Palestinian security prisoners who managed to escape an Israeli jail 12 days ago before being captured reportedly told their lawyers Friday they were amazed at how easy it was to flee.
Six Palestinian prisoners, five of whom have been accused of deadly attacks against Israelis, tunneled out of a maximum-security prison in northern Israel on September 6, in the first mass prison break in decades. Four were recaptured several days later; the other two are still at large.
The four met with their lawyers for the first time this week, providing them first-hand details of the escape. The escapees told their attorneys that their plan, as widely reported, had been to reach the northern West Bank city of Jenin, a stronghold for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. However, there was no intention to carry out an attack, they said, according to Channel 13.
Five of the six were PIJ-affiliated, and they agreed to allow Zakaria Zubeidi, a longtime commander in the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, to join them when he found out about their plan a month beforehand. He confirmed to his lawyer Avigdor Feldman that he had requested a transfer to the cell with the five PIJ prisoners the day before the escape, adding that such requests were not abnormal at Gilboa Prison.
The PIJ prisoners hoped that his familiarity with the landscape would enable the group to more swiftly reach Jenin.
But the group, or at least those who were caught, had a hard time navigating upon making it out, Channel 12 reported, citing the prisoners’ testimony to their lawyers.
A lawyer for Mohammed al-Arida said his client told him that he had been the one to plan the escape and started the digging underneath their cell that allowed it to unfold. Al-Arida also said that the group managed to reach a mosque in the nearby northern town of Na’ura where they showered and left ten minutes later.
Separately Friday, the Kan public broadcaster published photos of the makeshift tools used by the prisoners to dig their way out of the Gilboa jail.
They included a piece of metal with the top of a hanger attached to it as well as a bedpost and some old building materials that had been left underneath the floor of their cell from the time the jail was being built decades ago.
There had been reports that the group used a metal spoon to dig their way out but those were never confirmed and no spoons have been uncovered at the scene.
According to Channel 13, one of the captured fugitives told his lawyer that the plot was almost uncovered days in advance when a guard arrived at their cell to deliver a letter to one of the prisoners who was busy digging the escape tunnel at the time. His cellmates told the guard that he was sleeping and the guard did not persist further. No guard or cellmate assisted the fugitives in their escape, the captured prisoners told their lawyers, according to Channel 12.
On Wednesday, lawyers for Zubeidi and al-Arida told reporters that their clients had been badly beaten during their arrests, with the former suffering a broken jaw and two broken ribs while in handcuffs.
Kan 11 releases exclusive images of the tools the Palestinian security prisoners used to dig out of Gilboa Prison. pic.twitter.com/MjjECh49j3
— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) September 17, 2021
Police said Zubeidi resisted arrest, and had to be subdued by force, and also that he was injured in the course of the jailbreak.
The escape from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel exposed a series of security blunders and mishaps and was hailed by Palestinians as a show of defiance against Israel.
A veteran Israeli human rights lawyer representing Zubeidi — a commander in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade terror group who was in prison while on trial for two dozen crimes including attempted murder — said that the security personnel who arrested him handcuffed him and then asked his name.
“He said Zakaria, and then he was beaten very badly,” Avigdor Feldman told The Associated Press. Israel police denied the allegation.
Feldman said that Zubeidi was taken to a hospital where he was given painkillers for the fractures in his jaw and two ribs. Feldman said that there were no further abuses during days of interrogation.
Al-Arida’s layer, who was captured along with Zubeidi, said that his client was beaten during his arrest before being taken to a nearby police station, where he was stripped naked and subjected to hours of interrogation. The lawyer, Khaled Mahajneh, told the local Al-Jarmaq news outlet that his client has a visible head wound and has been continuously interrogated since then with little sleep.
“He doesn’t even know what day it is,” Mahajneh said.
Israeli police declined to comment. The Shin Bet internal security service, which is currently holding the recaptured prisoners, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawyers for the escapees described a far less sophisticated plot than initially suspected, saying that their clients had no plan for what to do once they tunneled out of the prison.
They said that the escapees did not seek help from local Arab residents to avoid getting them into trouble with authorities and were not given any outside assistance. Instead, they kept to rural areas and tried to live off the land, eating wild fruit and waiting for things to settle down.
Israeli officials have said that the escapees sought help from local Arab residents, including with transportation to the West Bank, but were rebuffed.
The lawyer for Mahmoud al-Arida, another recaptured prisoner, said that his client was the architect of the escape and that work on the tunnel began last December.
The six prisoners went to a mosque in a nearby village after the escape and then split into three groups, the lawyer, Raslan Mahajneh, told Palestine TV. He said that they tried to enter the West Bank but were unable to because of the heavy Israeli security presence along the frontier.
He said that his client was being interrogated for up to eight hours a day but was not tortured or deprived of sleep.
Mohammed al-Arida and Zubeidi grew exhausted after they were unable to find water, leading to their arrest, Arida’s lawyer said. The two were found hiding in a truck parking lot in the Arab town of Umm al-Ghanam. The other two were arrested hours earlier in the nearby Arab city of Nazareth.