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Investigators believe escaped prisoners received no help while on the run

After questioning 4 of the fugitives, police and Shin Bet reportedly conclude they had no accomplices; 2 Palestinian security prisoners remain at large

Zakaria Zubeidi, a notorious Fatah terrorist recaptured after breaking out of Gilboa Prison with five other security prisoners, arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Zakaria Zubeidi, a notorious Fatah terrorist recaptured after breaking out of Gilboa Prison with five other security prisoners, arrives for a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israeli security forces believe the Palestinian fugitives who escaped a high-security prison earlier this week received no help while on the run, according to reports on Saturday night.

Five days into a national manhunt for six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from a jail in northern Israel, police captured two of the fugitives in Nazareth Friday night. Hours later, two others — including notorious terror commander Zakaria 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.

After interrogating the four Palestinian security prisoners, police and Shin Bet security service investigators concluded they had no accomplices on the outside, or assistance from within Gilboa Prison, Channel 12 reported on Saturday night. The report said the escaped prisoners may have received minor assistance from passersby, such as offers of rides or clothing, none of which was premeditated.

Police sources told the Ynet news site on Saturday that despite earlier assessments that the prisoners had outside help and that a getaway vehicle had driven them away, authorities now believe they acted alone and traveled on foot the entire time. The six men apparently first walked together to the Arab Israeli town of Na’ura and split up from there, according to Channel 12.

Investigators believe that while the men meticulously plotted their escape from the prison, they had relatively few clear plans upon getting out.

The four men were brought to a Northern District Court in Nazareth on Saturday night for their first hearing following their capture. Prosecutors accused them of having planned to conduct a major terror attack following their escape, a crime with a possible sentence of 15 additional years in prison.

The four captured fugitives will likely be kept in solitary confinement following their capture. Their remand was extended by nine days.

In this photo provided by Israel Police, Zakaria Zubeidi, left, and Mohammed el-Aride, 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, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Israeli Police via AP)

Security forces continued to search on Saturday for the last two escaped Palestinian prisoners who remained on the run. Authorities believed that at least one of them fled to the northern West Bank, where all six of the prisoners hail from.

“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,” Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said in an interview on Channel 12.

“We will catch them,” he added.

The two escapees still on the run are Iham Kamamji and Munadil Nafiyat, both of whom are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group.

Kamamji was serving a life sentence at the time of Monday’s escape, for killing an 18-year-old Israeli in 2006, a murder he reportedly expressed pride in.

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.

Security officials were increasingly concerned that Kamamji or Nafiyat could try to carry out an attack following the arrests of the other fugitives over the weekend.

“They have nothing to lose,” an unnamed senior official was quoted saying by the Walla news site.

Four of the six escapees, including notorious terror commander Zubeidi, were caught by security forces on Friday night and early Saturday morning. 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, 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.

Zakaria Zubeidi seen after being recaptured in northern Israel on September 11, 2021 (Courtesy)

Zubeidi and Mohammed al-Arida, the younger brother of the reported mastermind of the jailbreak, were recaptured by Israeli counter-terror police officers near the northern town of Shibli–Umm al-Ghanam at around 5 a.m. on Saturday.

Zubeidi, a notorious 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.

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)

For Palestinians, the fugitives have been widely regarded as “heroes” who succeeded in freeing themselves from multiple life sentences.

Violent protests broke out at a number of locations in the West Bank after the announcement of the first two arrests on Friday evening.

Israel Defense Forces geared up for further protests on Saturday, after Palestinian groups in the West Bank called for mass protests in solidarity with the re-arrested prisoners.

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.

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

Israeli forces have scrambled to find the inmates, all of them highly dangerous. In recent days, Israeli troops have arrested several of the fugitives’ family members, including five who were arrested in villages near the northern West Bank city of Jenin in the predawn hours of Friday morning, according to Palestinian media.

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.

Judah Ari Gross, Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.

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