The Israel Police said late Friday they had captured two of the six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison early Monday.
The two were caught in the northern Israeli town of Nazareth, police said.
Police identified the two as Yaquob Qadiri and Mahmoud al-Arida, both of Islamic Jihad. Al-Arida was reported to have masterminded the jailbreak. His younger brother Mohammed was still on the run.
Police said the two did not resist when captured and were found after a chase that included a helicopter.
A video circulating on social media showed Israeli police shackling a man from his feet into the backseat of a police vehicle and asking the suspect for his name.
The man, wearing jeans and green T-shirt, calmly identifies himself as Qadiri and answers “yes” when asked whether he is one of the escapees. Kadari was serving two life sentences for attempted murder and bomb planting.
— ✌️????????✌️ Mohammed Najjar (@hamada_pal2020) September 10, 2021
Reports said police had been tipped off by residents of the predominantly Arab town, who noticed two men digging through trash, apparently searching for food.
Channel 12 news said residents called the police who realized it might be the fugitives and sent a large force to the area.
Following the arrests, the two were transferred to the Shin Bet for questioning and officials were hopeful they could provide leads to recapturing the other four fugitives.
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.
For the Palestinians, the fugitives have been widely regarded as “heroes” who succeeded in freeing themselves from multiple life sentences. In the Gaza Strip as well as in the West Bank, Palestinians organized sit-ins and joyful gatherings to celebrate the prison break.
As soon as the news about the capture of the two fugitives was confirmed Friday, a flurry of bitter posts expressing disappointment and shock filled the Palestinian social media sphere. There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinian Authority
The Hamas terror group hailed the two prisoners’ escape attempt, saying that arresting them would not “break their will.”
“They achieved honor by their successful escape operation, humiliating the occupying power and shattering its prestige. Arresting them will not wash away the shame of occupation, nor will it break [the two prisoners’] will. They will one day be free outside the jailer’s bars,” said Hamas spokesperson Abd al-Latif al-Qanou.
Islamic Jihad also celebrated the escapees and warned Israel against any harm coming to them while in detention, as well as saying the jail bust would not be the last.
“We hold the enemy totally responsible for the lives of the two prisoners arrested in Nazareth. Putting their lives in danger would be a declaration of war against the Palestinian people,” the terror group said in a statement.
Israel “is trying to use the picture of the two fighters’ arrests to try and show that this is a victory, to revitalize the image of its army which has become the target of mockery,” Islamic Jihad spokesperson Daoud Shehab told the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen network.
“This operation absolutely will not be the last,” Shehab warned, referring to the prisoner escape, later adding: “We are perfectly aware that we are engaged in a long struggle.”
The six men escaped Gilboa Prison in northern Israel in one of the worst prison breaks in the country’s history early Monday.
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.
It was believed that some of the escapees had managed to enter Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank, while others were still in Israel.
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.
Four of the six fugitives were in jail for life in connection with deadly attacks against Israelis; another — the notorious commander in Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group, Zakaria Zubeidi — was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes, including attempted murder. All but Zubeidi are Islamic Jihad members.
The escape exposed a series of failures at the prison and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev said 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.
The six dug a tunnel from the shower basin in their cell, according to initial findings by the Israel Prisons Service, reported Thursday night by the Kan public broadcaster.
The same prison saw an attempted jailbreak in 2014, in which inmates tried to dig a tunnel under their toilet. After that foiled attempt, the Prisons Service reinforced that area with concrete and metal and replaced the toilet bowls.
However, it didn’t reinforce or replace the same area under the showers, according to the report.
Further helping the escapees this time around, a guard tower overlooking the exit from the tunnel used in the escape was unmanned at the time of the prison break, according to a number of reports on Thursday.
The tunnel’s exit was just a few meters away from the guard tower. The Ynet news site said the reason for the post being unstaffed was unclear, and that a camera was pointed at the tunnel’s opening, but nobody was watching the video feed.
The Haaretz newspaper reported that the tower had been vacant for over a month at the orders of the prison commander Freddy Ben Shitrit due to a manpower shortage. Channel 13 news cited budgetary considerations.
In another nearby tower, the guard was asleep during the incident. Channel 13 news reported Thursday that the guard told her commanders that she heard noises, got up but couldn’t see anything, and went back to sleep.
Agencies contributed to this report