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Fires flare in Israeli prisons amid manhunt for 6 escapees

September 8, 2021 GMT
Palestinians ride a motorcycle decorated with a poster that shows pictures of six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from an Israeli jail, their names and Arabic that reads, "the movement of Islamic Jihad, heroes of the Gilboa prison escape," at the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Israel launched a massive manhunt in the country's north and the occupied West Bank early Monday after the Palestinian prisoners tunneled out of their cell and escaped from a high-security facility in the biggest prison break of its kind in decades. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
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Palestinians ride a motorcycle decorated with a poster that shows pictures of six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from an Israeli jail, their names and Arabic that reads, "the movement of Islamic Jihad, heroes of the Gilboa prison escape," at the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Israel launched a massive manhunt in the country's north and the occupied West Bank early Monday after the Palestinian prisoners tunneled out of their cell and escaped from a high-security facility in the biggest prison break of its kind in decades. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
1 of 4
Palestinians ride a motorcycle decorated with a poster that shows pictures of six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from an Israeli jail, their names and Arabic that reads, "the movement of Islamic Jihad, heroes of the Gilboa prison escape," at the Jenin refugee camp, in the West Bank city of Jenin, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. Israel launched a massive manhunt in the country's north and the occupied West Bank early Monday after the Palestinian prisoners tunneled out of their cell and escaped from a high-security facility in the biggest prison break of its kind in decades. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Pressure built around Israel’s prison system Wednesday after fires broke out at several facilities and the government searched for six Palestinian escapees who have been on the run since they tunneled out two days earlier.

Fires were reported at several prisons amid efforts to try to move inmates as a precautionary measure. An umbrella group representing prisoners from all Palestinian factions called on inmates to resist being relocated and to start fires in their cells if guards try to move them by force. The prisoners group also threatened a widespread hunger strike.

Protests flared late Wednesday evening. In east Jerusalem, Israeli troops fired stun grenades at Palestinian protesters gathered at Damascus Gate in the Old City, witnessed by a journalist from the The Associated Press. The protesters were heard chanting, “Where is Zakaria,” a reference to Zakaria Zubeidi, the best-known of the six Palestinian prisoners who escaped Gilboa prison on Monday.

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The Palestinian Red Crescent medical services reported violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank towns of Beita and Huwara.

Meanwhile, blame for the breakout rippled through the prison system and checkpoint closures between Israel and the occupied West Bank were extended into the weekend.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the premier met with the heads of Israel’s security services in a joint effort to be ready for “any scenario.”

Monday’s escape was Israel’s largest jailbreak in decades. The six men who escaped, between 26 and 49 years old, apparently dug a tunnel out of Gilboa prison near the occupied West Bank and escaped early Monday. Israel’s security services were reportedly investigating whether they had help inside the prison, as well as outside.

The Israel Prison Service said through a spokesperson that a fire broke out in two cells in different wings of Ramon Prison and that the blaze was brought under control. The Palestinian prisoners group reported fires in Ketziot Prison, and there were media reports of more unrest.

The massive manhunt through Israel’s north and the occupied West Bank continued Wednesday as the new coalition government sought to maintain calm and Jews celebrated Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

Zubeidi, 46, a prominent leader in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed group affiliated with Fatah, during the second intifada from 2000-2005. He was later granted amnesty along with other Fatah-affiliated militants, but was arrested again in 2019 on what Israeli authorities said were new terror suspicions.

As a child, Zubeidi had been part of a children’s theater troupe in Jenin established by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli rights activist, that was the subject of a 2004 documentary.

The other five prisoners were members of the Islamic Jihad militant group, and the prisoners’ group said four were serving life sentences.

Inside the prisons, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions each have an organized presence and appear to be acting together in the wake of the escape.

The jailbreak poses a potential dilemma for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose security forces coordinate with Israel. His Fatah party has praised the prison escape, but he has not commented on it.

Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel as heroes of their national cause, and have celebrated the prison break. If the escapees are apprehended in the occupied West Bank, many Palestinians are likely to blame the Palestinian Authority, which is already facing a popular backlash after the death of an activist in PA custody in June.

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Kellman reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.