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Bennett hails ‘sophisticated’ operation that caught last 2 Palestinian fugitives

Public security minister says the work of the government commission of inquiry into the incident will begin soon to ‘seal the remaining holes’

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev meet with police commanders about the efforts to track down six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from prison in northern Israel, Saturday, September 11, 2021. (Israel Police)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev meet with police commanders about the efforts to track down six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from prison in northern Israel, Saturday, September 11, 2021. (Israel Police)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday morning praised the recapture of the two remaining Palestinian fugitives from a prison break close to two weeks ago and reiterated the need to fix the broken system that allowed it to happen.

“It is done,” Bennett said. “All six terrorists have been recaptured — and will be returned to prison — in an impressive, sophisticated and quick operation by the Shin Bet, the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces.”

The prime minister expressed his gratitude toward “the security forces that worked day and night, including over Shabbat and holidays, to bring the event to a close. What has broken down – it is possible to repair.”

After his public statement, Bennett also called the heads of the organizations involved in the arrest raid — Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai, head of the IDF Central Command Yehuda Fuchs, head of the Shin Bet’s operations department and the commander of the police’s Yamam counter-terrorism unit — to applaud their efforts, his office said.

“This event started with a major debacle, but you gathered your forces together to complete the mission, and six of the six terrorists have returned to prison,” Bennett told the defense chiefs.

Overnight Saturday, security forces arrested the final two of the six security prisoners, who escaped from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel nearly two weeks ago, the army said.

The arrests of the fugitives — a week after the four other escaped prisoners were recaptured in northern Israel — brought to a close a massive 13-day manhunt following one of the worst jailbreaks in Israel’s history.

Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, both members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, were apprehended in the West Bank city of Jenin, the Israel Defense Forces said early Sunday.

Munadil Nafiyat (L) and Iham Kamamji (R), the two last Palestinian fugitives from the Gilboa Prison jailbreak, are arrested on September 19, 2021 (Courtesy)

“The two terrorists were caught alive and were handed over for interrogation by the security forces,” the military said. They were captured following a joint operation by the IDF, Shin Bet security service, and the Yamam police unit.

Barlev issued a statement applauding the capture of Kamamji and Nafiyat.

“Congratulations to the forces of the Israel Police, the IDF and the Shin Bet, who proved once again that they can be relied upon,” said Barlev. “With professional, sharp and precise efforts, the six escaped terrorists were located quickly and encircled.”

Barlev said the work of the Public Security Ministry “is not yet over,” and in the coming days the government commission of inquiry into the prison break will begin its work and be “responsible for sealing the remaining holes.”

In comments ahead of the cabinet meeting last week, Bennett said the incident should serve as a “wake-up call” and that it “requires an investigation and for lessons to be learned.”

“Some state systems have deteriorated in recent years and must go through processes of correction, of efficiency, of striving for excellence,” the prime minister added. “It is possible and it is required to operate differently… what has gone wrong can be repaired.”

Israeli security forces arrest the remaining two Palestinian fugitives in Jenin, West Bank, on September 19, 2021. (screen capture: Twitter)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday said the capture of the last two escaped prisoners “was made possible by the dedication of the commanders and fighters of Yamam, the police, the Shin Bet and the IDF.”

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman also lauded the capture of the remaining fugitives.

“While the rest of us continued with our day-to-day lives, security forces did not stop their mission,” said Liberman. “They continued to work to locate and capture the terrorists and restored security to the public.”

During the capture of Kamamji and Nafiyat overnight on Saturday, IDF forces initially drew attention away from the home where they were hiding by dispatching large numbers of troops to a different part of the city as a distraction and only then sending a smaller team to the actual location.

“The two terrorists surrendered and came out without opening fire. The arrest was conducted smoothly,” said Lt. Col. Alon Hanoni, deputy commander of the IDF’s Menashe Regional Command, which is responsible for the Jenin area.

Originally from Kafr Dan, near Jenin, Kamamji was arrested in 2006 and jailed for life for the kidnap and murder of a young Israeli, Eliahu Asheri. He expressed pride in the murder at his trial, saying 18-year-old Asheri was “no child” as he had studied at a military academy.

Nafayat has not been charged with a crime other than being a member of Islamic Jihad, and was being held under Israel’s practice of administrative detention, which allows it to imprison suspects without filing charges. He is reportedly suspected of having illegally sold weapons.

Mohammed al-Arida arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“As time passed, we knew they were in Jenin,” Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said early Sunday. “We prepared for several days for a complex mission and tonight, after receiving the information we had been waiting for, the signal was given to start the operation, with Yamam forces at the forefront.”

The arrest was made possible by “precise intelligence that was received by the Shin Bet, which identified the building in which the two were hiding in Jenin,” the internal security service said.

The six Palestinian prisoners escaped from Gilboa Prison in the pre-dawn hours of September 6, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison. They had reportedly begun digging in November, using plates and pan handles, building debris and part of a metal hanger, according to various reports.

The escape exposed a series of failures at the prison. Among the apparent lapses were failure to learn lessons from previous escape attempts and several operational blunders, including unmanned watchtowers and sleeping guards.

Four of the six escapees, including notorious terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi, were caught by security forces last weekend. Yaqoub Qadiri and Mahmoud al-Arida, the latter reported to be the mastermind of the jailbreak, were arrested in the northern town of Nazareth.

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.

Zubeidi, a commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder. The younger al-Arida, also an Islamic Jihad member, was arrested in 2002 on terror offenses and sentenced to life in prison.

Among the Palestinians, the fugitives have been widely regarded as “heroes” who succeeded in freeing themselves from multiple life sentences. The jailbreak was followed by heightened tensions in the West Bank, a stabbing attack in Jerusalem, several other attack attempts, and sporadic rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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