Israel Captures 4 of 6 Palestinian Fugitives Who Escaped Prison

The escape on Monday was seen as a rare humiliation of Israel’s security establishment, and was celebrated by Palestinians. The other two inmates were still at large on Saturday.

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli police said on Saturday that they had captured four of the six Palestinian fugitives who escaped a maximum-security prison this week, in a case seen as a rare humiliation of the country’s security establishment.

Two of the prisoners, Mahmoud al-Arida and Yaqoub Qadri, were captured Friday night on the southern edge of Nazareth, in northern Israel, five days after they had escaped through a hole in the floor of the shower cubicle in their cell and tunneled out of a prison about 15 miles southeast of the city. A second pair, Zakaria Zubeidi and Mohammad al-Arida, Mahmoud’s brother, were seized on Saturday morning in a truck parking lot in Umm el-Ghanem, a village east of Nazareth.

Mr. Zubeidi was a prominent militant leader during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the 2000s, and was a former commander of the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group loosely affiliated with Fatah, the secular group that dominates Palestinian politics in the occupied West Bank. The other three recaptured inmates are members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed Islamist militant group, and have been serving life sentences for involvement in attacks on Israeli civilians, the police said.

Video published by the Israeli news media showed the two prisoners who were captured Friday handcuffed inside police cars, wearing civilian clothes. Israeli news outlets reported that the pair had been arrested after a tip by Nazareth residents, who said they had asked for food. More video released by the police on Saturday morning showed two blindfolded men, said to be Mr. Zubeidi and Mohammad al-Arida, being led by officers to police cars.

The escape had been seen as an alarming embarrassment by Israelis, who questioned how such high-profile inmates had been able to break out of a high-security prison, with their absence going undetected for about two hours.

To many Palestinians, their flight was a fleeting cause for celebration — a symbolic victory over an Israeli prison apparatus that is seen as synonymous with the occupation of the West Bank.

The two other fugitives who were still at large on Saturday morning are both members of Islamic Jihad, the authorities said. One, Eham Kamamji, was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and killing an Israeli teenager, Eliyahu Asheri, while the other, Munadil Nafayat, had been imprisoned without charge since 2019.

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An Israeli checkpoint near Afula, as officials searched for the escaped Palestinian prisoners on Friday. Credit…Atef Safadi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Zubeidi was a well-known figure in Israel, having received amnesty in 2007 and later renounced violence.

After the intifada, Mr. Zubeidi helped to run the Freedom Theater in his hometown, Jenin, in the northern West Bank. But he was arrested again in 2019, accused of helping to orchestrate attacks on Israeli settlers.

The six cellmates escaped from Gilboa prison around 1:30 a.m. Monday, after removing part of the shower cubicle floor and lowering themselves into a cavity that runs beneath the prison. They then crawled nearly 32 yards underneath two walls, two barbed-wire fences and a pack of sniffer dogs, evading the detection of 40 prison guards.

The fugitives emerged through a hole in the ground, just a few feet beyond the prison’s eastern wall, before leaving on foot through the fields nearby. Their absence was confirmed around 3:30 a.m., after civilians in the area reported suspicious figures moving around near the prison, prompting a prison roll call.

Trying to prevent a second jailbreak, Israeli officials moved 80 other prisoners from Gilboa to other jails, a move that set off riots in some of those jails.

The escape also prompted several protests across the West Bank, as Palestinians expressed solidarity with those on the run. About 5,000 Palestinians are incarcerated in Israeli jails, mostly on terrorism charges. Many Palestinians see them as heroes of the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty.

After the first two arrests on Friday night, rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip, where Islamic Jihad has a stronghold. No injuries were reported, and it was not immediately clear if the launches were linked to the arrests.

In a separate episode earlier in the day, a Palestinian doctor, Hazem al-Julani, tried to stab an Israeli police officer in the Old City of Jerusalem, prompting officers to shoot and kill him. He was the latest of at least 60 Palestinians killed since the start of the year, mostly by Israeli security officers, according to a tally compiled by the rights group B’Tselem.

Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting.

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