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JERUSALEM - A massive manhunt is under way after six Palestinians convicted of terrorism escaped from a prison in northern Israel earlier this week.
The prison break is shaping up to be the first serious security challenge for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's new government and one of the biggest escapes in Israel's history.
The six men escaped from Gilboa prison early Monday, taking advantage of a structural flaw in the facility in northern Israel, just a few kilometers from the West Bank.
They were able to unscrew a metal plate under the toilet in their cell and escape via the sewage system. Officials said the escapees apparently received help from the outside and had a change of clothes and a car waiting for them.
Five of the six are part of the Islamic Jihad, one of the most radical groups in the West Bank, and several of them were serving life sentences for killing Israelis. The sixth is identified as Zakaria Zubeideh, and was a senior member of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - a group that the United States and other governments consider a terrorist organization.
Israeli troops have sent thousands of soldiers and police to the area to search for the men and extended a curfew that had been imposed for the Jewish New Year. They also halted family visits to prisoners for several days.
Israeli officials believe the men are either still in Israel or the West Bank. Israel moved all the Islamic Jihad prisoners from the Gilboa facility to other facilities, sparking riots in several prisons. There were also demonstrations against Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which included violent clashes that witnesses said were spreading Thursday.
Israeli officials are concerned the men may carry out a terrorist attack or kidnappings. Palestinian officials warned of widespread unrest if Israeli forces kill the men.
Israeli authorities have also said that they expect Palestinian security forces to help them if the convicts have escaped to the West Bank. But the Palestinian governor of Jenin, Akram Rajoub, said that is not likely.
He said that the prisoners hold a special place in the Palestinian public's heart and that he does not think the public will want to hand them over to Israel and will not help the Palestinian Authority do that.
Israeli officials say they are working to find the convicts and capture them.