Terror charges and life sentences: The 6 Palestinians who escaped Gilboa Prison

Senior Fatah commander Zakaria Zubeidi among those who fled, along with confessed killer of 18-year-old Eliyahu Asheri; 4 were imprisoned for life, 2 being held in detention

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)
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)

Six Palestinian security prisoners fled Gilboa prison through an improvised 20-meter tunnel on Monday morning, in what one Israeli prison official reportedly called “a catastrophe never before seen by Israel’s prison services.”

The six Palestinians were five Islamic Jihad members and a former senior commander in Fatah’s armed wing, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

All hailed from areas around the West Bank city of Jenin. Several were convicted of capital crimes and were serving life sentences.

‘The Dragon and the Hunter’

The most infamous fugitive is undoubtedly former Fatah commander Zakaria Zubeidi, who oversaw terror attacks against Israelis during the Second Intifada from his stronghold in Jenin. Zubeidi was responsible for numerous acts of terrorism, including a suicide bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv that killed an Israeli woman.

Zubeidi has claimed his turn to terror came following the deaths of his mother and brother, who he says were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during street battles in Jenin during the early days of the Intifada. The operation was a response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel; many of the bombers had emerged from Jenin.

Zubeidi was also known for his close ties with some on the radical anti-Zionist Israeli left, who saw him as a potential partner. His relationship with anti-Zionist activist Tali Fahima — who later converted to Islam — was notorious; Fahima went to his Jenin home to act as a human shield to prevent the Israeli army from targeting him.

Terrorist leader Zakaria Zubeidi arrives for a court hearing at the Ofer military court, May 28, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2007, the Shin Bet security service and the Palestinian Authority reached an amnesty deal for thousands of Palestinians who had fought against Israel during the wave of violence. Zubeidi was one of them, and founded a so-called “Freedom Theater” in Jenin with a director of both Jewish and Arab Israeli heritage, Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Over a decade later, Israeli forces apprehended Zubeidi, charging that he had resumed his terror activities. The Shin Bet security service later said Zubeidi had confessed to two shooting attacks on buses outside the Beit El settlement in the central West Bank in November 2018 and January 2019 that wounded three people.

When Zubeidi arrived in court in March 2019, his charge sheet was long: two counts of intentionally causing death — the military legal system’s equivalent of murder — as well as multiple counts of attempting to intentionally cause death, membership in a terrorist group, weapons sales, firing guns at people and preparing explosives.

Some of the offenses dated back to the Second Intifada, before the amnesty agreement. But the Shin Bet said that Zubeidi’s alleged participation in renewed shooting attacks nullified the amnesty agreement, opening him up to prosecution for his terrorist activities during the early 2000s as well.

Zubeidi’s trial is ongoing and he has yet to be formally acquitted, convicted, or sentenced.

In 2018 — before his arrest by Israel — Zubeidi completed a master’s degree at Birzeit University. His dissertation, “The Dragon and the Hunter,” chronicled “pursuit in Palestinian experience.”

“The dragon outwitted the hunter,” rejoiced Fatah official Mounir al-Jaghoub on his Twitter page after Monday’s escape.

‘Not the first nor the last’

The other fugitive Palestinians are members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, all from the Jenin area.

Eham Kamamji, 35, from Kufr Dan, attacked and murdered 18-year-old Israeli Eliyahu Asheri, from the West Bank settlement of Itamar, in 2006. Kamamji, along with two accomplices, kidnapped and shot Asheri in the head at point-blank range.

Kamamji reportedly confessed to the crimes in court, expressing his pride in the murder.

“The teen I murdered was not a boy. He studied in an Israeli Air Force military college. I will not be the first nor the last, so long as the occupation continues,” The Jerusalem Post reported from his 2007 sentencing hearing.

The Al-Arida brothers — Mahmoud, 46, and Mohammad, 39 — were arrested in 1996 and 2002 for terror offenses. Both brothers, from Arraba near Jenin, are currently serving life sentences and are avowed members of Islamic Jihad.

Yaqoub Qadiri, 49, was arrested for planning terror attacks against Israelis, as well as for his membership in Islamic Jihad. Under Israeli military law, membership in a terror group on its own is a criminal offense that is punishable by years in prison.

The sixth and final detainee, Islamic Jihad member Munadil Nafayat, 26, is from the West Bank town of Yaabad, near Jenin. Nafayat, unlike his fellow fugitives, had not been charged with a crime. Rather, he was held under Israel’s practice of administrative detention, which allows it to imprison suspects without filing charges for security purposes.

Administrative detention is legal under international law, which recognizes its necessity in extreme situations. Nonetheless, human rights groups contend that Israel abuses it; the practice is mostly used against Palestinians suspected of terrorism.

Nafayat’s current stint in Israeli jail began in 2019. But he had been held in administrative detention before, including a four-month stint in 2015, according to Palestinian media reports.

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