Chase for six Gilboa Prison escapees draws to a close, amid reports of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in Jenin
Israeli security forces apprehended the last two of the six Palestinian high-security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison about two weeks ago overnight Saturday in the northern West Bank city of Jenin.
The other four escapees were apprehended last week. All six hail from the Jenin area. During and after the arrests, Palestinians clashsed with Israeli forces.
According to the Israel Police, Kamamji and Infiat hid together in a house in Jenin over the past several days. After the Shin Bet security service received intelligence on their location a few hours earlier, Israeli special police forces and soldiers surrounded the building where the two were said to be hiding. Kamamji and Infiat emerged from the building unarmed and surrendered without resisting arrest, the Israeli military said in a statement. They have since been taken in for questioning. Two Palestinians suspected of aiding and abetting the fugitives’ escape were arrested along with them.
The news of Iham Kamamji and Monadel Infiat’s capture came amid clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces in the city. The Israeli military said that riots broke out throughout the area as forces left the city, in which rocks and improvised explosives were hurled and Palestinians fired at troops. The Israeli military was concerned that gunmen would emerge from Jenin’s refugee camp when forces arrived; troops were sent to the area in order to prevent upheaval.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said that as time went on, the police knew that the two were in Jenin, and had been preparing for a complex operation for several days. He noted that after the intelligence they were waiting on came in overnight Saturday, commanders gave the green light, and forces moved in.
Police believe that the two did not split up after their escape, and crossed into the West Bank together on Friday. This contradicts previous assessments that Infiat was believed to be in the Jenin area for a week, via a breach in the separation barrier used by Palestinians who enter Israel illegally, and that Kamamji entered the city over the past two days.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised security forces for the operation, which he called “impressive, sophisticated and speedy.”
“I want to thank the security forces who worked night and day, including on Shabbat and holidays, in order to bring this incident to a close,” he said. Regarding the jailbreak, he added, “What went wrong can be fixed.”
Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev said that while all the fugitives have been apprehended, he will be requesting a government commission of inquiry into the jailbreak. “I want to thank the Israel Police, IDF troops and the Shin Bet who helped complete the chase, from beginning to end,” he said. He added, “The hunt ended successfully, but the mission is not yet over; we must ensure that an event like this does not repeat itself in the future.”
He will propose the commission of inquiry to the cabinet for its approval in the coming days, he said, “in order to examine the circumstances that brought this escape to pass.”
Confusion in Jenin
A local medical source said that three Palestinians were wounded by live fire in the clashes during and after the arrest, and that they were taken to the city’s hospital in moderate and stable condition.
Immediately after news of the arrests broke, groups of Palestinians held solidarity rallies outside prisons. Hamas released a statement saying that “the capture of the two prisoners does not affect the morale and determination of the Palestinians to free the prisoners, and to turn the issue of prisoners into a strategic one that is a main priority.”
The Gaza Prisoner’s Association released an initial statement saying that the capture of the six escapees does not negate the importance of their jailbreak. Islamic Jihad in Jenin has yet to comment on the reports.
Jenin residents said that the arrests took them by surprise, even though there were signs that military activity was escalating in the area. Most of it was concentrated in the city’s refugee camp, residents said, and they did not expect the fugitives to be hiding in a neighborhood in the city’s east.
“One of the many nagging questions was, if the two already got to Jenin, why didn’t they come to the refugee camp, which just a few minutes’ drive away and is considered much safer for them,” said a family member of one of the prisoners.
Kamamji’s father Fuad told the Arabic-language Israeli radio station Al-Shams that he received an unexpected, seconds-long phone call from Iham shortly before 2 A.M. “He said that he decided to turn himself in in order to protect the building’s residents – I was completely surprised that he was in Jenin, and I thought that he already got to Gaza or Lebanon two weeks ago. But it’s his decision and I respect it.”
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli forces searched for the two prisoners in the nearby towns of Kafr Dan, Javed and Burqin.
The escape plan
Zakaria Zubeidi, the only prisoner not affiliated with Islamic Jihad to take part in the escape, had his detention extended by another 10 days on Sunday. Mahmoud Aradeh’s detention was also extended.
Zubeidi’s lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, said that the Fatah prisoner had been aware of the tunnel about a month before the jailbreak, and that he himself had joined in the plan two days earlier, and requested to change cells.
He was surprised to find that the other prisoners did not have an escape plan, and expected that they would be helped by locals. Arab residents of the north did not aid the prisoners, who found themselves eating from trees and drinking from spigots.
Zubeidi wanted to escape to Jenin, but the other prisoners said they were too tired to climb to the other side of Mount Gilboa. They wanted to wait until nightfall, and one of them said that they would have access to a car if they could get their hands on a telephone. This is why they went to a mosque in the village of Na’ura, where the people did not let them make a call. This is why they decided to split up into groups.
According to Zubeidi, the Shin Bet claim that the six were planning on carrying out a terror attack is false. Feldman said that Zubeidi was beaten by IDF soldiers during his arrest.
The apprehended inmates told their lawyers that Infiat carried out most of the digging from the Gilboa Prison cell, due to his physical size. The prisoners had outside help. Mahmoud Aradeh planned the jailbreak, and his cousin Mohammed was the first through the escape tunnel, the prisoners said. Digging began on December 14, and the prisoners broke free on September 5. They had planned to escape two days later, but feared that guards would notice the sand from digging the tunnel, and decided to bring the date forward.
Four more prisoners were found on Sunday to have helped the escapees dig the tunnel. All of them are affiliated with Islamic Jihad, and were kept in that cell last year. They admitted to helping them dig, and one said during questioning that he served as a lookout to make sure there were no guards coming to check on them. According to those prisoners, guards came to check the cell a number of times while one of them was digging, but they made excuses to cover for the absence of the missing inmate.
Last week, Haaretz reported that Israeli investigators had discovered that a prisoner who was due to join the prison break backed out at the last moment, and was apparently replaced by Kamamji.
The reluctant prisoner is said to have made the decision just hours before prison cells at the facility were locked for the night. The group plotting the escape then approached other inmates to take his place. It appears that Kamamji, who until the eve of the breakout had been living in another cell and, like a prominent member of the group, Zakaria Zubeidi, had joined the others in their cell just prior to the breakout.