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'We were sure the guard had discovered us'

Gilboa prison break mastermind details escape, bungled flight to freedom

Mahmoud al-Arida tells investigators that before escaping, a prison guard noticed a broken tile above the tunnel, and another found traces of sand by the drainage hole

Mahmoud al-Arida, one of six security prisoners to escape Gilboa Prison, is seen at a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Mahmoud al-Arida, one of six security prisoners to escape Gilboa Prison, is seen at a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The alleged mastermind behind the jailbreak of six Palestinian security prisoners from the Gilboa Prison last month gave a detailed picture of how the plan was executed, according to new information from the investigation reported on Tuesday.

An hour after he was caught, Mahmoud al-Arida told Nazareth police that he was the architect of the jailbreak, explaining exactly how the group escaped and what their goals were, according to information published by Haaretz.

“The first [goal] was to see family and live in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority’s protection, and the second was to prove to all Israeli security organizations and the Israeli government that they are a failure. We managed to dig a tunnel from Israel’s most secure prison,” he boasted.

The daring September 6 escape, which only ended with the capture of the last two inmates some two weeks later, has been seen as a major failure by Israel’s prison service, which was blamed for both allowing inmates to tunnel out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison, and failing to notice or alert authorities in time.

Five of the six inmates were members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, along with notorious Fatah terrorist Zakaria Zubeidi. Several had been convicted of capital crimes and were serving life terms. Four of the prisoners were captured in northern Israel within the first week, but two others made their way into the northern West Bank city of Jenin and hid out there until their arrest on September 19.

Police officers and prison guards inspect the scene of a prison escape outside the Gilboa Prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

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

Al-Arida said the jailbreak was named “The Path to Jerusalem,” which the escapees intended to scrawl on their cell wall before escaping, though they didn’t have time to do so.

“The idea of escaping was always on my mind,” Al-Arida said. “I have been planning the escape since being transferred to Gilboa Prison. I looked at the floor and understood I could escape.”

“We started digging on December 14, 2020,” Haaretz reported al-Arida as saying, citing minutes kept by a Shin Bet investigator named Raul. “I started digging using a piece of iron I took from a small cupboard that was in the cell a few years ago. I dug the door of the tunnel for 20 days. Under that was another iron plate — I peeled it off until I removed it.”

In this photo provided by Israel’s Prisons Service, a hole in a floor is seen after six Palestinian prisoners escaped from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel, on September 6, 2021. (Israeli Prisons Service via AP)

Fellow inmate Munadil Nafiyat then took over the task of digging through 15 centimeters (six inches) of concrete, while the others covered for him. The work then continued with the prisoners digging their way for 30 meters (98 feet), with the main challenge being getting rid of the excess sand.

“Initially, we would empty the sand into the toilet and the shower. We then made a small room for the sand,” al-Arida said. “We improvised sandbags out of clothes. We dug until we saw sunlight without bars. It was then that we realized we succeeded.”

He added that Zubeidi was added to the jailbreak plan at the very end, in hopes that his senior position in the Palestinian Authority would help protect them. In his own interrogation, Zubeidi said he saw the tunnel for the first time on the day of the escape.

“In our conversations, we took into consideration the option that we would die,” Zubeidi said, according to the report. “We thought we would be shot at from the guard towers or that soldiers would shoot at us when they arrest us.”

File: Zakaria Zubeidi, then the local commander of Fatah’s military wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and other gunmen march along the streets of the West Bank town of Jenin, on April 2, 2005. (Mohammed Ballas/AP Photo)

But al-Arida cited occasions when they feared their plan had been discovered, further highlighting the series of mistakes by Israel Prisons Service staff who failed to recognize what was going on.

Once, a prison guard noticed that a floor tile near the sink was broken. One of the inmates said: “That’s it, we’re exposed.” But the incident didn’t raise the IPS’ suspicion.

On another occasion, a prison guard was sent to the cell due to a sewage blockage caused by the sand. “He walked up to the drainage hole and saw there were sand traces near it,” according to al-Arida. “He then said: ‘I’ll come to deal with it tomorrow.’ We were sure the guard had discovered us.”

The inmates then decided to escape later that day, weeks ahead of the planned date. They quickly packed a bag with clothes, water, chocolate bars and radio machines, according to the report. The first to enter the tunnel was Nafiyat and the last was al-Arida himself.

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

“I waited 15 minutes to make sure no prison guard was approaching [the cell],” he said. “I crawled 10 minutes in complete darkness. I started to see light and understood I reached the end of the tunnel. I saw Nafiyat outside of the opening, calling for me and giving me a hand in getting out of the tunnel.”

The six then tried to make their way to the village of Tamra, following the green light of a mosque, but accidentally wound up in Na’ura, another nearby hamlet.

In Na’ura, the six prisoners entered a local mosque at around 5 a.m, changed clothes, prayed, and left. “We asked people on the street for help to take us to Umm al-Fahm, we told them we worked there,” al-Arida said, but nobody would give them a ride.

According to Haaretz, al-Arida managed to borrow a cellphone from someone at a local bakery, and call his brother who lives in Jenin. The report said al-Arida had told his brother a number of days before the jailbreak that if he calls he should drive immediately to Tamra to meet a prospective bride, not wanting to reveal his plan for leaving jail.

Israeli Border Police in the village of Na’ura search for six Palestinian fugitives who escaped from a high security prison in northern Israel, on September 7, 2021. (Flash90)

“He asked if I was calling [again] from jail and I said yes,” al-Arida said in the investigation. “I told him to come to Na’ura, he said he could not because he was asleep. I realized he did not want to come,” he said according to the report.

It was after this that the group decided to split up into three pairs without telling each other their destinations, in case of being caught. Al-Arida said the six were regarded as laborers in the country illegally and had trouble finding anyone to help them.

Two days later a number of people gave him and Yaquob Qadiri — the prisoner he paired up with — some food and NIS 100, according to the report.

“At night we slept in an industrial area near Afula. We continued walking toward Nazareth and asked for food and water from people. We searched the garbage cans for food, what we found we ate,” al-Arida said.

Yaquob Qadiri arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Three days after the escape, al-Arida and Qadiri had no idea where they were. “We realized that we were very far from the West Bank, so we thought of working a bit in Israel and then moving to the West Bank,” al-Arida said according to the report. That night near Nazareth, while rummaging through trash for food, al-Arida and Qadiri were caught after a passerby noticed them and called the police.

The report said an investigator named Bruno allowed al-Arida to make a phone call to his family, including his sister who lives in the Gaza Strip.

Al-Arida also denied claims by other inmates that said they helped the group escape. According to the report, Iyad Jaradat, who is serving multiple life sentences, was brought into the interrogation room and said he assisted. “First time I’m hearing this,” Al-Arida told the investigator.

In this photo provided by Israel Police, Zakaria Zubeidi (left) and Mohammed al-Arida, two of six Palestinian security Prisoners who broke out of Gilboa Prison, are blindfolded and handcuffed after being recaptured in the Arab town of Umm al-Ghanam, northern Israel, on Saturday, September 11, 2021. (Israeli Police via AP)

Others also testified Jaradat had been part of the escape plan, and was apparently excluded at the last minute over an argument with one of the other inmates, the report said.

“Where will you be seven years from now?” a Shin Bet investigator named Erez asked al-Arida.

“I will be free after I’m released in a deal with Hamas. I am sure I will be included in a deal and I’ll be free,” al-Arida responded, according to the report.

But Erez responded: “There will be no deal. Israel has no interest in making a deal for soldiers who are not alive,” referring to Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, whose remains have been held in Gaza since they were killed during the 2014 Gaza war. Israel has been involved in indirect negotiations for a swap deal that would likely include the release of prisoners, as has been done in the past.

A hole used by six Palestinian prisoners to escape from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel on September 6, 2021. (Israeli Prisons Service via AP)

With an indictment filed against the recaptured fugitives and their alleged accomplices earlier this month, the Israel Police and Shin Bet security service announced the end of their investigation into the prison break, one of the worst in the country’s history.

However, a state commission will continue to investigate the escape and the potential failures by the prison staff, the Israel Prisons Service, and other government offices that may have contributed to it.

The same prison saw an attempted jailbreak in 2014, in which al-Arida and other inmates tried to dig a tunnel under their toilet. “I will not try to run away anymore,” he told Shin Bet interrogators, according to Haaretz.

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