After breaking out of the maximum-security Gilboa prison early on Monday, September 6, the six escaped Palestinian security prisoners headed on foot for the nearby Arab town of Na’ura, some 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) from the jail, where they begged several residents to drive them to the city of Jenin in the West Bank, but were refused, Hebrew media reported Sunday.
Citing details leaked from the Shin Bet interrogation of the four escapees who have been recaptured, particularly from notorious terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi, the reports detailed the fugitives’ first actions in the first hours after the escape.
After being rebuffed by local residents, the six spent less than an hour in a local mosque where they showered and changed clothes before heading out of the town. Israeli investigators had initially believed they spent the night there.
Police captured two of the fugitives in Nazareth on Friday night. Hours later, two others — including Zubeidi — were apprehended in the nearby town of Shibli–Umm al-Ghanam. In both cases, Arab Israelis who encountered the fugitives reported the suspicious sightings to authorities, aiding in their capture.
The reports highlighted the residents’ refusal to take Zubeidi and his accomplices to the West Bank, as yet another example of Arab citizens rejecting being complicit in the escape, and also of the intentions of the escapees to try and reach the West Bank.
After hearing that a significant number of security forces had been deployed along the border with the West Bank, the six fugitives decided to split up into three pairs, and go into hiding in northern Israel, the recaptured fugitives told the Shin Bet.
The Kan public broadcaster reported that while the four who have been recaptured are largely cooperating in their interrogations, they have not been able to provide specific details on the location of the last two escapees.
However, security forces are said to believe they are narrowing in on the location of the last two — Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat — both of whom are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, with searches focusing on the Jezreel Valley and Jenin in the West Bank.
Haaretz reported Sunday that Israel has surveillance footage, apparently of one of the suspects crossing through a gap in the security fence near the village of Jalameh in the northern West Bank.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev alluded to this in an interview on Channel 12 news on Saturday: “The estimation is that one has succeeded to get to the West Bank. The other one could be on either side of the Green Line,” he said. “We will catch them,” he added.
“It’s only a matter of time before the defense establishment reaches the other two terrorists,” Israel Defense Forces Cheif of Staff Aviv Kohavi said on Sunday.
“We will not stop until they are caught,” Kohavi added.
However, Kan said there was mounting concern that the effort to capture the fugitives would become much more complicated if they have indeed succeeded in reaching the crowded Jenin refugee camp, largely a no-go area for Israeli and Palestinian Authority forces.
That would necessitate an IDF raid which would not only increase the chances of Israeli casualties but also make it much more difficult to capture the fugitives alive. Israel is wary of making them into martyrs, given how they have already been idolized by much of the Palestinian public for the daring escape.
Killing the two would also likely spark Islamic Jihad revenge attacks, possibly leading to an escalation in violence, Kan quoted security officials as saying.
Heavy gunfire was heard in the Jenin region on Sunday, as Israeli security forces reportedly came under fire during the manhunt for two.
Palestinian media reports claimed gunmen had opened fire toward Israeli troops near the town of Araqah, west of the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank.
But a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces told the Times of Israel that the army was unaware of the incident.
Apart from Zubeidi, a commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, who was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder, the other five were all members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yaqoub Qadiri and Mahmoud al-Arida, the latter reported to be the mastermind of the jailbreak, were arrested in the northern town of Nazareth on Friday night.
Al-Arida, considered a senior Islamic Jihad member, was jailed for life for terrorist activity, including attacks in which soldiers were killed. Qadiri 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 and Mohammed al-Arida, the younger brother of the reported mastermind of the jailbreak, were then recaptured by Israeli counterterror police officers near the northern town of Shibli–Umm al-Ghanam at around 5 a.m. on Saturday.
The younger al-Arida was arrested in 2002 on terror offenses and sentenced to life in prison.
Kamamji was serving a life sentence at the time of Monday’s escape, for killing an 18-year-old Israeli in 2006.
Nafayat has not been charged with a crime other than being a member of the Islamic Jihad, and was being held under Israel’s practice of administrative detention, which allows it to imprison suspects without filing charges.
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.
The escape exposed a series of failures at the prison, and Public Security Minister Barlev said on 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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.