RAMALLAH: Israeli troops have arrested at least six relatives of Palestinians who broke out of a high-security jail, a local watchdog said on Wednesday amid protests in support of the escapees.
The six Palestinians staged their jailbreak on Monday through a hole they had dug under a sink in a Gilboa prison cell in northern Israel — reportedly using a spoon.
Israel has deployed drones, road checkpoints and an army mission to Jenin, the home town in the occupied West Bank of many of the men locked up for their roles in attacks on the Jewish state.
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said two brothers of Mahmud Ardah, described in local media as the mastermind of the escape, have been arrested.
The army has also taken into custody four other people — fellow family member Dr Nidal Ardah, two brothers of Mahmud’s cousin and fellow fugitive Mohammad Ardah and the father of Munadel Infeiat, another escapee.
All three of these escapees are members of the Islamic Jihad armed group.
Amani Sarahneh, a spokeswoman for the prisoners’ group, said that others could also have been arrested, while some had been only briefly detained.
The Israeli army — which has occupied the West Bank since 1967 — said “several arrests were made overnight”, without elaborating.
“Holding someone in order to coerce a relative to do something is a mafia-style tactic,” tweeted Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, on Wednesday.
An Israeli injunction is in effect against publishing details of the jailbreak investigation, even as local media report on the scramble to recover from the embarrassing lapse and prevent any possible attack by the fugitives.
The group on the run includes Zakaria Zubeidi, a former militant leader from Jenin. The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club reported “tensions” in Israeli prisons on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the Israeli prison authorities confirmed that fires had been lit in Ktziot and Ramon jails.
“The situation is now under control, the fires have been extinguished,” she said as Palestinian groups called for rallies later Wednesday in Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin in support of the men on the run.
Many people in the Gaza Strip and in Jenin took to the streets to celebrate when news of the escape broke on Monday.
Gilboa prison — which opened in 2004 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising — is a high security site where hundreds of Palestinians are detained among other inmates.
The prison service said all those held at Gilboa over “security offences” were being relocated in case more escape tunnels have been dug beneath the facility.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called the breakout “a serious event that required a comprehensive effort by all of the security services”. His Palestinian counterpart, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said on Tuesday he was “happy” about the jailbreak.