Jailbreak mastermind claims nobody aided escape from Gilboa Prison

Islamic Jihad member Mahmoud al-Arida reportedly tells his lawyer that he and the 5 other fugitives followed the news coverage of their prison break using small radio devices

Mahmoud al-Arida is seen at a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Mahmoud al-Arida is seen at a hearing at the District Court in Nazareth, on September 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The reported mastermind behind last week’s jailbreak from Gilboa Prison said he and the other five escapees planned their operation nine months ago, and received no help from other prisoners.

Mahmoud al-Arida spoke on Tuesday night with his lawyer, Raslan Mahajna, for the first time since his arrest on Friday, and revealed new information regarding the escape.

“I am responsible for all planning for the escape and the excavation,” al-Arida boasted, according to Hebrew-language media reports Wednesday. He said they received no assistance from inside or outside the prison.

But according to a Tuesday report, investigators probing last Monday’s escape believe that at least 11 prisoners were involved in the digging of the tunnel, which began as early as November 2020.

Al-Arida, considered a senior Islamic Jihad member, was jailed for life for terrorist activities, including attacks in which soldiers were killed.

His attorney said al-Arida claimed he and the other escapees listened to media reports on the jailbreak using small radios they had taken with them from the prison.

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)

Al-Arida also confirmed the six men headed on foot for the nearby Arab town of Na’ura, some seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the jail, where they showered and changed clothes before heading out of the town.

Citing details leaked from the Shin Bet interrogation of the four escapees who have been recaptured, particularly from notorious terror commander Zakaria Zubeidi, reports said they begged several residents to drive them to the city of Jenin in the West Bank, but were refused.

The recaptured fugitives told the Shin Bet that they and their comrades decided to split up into three pairs and go into hiding in northern Israel until the West Bank border area had calmed down.

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

“We wanted to get to the West Bank, but we knew a lot of forces were waiting for us at the borders,” al-Arida said on Tuesday.

Police captured two of the fugitives — including al-Arida — in Nazareth on Friday night. Hours later, two others 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 their capture.

But according to al-Arida, no one in Nazareth reported him and the other escapees to the authorities, and they were arrested by chance when a police patrol spotted them.

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)

Defense forces say 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

According to Haaretz, officials believe Nafiyat succeeded in making his way to Jenin, after he was identified in security footage crossing the border fence last week. While forces are still searching for Kamamji in Israel, he is also thought to have crossed into the West Bank and was headed to Jenin, the report said.

Israeli soldiers take positions along the border between the northern West Bank near Jenin and Israel as they search for two Palestinians who broke out of a maximum-security prison last week, on a road leading to the West Bank town of Jenin, near Gan Ner Israel, September 12, 2021. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

There is mounting concern that the effort to capture the last two fugitives would become much more complicated if they 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 martyrs of them, given how they have already been idolized by much of the Palestinian public for their daring escape.

The six escaped from Gilboa Prison in the predawn hours of last Monday morning, making their way out through their cell’s drainage system and an empty space underneath the prison.

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)

While officials had warned the escapees were possibly planning a terror attack, al-Arida said he was just “looking for freedom, to hug my mother.”

The prisoners are said to have carried out the digging using plates and sharpened pan handles and to have dumped the excavated dirt in the sewer system, in garbage cans, and in hollow shafts they found in their wing.

The escape is considered one of the worst jailbreaks in Israel’s history and the prisons service has faced significant criticism in the wake of the incident, with a reported series of blunders having enabled the six to escape.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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