Two more Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison were recaptured in the early hours of Saturday morning, including notorious terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi.
The second recaptured prisoner was named by police as Mohammed al-Arida, the younger brother of the reported mastermind of the jailbreak.
Four of the six escapees are now back in Israeli custody, as searches continued for the remaining two fugitives. Police believe one of them may now be in the northern West Bank, according to Hebrew media reports.
Zubeidi, a notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder.
Al-Arida and the other four prisoners who escaped are all members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror organization. He was arrested in 2002 on terror offenses and sentenced to life in prison.
Zubeidi and Al-Arida were recaptured by Israeli counter-terror police officers near the northern town of Shibli–Umm al-Ghanam. The two were captured at around 5 a.m. at a parking lot used by truck drivers.
An unnamed security official told Hebrew media that Zubeidi briefly tried to escape during the arrest operation, but was quickly overpowered.
“They found them hiding under a semi-trailer,” Yusuf Kahili, a resident of the town, said to reporters. “I saw them. They looked scared, hungry and humiliated.”
זכרייה זביידי ומוחמד עראדה מובלים למעצר. pic.twitter.com/wVPQkYnzU7
— Or Heller אור הלר (@OrHeller) September 11, 2021
Citing a security source, the Haaretz daily said a resident of the area reported encountering the two on Friday evening as he rode an ATV and that Zubeidi asked for food and a ride. He refused and called police.
The two were later captured with the help of military trackers, who were able to retrace their escape route after finding footprints. The trackers also found discarded cigarettes and a drink can, helping lead to Zubeidi and al-Arida, according to Hebrew media.
“We are doing everything to locate the escaped prisoners,” Sgt. First Class (res.) Roi Simon, the head of a tracking unit, was quoted saying in a statement from the military. “The unit has not ceased its work and is continuing in the effort until all the escaped terrorists are caught.”
According to Hebrew-language media reports, security officials increasingly believe the fugitives did not have outside assistance after their escape from the prison, noting none of the four were armed at the time of their capture.
3 גששים במילואים שחזרו את נתיב הבריחה – והביאו לתפיסת זביידי
אין על השיטות של פעם pic.twitter.com/9HwyC2bybY
— ????????Avi Noga???????? (@AviNoga3) September 11, 2021
The announcement of Zubeidi’s capture came after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with police and military officials for an assessment of the situation in northern Israel in the predawn hours of Saturday morning, an unusual step for the religiously-observant premier to take on the Jewish Sabbath.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who met with Bennett overnight, praised the security forces for capturing the escaped prisoners and vowed the remaining fugitives would be apprehended. “This will happen,” Barlev wrote on Twitter.
The arrests of Zubeidi and al-Arida came just hours after two other escapees from the jailbreak were arrested in the northern town of Nazareth.
Police identified those two as Yaquob Qadiri and Mahmoud al-Arida, both of Islamic Jihad. Al-Arida was reported to have masterminded the jailbreak which took place in the early hours of Monday morning.
A video circulating on social media after the arrest of the first two escapees showed Israeli police shackling a man from his feet into the backseat of a police vehicle and asking the suspect for his name.
The man, wearing jeans and green T-shirt, calmly identifies himself as Qadiri and answers “yes” when asked whether he is one of the escapees. Qadiri was serving two life sentences for attempted murder and bomb planting.
— ✌️????????✌️ Mohammed Najjar (@hamada_pal2020) September 10, 2021
Reports said police had been tipped off by residents of the predominantly Arab town of Nazareth, who noticed two men digging through trash, apparently searching for food. Channel 12 news said residents called the police who realized it might be the fugitives and sent a large force to the area.
Following the arrests, the two were transferred to the Shin Bet for questioning and officials were hopeful they could provide leads to recapturing the other fugitives.
Al-Arida, considered a senior Islamic Jihad member, was jailed for life for terrorist activity, including attacks in which soldiers were killed. Qadiri, also an Islamic Jihad member, was also serving life terms for acts of terrorism including the murder of an Israeli in 2004. Both men were reportedly involved in a 2014 attempt to break out of Gilboa.
The two prisoners still on the run are Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, who like the other fugitives are from the area around the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
Kamamji was serving a life sentence at the time of the escape for killing an 18-year-old Israeli in 2006, a murder he reportedly expressed pride in.
Nafayat has not been charged with a crime and was being held under Israel’s practice of administrative detention, which allows it to imprison suspects without filing charges for security purposes.
For Palestinians, the fugitives have been widely regarded as “heroes” who succeeded in freeing themselves from multiple life sentences.
Violent protests broke out at a number of locations in the West Bank after the announcement of the first two arrests on Friday evening.
After the arrest of the first two fugitives, the Hamas terror group said their detention would not “break their will.”
“They achieved honor by their successful escape operation, humiliating the occupying power and shattering its prestige. Arresting them will not wash away the shame of occupation, nor will it break [the two prisoners’] will. They will one day be free outside the jailer’s bars,” said Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou.
Shortly afterwards, a rocket was fired from Gaza toward Israel, which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. There were no reports of injuries or damage. The Israel Defense Forces said it responded with airstrikes on a number of terror targets in the enclave.
Islamic Jihad also celebrated the escapees and warned Israel against any harm coming to them while in detention.
“We hold the enemy totally responsible for the lives of the two prisoners arrested in Nazareth. Putting their lives in danger would be a declaration of war against the Palestinian people,” the terror group said in a statement.
Israel “is trying to use the picture of the two fighters’ arrests to try and show that this is a victory, to revitalize the image of its army which has become the target of mockery,” Islamic Jihad spokesperson Daoud Shehab told the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen network.
“This operation absolutely will not be the last,” Shehab warned, referring to the prisoner escape, later adding: “We are perfectly aware that we are engaged in a long struggle.”
The six escaped from Gilboa Prison in the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison.
Israeli forces have scrambled to find the inmates, all of them highly dangerous. In recent days, Israeli troops have arrested several of the fugitives’ family members, including five who were arrested in villages near the northern West Bank city of Jenin in the predawn hours of Friday morning, according to Palestinian media.
The escape exposed a series of failures at the prison and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said Thursday that he had decided to form a government commission to probe the incident.
Among the apparent lapses were failure to learn lessons from previous escape attempts and several operational blunders, including unmanned watchtowers and sleeping guards.
Emanuel Fabian, Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.