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Analysis

Bloodless, efficient recapture of 6 fugitives won’t obscure the jailbreak fiasco

Jenin raid ends two-week jailbreak manhunt, potentially staving off major violence; now comes the probe into how the escape was allowed to happen

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

An Israeli security officer arrests a Palestinian fugitive following a nearly two-week manhunt in the northern West Bank on September 19, 2021. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)
An Israeli security officer arrests a Palestinian fugitive following a nearly two-week manhunt in the northern West Bank on September 19, 2021. (Screen capture: Israel Defense Forces)

The arrest of the remaining two Palestinian fugitives in the northern West Bank city of Jenin without a major violent confrontation in the predawn hours of Sunday morning brought to an end a nearly two-week-long crisis in the form of one of the worst and most embarrassing prison breaks in the country’s history, but the story is far from over.

Following the escape by six security prisoners — five of them members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group and all of them from the Jenin area — from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel on September 6, terrorist organizations in the West Bank, and in Jenin specifically, had threatened to violently oppose efforts to arrest the fugitives.

The first two escapees — Yaquob Qadiri and Mahmoud al-Arida, who masterminded the jailbreak — were arrested on September 10 in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth and another two — notorious terrorist commander Zakaria Zubeidi and Muhammad al-Arida — were picked up a day later in the nearby town of Shibli–Umm al-Ghanam.

The final two, Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, remained on the lam for more than another week as Israeli security forces scrambled to locate them. At least one of them was initially believed to have crossed into the West Bank from northern Israel, despite considerable efforts by Israeli security forces to prevent this, with police setting up checkpoints and roadblocks throughout the area. These reportedly prevented the other four from entering the West Bank and aided in their eventual capture. The location of the final fugitive was not immediately known.

In recent days, however, Israeli security forces began to suspect that both men had indeed made it to Jenin and were being hidden in various apartments in the city. According to Israel’s Channel 12 news, by Thursday night Israeli security services had received a tentative go-ahead to conduct an arrest raid in Jenin, an area in which the Palestinian Authority is relatively weak and the potential for violence is therefore higher than in other parts of the West Bank.

On Saturday, the Shin Bet security service received “precise intelligence” about the location of the fugitives, reportedly the home of a family member of one of them.

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

“As time passed, we knew they were in Jenin,” Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said early Sunday, after the arrests. “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.”

The Jenin operation

At around 1 a.m., Israeli forces began moving into Jenin and by 3 a.m. the two men were in Israeli custody. The arrest raid was marked by multiple efforts by Israeli forces and officials to mislead the fugitives and terror groups in Jenin.

This began earlier on Saturday night when Public Security Minister Omer Barlev appeared on Channel 12 and intentionally misstated Israeli security forces’ assessments regarding the location of the fugitives, falsely saying one of them was likely located inside Israel in what his spokesperson confirmed was a deliberate “deception.”

In the arrest raid itself, Israeli forces initially drew attention away from the home where Kamamji and Nafiyat were hiding by dispatching large numbers of troops to a different part of the city as a distraction in an apparent effort to avoid a major, direct confrontation with Palestinian terrorists in the city. Only later was a smaller team, made up of officers from the Israel Police’s Yamam counter-terrorism unit and soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces’ Haruv Reconnaissance Unit, sent to the actual location of the fugitives, sealing off escape routes and preventing potential rioters from getting close.

Adding to the confusion, Israeli forces performed what’s known as a “pressure cooker” maneuver next to the building, in which they fired weapons and set off explosives in order to disorient those inside, and then called for the fugitives to hand themselves over. This tactic was first developed in the early 2000s during the Second Intifada.

“The Yamam, Shin Bet and the Haruv Reconnaissance Unit entered the city of Jenin, sealed off and surrounded the house, including gunfire around the building in which the fugitive terrorists were hiding. They came out unarmed and without resistance,” the IDF said.

In addition to the two fugitives, two other men who were suspected of assisting them were arrested. All four were handed over to the Shin Bet for interrogation before they were brought before a judge for a remand hearing on Sunday morning.

Small-scale rioting broke out in Jenin following the arrest raid, in which gunshots were fired at an Israeli security vehicle, damaging a bulletproof windshield and a headlight. According to the IDF, rocks and explosives were also thrown at Israeli troops. But there were no injuries to Israeli troops.

Successful recapture

The capture of all six fugitives without a deadly confrontation was seen as a major success, potentially helping to prevent major violence in the West Bank, following two weeks of increased attacks by Palestinians against Israeli security forces and civilians in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

By arresting the escaped prisoners alive, Israeli security forces prevented the creation of Palestinian martyrs to be avenged and denied the formation of legend around the elusive fugitives.

“There is no doubt that this event is something that closes the ‘heroic event,’ as it was perceived among the Palestinian public,” Kobi Michaeli, a long-time Israeli defense analyst, focusing on Palestinian society, told the i24 news channel.

Palestinian protesters hold up spoons, reportedly the digging tool used by six Palestinian prisoners who recently escaped from Israel’s Gilboa prison, as they confront Israeli security forces, following a demonstration in the West Bank village of Beita, on September 10, 2021. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

However, though their arrest brings to a close the initial, operational chapter of this month’s prison break, it likely marks the start of a fuller investigation into the litany of failures by the Israel Prisons Service that allowed it in the first place.

Ignominious escape

The six Palestinian prisoners — four of whom were serving life sentences and two of whom were in prison while on trial for serious security offenses — escaped from Gilboa Prison on September 6, using plates and pan handles to dig out a concrete slab in their bathroom in order to enter an empty space underneath the prison and then digging their way out from there.

The list of missteps and blunders by Gilboa Prison wardens allowing the escape to occur that have come to light in the nearly two weeks since the jailbreak is unconscionably long and covers nearly a year, with the inmates beginning to dig their way out last November.

The method used in the escape was the same as was employed in a failed jailbreak in 2014 by different members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, meaning the Prisons Service knew of the underlying problem — a massive, relatively easily accessible space underneath the prison — and failed to address it for seven years.

Detailed schematics of the prison were also widely available online, as were the blueprints for several other Israel Prisons Service facilities across the country.

FILE – In this Monday, Sept. 6, 2021 file photo, police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape by six Palestinian prisoners, outside the Gilboa prison in Northern Israel. Pressure is building around Israel’s prison system after fires broke out at several facilities and the government hunted for six Palestinian escapees who have been on the run since they tunneled out two days earlier. Fires were reported at several prisons Wednesday amid efforts to try to move inmates as a precautionary measure. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Prior to the breakout, guards who entered the prisoners’ room reportedly failed to notice that one of them was missing while he was in the crawlspace under the prison, preparing the escape tunnel.

On the night of the prison break, watchtowers overlooking the area where the men made their escape were left unmanned, guards monitoring security cameras where the fugitives could be seen were asleep, and the police officers who received calls of suspicious men walking nearby were unable to quickly contact the prison to inform them of a possible escape as the prison had changed its phone number without updating the police.

And these are only a few of the details that have come to light so far. Barlev has already ordered a commission of inquiry into the jailbreak, which is sure to uncover yet more blunders and oversights in the hours and days preceding the breakout.

“The escape itself was a severe mishap – operational, systemic and vis-à-vis intelligence. But whenever there is a mishap, we first take action, together, in the first stage – against the enemy, to restore deterrence — and then correct what needs to be corrected on our part, and there are things to correct,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday after the arrest raid.

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