TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — An Israeli court on Sunday sentenced six Palestinian detainees to five years in prison for tunneling out of their cell last year and escaping from a high-security facility during the largest such prison break in decades.
The escape sparked a massive manhunt in the north of the country and the occupied West Bank for the men, who were members of Palestinian militant groups. They were picked up a few days later.
The daring escape dominated television news, sparked heavy criticism of the Israel Prisons Service and prompted the government to launch an investigation. According to various reports, the men dug a tunnel in the floor of their communal cell undetected for several months and managed to squeeze past a sleeping prison guard after emerging through a hole outside the facility.
The judge ruled that the sentence took into account that the prison break had crippled the nation for days, the costs it had taken to recapture the inmates, and the harm to public safety caused by the jailbreak. life-sentenced prisoners convicted of serious crimes.
The five-year sentence will be added to the prison sentences the prisoners were already serving. Five other detainees accused of helping the men were sentenced to an additional four years.
Israel considers the six escapees to be terrorists. Five of them belong to the Islamic Jihad militant group, four of whom are serving life sentences. The sixth, Zakaria Zubeidi, is a member of the secular Fatah group of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Zubeidi was a militant leader during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s and well known in Israel for both his militant activity and his love of giving media interviews.
Palestinians view the prisoners held by Israel as heroes of their national cause, and many social media celebrated the escape and staged demonstrations in support of the prisoners.