Israeli police on Monday were searching northern Israel and the occupied West Bank for six Palestinians who escaped from a high-security prison.
The prisoners escaped at night from the Gilboa prison, which is described as one of Israel's most secure complexes.
The Israel Prison Service said an alert was sounded around 3am by locals who spotted "suspicious figures" outside the prison in the country's north. It released a video which showed agents inspecting a narrow tunnel dug beneath a sink, burrowing deep into the ground.
Israel’s Army Radio said the men appeared to have received some help from outside.
The IPS said all 400 inmates detained at Gilboa over "security offences" were being relocated in case additional tunnels had been dug beneath the prison.
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, which represents former and current prisoners, identified the men as ranging in age from 26 to 49 years old. They include Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, from the West Bank city of Jenin, who is a former leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades that carried out deadly attacks against Israelis during the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising. He was imprisoned in 2019 over "terror allegations".
Four of the other prisoners were serving life sentences, the prisoners’ group said.
A court gag order was imposed on Monday evening which bans publication of any details of the investigation. The order is valid for 30 days, police said in a statement, although it may be lifted sooner.
A police spokesman said earlier that security forces believed the fugitives might try to reach the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule, or the Jordanian border about 14 kilometres to the east. The prison is about 4km from the West Bank border.
A police official said the Israeli military (IDF) and other agencies were involved in the search operation.
“In a joint effort, IDF and the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) troops are assisting the Israeli police and the Israeli Prison Service in searching after the six security prisoners that escaped the Gilboa Prison earlier this morning. Likewise, IDF aircraft have been assigned for observation tasks.”
Authorities in nearby towns were on high alert and roadblocks were set up.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the escape a “grave incident” that required maximum effort by Israel’s various security branches.
The prisoners escaped on the eve of the Jewish New Year.
A spokesman for the Palestinian militant group Hamas called the escape a “victory for the will and determination of our heroic prisoners".
Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party praised the escape, with an official Twitter account posting a picture of Zubeidi and hailing what it called the “freedom tunnel”.