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Middle East

Palestinians And Israelis Are Captivated By Militants' Escape From Israeli Jail

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A rare jailbreak is captivating the attention of Palestinians and Israelis. Six Palestinians accused of attacks against Israelis escaped a maximum security prison Monday through a hole in their cell floor. Today Israel caught two of the fugitives in the city of Nazareth in northern Israel. A rocket was fired from Gaza into Israel soon after. The rest of the escapees are still at large, and the manhunt is ongoing amid some protests and concerns of potential violence. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The emergency call to the police came in the middle of the night on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: That's the recording played on Israeli TV of a taxi driver who said he saw a suspicious figure near a maximum security prison. Hours later, prison officials announced six Palestinians had escaped. According to local media, they removed the flooring in the shower room of their cell, squeezed through a crawl space under the prison and fled through a shaft they dug outside the prison walls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Israeli TV reporters have a lot of questions. One says, I'm under the guard tower. Here's the shaft. How can it be that no one saw and no one heard? Most of the escapees are in Islamic Jihad and were serving life sentences. They're facing a mix of accusations and convictions, including for killing an Israeli hitchhiker and other attacks. One is a household name. Zakariya Zubeidi was a charismatic militant commander. He'd also been in an activist theater group before being jailed two years ago. Former Israeli prison commissioner Orit Adato oversaw Palestinian prisoners.

ORIT ADATO: They know everything that is going on in prison. They watch everything. They watch the shifts. They watch the guarding towers. They know what's going on in prisons. They are there for years.

ESTRIN: Palestinians have a special attachment to prisoners seen as fighting for their independence. Nearly everyone knows one. They're ecstatic and sharing memes from jailbreak films like "Shawshank Redemption."

MAHER MLEITAT: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Hollywood on the ground, an accomplishment for the entire Palestinian people, says Maher Mleitat. He's with friends eating a cheese desert in the West Bank city of Nablus. They're all current and former security officers trained by the U.S. to help Israel patrol the West Bank. I ask Samir Afani if the Palestinian security services are looking for the fugitives.

SAMIR AFANI: (Through interpreter) We work with the security services. We're ex-prisoners. Under no circumstances or conditions we will cooperate with the Israelis to hand over our fellow Palestinians to the Israelis.

ESTRIN: The two fugitives found today were still in Israel, reportedly caught after asking locals for food. The others, including Zubeidi, are still at large. And the search is on in the West Bank, too, where Palestinian forces have helped find fugitives in the past. They face a dilemma now, says Palestinian political scientist Raid Nairat.

RAID NAIRAT: I think the Palestinian Authority is under a dilemma. The Palestinian Authority couldn't oppose the public mood, and they want to open channels with the Israelis nowadays.

ESTRIN: He says there could be violence if Palestinians help Israel find them or if the men are killed. Israel has clamped down on prisons and blocked Palestinian civilians from entering Israel, raising tensions as the search continues.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Nablus, the West Bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO LA TENGO SONG, "NOWHERE NEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.