The six Palestinian security prisoners that managed to escape a highly guarded detention center in northern Israel may be planning a terrorist attack against Israelis, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said on Monday.
Barlev said that large forces were searching after the runaways, who most likely crossed the border into the West Bank, but added that he was not ruling out the option they may still be in Israel.
"My personal assessment is that this possibility is less likely, but I am not a prophet and we're taking all options into account," he said.
The Labor Party Minister said he believed the six may have received help from outside the prison due to the precise planning of the escape operation.
"There was very precise planning, very detailed, and therefore there was probably external assistance. We're examining [it] at the moment. We will catch the fugitives."
Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered to ramp up IDF presence along the Israeli borders with the West Bank to prevent the prisoners from fleeing into the territory.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited soldiers in the northern West Bank and urged them to "stay especially vigilant until the terrorists who escaped from Gilboa Prison this morning are caught."
The Israel Prison Service reported Monday morning that six Palestinian security prisoners escaped a maximum-security penitentiary facility in northern Israel overnight.
Hundreds of National Counter Terror Unit personnel and other elite units were combing the area assisted by police helicopters and drones in search after the runaways.
The six were initially believed to have tunneled out of the Gilboa Prison, located near the Sea of Galilee and close to the northern West Bank border city of Jenin.
Israel Prison Services Northern District Commander Arik Yaakov said that the six used a gap under one of the beds in their cell to get out of the detention center.
"They did not exactly dig a tunnel. They apparently made use of a flaw in the cell's structure, using the gap below [the bed]."
We will continue to investigate and learn. We're currently focusing our efforts on ending the incident quickly, catch the fugitives and bring them back to prison.
The IDF has deployed forces to help the police in its search at the border area and prepared for the option of setting up checkpoints in the Jenin area.
The West Bank border fence in the Gilboa area is known to have many gaps through which many Palestinian illegal workers cross, but the fence itself can be jumped over easily due to due relative paucity of forces operating in the sector on a regular basis.
The Shin Bet domestic security agency is also involved in investigating the incident as the six are believed to have fled to Jenin.
Forces have found clothes and shoes that likely belonged to the fugitives, as well as the tunnel from which they managed to escape the facility.
One of the fugitives is Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of the mainstream Fatah’s military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who was convicted in several deadly attacks and was serving a life sentence at the facility.
The other five were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group who are also from Jenin and were also serving life sentences for a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.
The Gaza Strip-based terrorist group Hamas praised the fugitives for their escape in a statement.
"They managed to achieve their freedom, despite all the security measures and restrictions. It is an act of heroism, of courage and victory of willpower," the terror group said.
"This is a real challenge for the Israeli defense establishment, which is convinced that it is the best in the world. It proves that the willpower of our prisoners cannot be broken and that the enemy will never win."
The PIJ also commended the six for their "major heroic operation" and called their escape "a big slap in the face" for the Israeli security establishment.
"The timing between the incident on the Gaza Strip border [in which an Israeli border cop was killed by a Palestinian hunman] and the escape from prison increases the magnitude of the Israeli failure," the group added.
Gilboa Prison, located between Afula and Beit She'an, opened in 2004 as an extension to the nearby Shata Prison due to a rapid increase in Israel's prison population amid the Second Intifada — a four-year-long Palestinian uprising against Israel during which thousands of Israeli citizens were targeted and killed in countless terrorist attacks. The facility holds Palestinian security prisoners, as well as Israeli criminals.
In 2014, the Prison Service thwarted a similar escape attempt from the prison after receiving intelligence an Islamic Jihad prisoner dug a tunnel in one of the toilets.
Israel Moskowitz, Roi Rubinstein, Yoav Zitun contributed to this story.