Fatah also dispatched members to Jenin ahead of expected IDF incursions.
Many Palestinians see the Jenin camp as a likely refuge for some or all of the six escapees. All of the fugitives hail from the Jenin area, which has largely become a no-go zone to the IDF and Palestinian Authority security forces.
Channel 13 news reported that police successfully retraced the route the men took shortly after fleeing the prison, and had not found any evidence that the men crossed any of Israel’s borders as of Tuesday night, indicating they were likely inside Israel or the West Bank.
The IDF believes that the six men split up to better evade capture, and may be armed, the report said.
The military has bolstered its forces on the Gaza border due to fears some of the escapees may try to reach the Palestinian enclave. A victory celebration with the fugitives and the leadership of the Hamas terror group would likely inflame an already tense Gaza, TV reports noted.
The IDF also deployed additional troops to the border with Jordan, as authorities suspected some of the fugitives would attempt to flee to Israel’s eastern neighbor.
Monday’s escape has sparked tumult in Israel’s prison system. Senior officials from the prison were summoned for questioning on Tuesday evening, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Earlier in the day, at least 14 Prisons Service staff were questioned by the police amid suspicions that the escapees may have had assistance.
Prison officials and police are being widely castigated for lapses that facilitated the escape, with a litany of blunders allowing the breakout to occur in the first place, and a failure to grasp the severity of the situation for several hours after it occurred.
Authorities said that they had not achieved any breakthroughs in the search for the terrorists as of Tuesday evening, but Hebrew and Palestinian reports said that three suspects had been arrested on suspicion of helping the fugitives.
Police entered the neighboring Arab towns of Na’ura and Tamra, located northeast of Afula, and searched mosques. Numerous checkpoints were placed in the area.
The three suspects were arrested in Na’ura, reports said. The detainees were suspected of helping the six break out of the prison or flee the area afterward.
Authorities suspect that the fugitives split up following the escape from Gilboa prison. They ran some 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) after exiting the hole dug underneath the prison walls, police officials said. There, some of them boarded a getaway vehicle, Channel 12 reported.
The six escaped via a tunnel in their cell’s drainage system, though officials said that a security flaw meant that they did not need to excavate to create a passage out.
Security officials are most concerned that the six men could carry out a terrorist attack against Israeli civilians, though leading figures have indicated that it is unlikely.
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