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Fearing discovery, escapees left Gilboa jail a day earlier than planned – report

By bringing forward their breakout, fugitives skipped outside assistance, they tell investigators; remand of four recaptured prisoners extended by 10 days

Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape by six Palestinian prisoners, outside the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape by six Palestinian prisoners, outside the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, September 6, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Six Palestinian terrorists who broke out of an Israeli prison reportedly brought forward their escape by a day because they feared the tunnel they had dug was about to be discovered.

During questioning, some of the escapees, all of whom have been recaptured, revealed that they believed that a prison guard had noticed they were disposing of soil from the tunnel in shafts and the sewage system at the Gilboa Prison, where they were being held, Haaretz reported Sunday.

However, moving the plan forward meant they did not obtain assistance from outside the prison, as initially planned, two of the escapees told investigators, according to the report.

The six prisoners, five of whom have been accused of deadly attacks against Israelis, tunneled out of the maximum-security prison in northern Israel on September 6, in the country’s first mass prison break in decades. Four were recaptured on September 10 while still inside Israeli territory; the last two were detained early Sunday morning in the West Bank.

The escape plan was organized by Mahmoud al-Arida, who has already served 25 years in prison, the report said. He was also the first out of the tunnel, along with his cousin Mohammad al-Arida. Most of the digging was reportedly done by Munadil Nafiyat, who is the physically strongest of the six.

Four other prisoners inside the Gilboa prison have been arrested for assisting the escape. The four, all members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, have confessed to aiding the digging, with one saying it was his job to help prevent guards from entering the cell and to cover the tunneling work when there were visits.

The six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa prison on Monday, September 6, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Yaqoub Qadiri, Mohammad al-Arida, Mahmoud al-Arida, Iham Kamamji, Zakaria Zubeidi, and Munadil Nafiyat (Screenshot: Palestinian Prisoners’ Media Office)

On Sunday the Nazareth District Court extended by 10 days the remand of the first four captured — Zakaria Zubeidi, Mahmoud and Mohammad al-Arida, and Yaqoub Qadiri. Hours earlier, Israeli security forces had detained the last two fugitives, Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, in the West Bank city of Jenin.

At the remand hearing, court president Judge Doron Porat approved that most of the proceedings be held behind closed doors due to security considerations but also criticized state officials for publicizing images and details of the arrests, in violation of a gag order that the state itself had insisted be put in place.

“There is a fundamental need to investigate the issuance of gag orders, especially in light of the fact that we are witnessing various publications and information, allegedly provided by government officials, in such a way that it can be argued that there is a violation of the orders,” he said.

However, such a discussion should “be conducted at another time in a broad forum, in order to settle this matter properly”

Police take Mohammed al-Arida to a patrol car after he was captured in northern Israel after escaping from prison with other security prisoners, September 11, 2021. (Israel Police)

Five of the escapees are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, while Zubeidi was a notorious commander in the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, the military wing of the Fatah party.

After the hearing, Zubeidi’s attorney, Avigdor Feldman, told reporters that his client had told him he crawled for half an hour inside the tunnel during the escape.

“When he finished crawling he needed to lift the cover from the pit and that also wasn’t easy,” Feldman said.

He further revealed that Zubeidi, who had only joined the escape ploy shortly before it was executed, was surprised that there was no plan in place for what to do once they were outside the prison walls. Zubeidi, he said, had expected to receive help from Arab Israelis living in the area but there was none.

Feldman said that Zabadi suggested to his companions that they immediately head to Jenin but some were reluctant as they felt they did not have the strength for the journey, which required climbing and then descending Mount Gilboa. The escapees made do by eating from fruit trees and drinking water from outdoor faucets, he said.

Feldman also rejected terror charges that are being leveled against Zubeidi in light of his escape. He said Zubeidi had only intended to get out of the prison and was not planning any terror attacks. He noted that the first four captured were not armed when they were apprehended.

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.

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