JERUSALEM — As Israel and the rest of the world focused Monday on the 150 Palestinians and clerics trying to get out of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, a very different escape story was competing for headlines, generating bemusement, concern and even a modicum of respect among Israelis for the skills of a Palestinian.
Early Sunday, while thief extraordinaire and accused terrorist Mahmoud abu Jamous was being transported inside a special locked cage in a fortified police bus, pinned down with handcuffs and leg restraints, accompanied by two other security vehicles and overseen by 10 elite Israeli prison guards, he managed to escape.
What's worse, no one in the convoy realized that he had slipped away until a motorist called police to report that he'd seen sneakers popping out of the bus' barred window as the vehicle waited for a stoplight in a northern Israeli town. The motorist said he saw a man drop to the street and disappear in a flash.
It was 20 minutes before police figured out what had happened and were able to mobilize a search using helicopters, dogs and hundreds of officers. By that time, Abu Jamous was long gone.
"What else do we need to make sure prisoner Jamous leaves point A and reaches point B?" asked a columnist in the daily newspaper Maariv. "Fighter jets?"
In a nation weary after months of terror and bloodshed, the absurdity of the Abu Jamous escape was embraced by some for the rare moment of levity it provided.
"We've gone through so much. If you can, you have to laugh a bit," said Tamar Meshulan, a 31-year-old industrial designer. "He's probably a genius. He certainly knows his business."
But others wondered how a state with such a sophisticated military, which prides itself on its vigilant police and security forces, could be so humiliated by a common criminal being transferred from one prison to another.
"Our whole society, our mind-set, our political system--everything in this country is organized around security," said Doran Rosenblum, a social commentator and columnist with Haaretz newspaper. "Yet here we have an example of a very dangerous man managing to escape in a country with the biggest army in the Middle East. It just shows how real security evades us."
Then again, Abu Jamous is no ordinary thief. According to Israeli press reports, he has long been known as a champion pilferer, a burglar's burglar who possessed almost magical power to slip into vehicles and apartments without notice. He was also known for leaving his business card, plastered with fingerprints, behind in an apparent taunt to authorities.
"He's a cat with nine lives, a real devil," said one of his guards, who was quoted anonymously in Maariv. "He certainly deserves the title as the Champion of Israeli Escape Artists."
A year ago, Abu Jamous, 24, was arrested on charges of burglarizing dozens of Israeli homes. As he was being brought to court, he delivered a swift kick to a guard, then vanished into the crowded streets. Media reports say that, for several weeks, he lived in the apartment of an elderly woman, who was unaware the whole time that she had a roommate.
Abu Jamous reportedly joined Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah group, according to reports in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. He is accused of using his skills to help armed Palestinians dodge security sweeps and slip past roadblocks to enter Israel.
Abu Jamous had reportedly once burglarized the house of an Israeli navy colonel named Natan Barak; he is said to have returned in October to plant a bomb in a fire extinguisher. Barak noticed the device and called police, who detonated it safely in a nearby field.
Police set up a special investigative unit to catch Abu Jamous, and he was finally recaptured in November after being shot in the leg during a chase. Late last month, he was convicted and sentenced in the Kfar Saba Magistrates Court to 68 months in prison for the burglaries and car thefts. And he was due to be tried in a military court for membership in a terrorist organization and for the attempted murder of the colonel.
Even with his injured leg, Abu Jamous was declared a "high escape risk," which meant that his transport was to be handled by the elite Nahshon prison security unit.
Oded Leibowitz, the driver who reported the great escape to police, told Yediot Aharonot that he could barely believe his eyes. "It was so strange that it took me some time to realize what I'd just seen," he told the newspaper. "Everything seemed planned, like in a movie."
As for Abu Jamous, he's apparently already back at work. Three burglaries were reported Sunday around the area where he escaped, and police believe he was stocking up on clothes and provisions.