Israel Captures 2 of 6 Palestinian Fugitives Who Escaped Prison

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

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JERUSALEM — The Israeli police captured Friday night two of the six Palestinian fugitives who had escaped a maximum-security prison this week, in a case seen as a rare humiliation of the country’s security establishment.

The two fugitives, Mahmoud al-Arida and Yaqoub Qadri, were captured in Nazareth, in northern Israel, an Israeli security official said, five days after they had escaped through a hole in the floor of the shower cubicle in their cell and tunneled out of the prison.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the pair were both members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed Islamist militant group, and were serving life sentences for involvement in attacks on Israeli civilians.

Video published by the Israeli news media showed the two men 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.

Their escape had been seen as an alarming embarrassment by Israelis, who questioned how such high-profile prisoners had been able to escape a high-security prison without being detected for more than two hours.

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

The four other fugitives remained at large late Friday, including the best known of them — Zakaria Zubeidi, a prominent militant leader during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, during the 2000s.

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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 commander of the Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group loosely affiliated with Fatah, the secular group that dominates Palestinian institutions in the occupied West Bank.

After the intifada, Mr. Zubeidi renounced violence, turning to political theater and helping 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 at about 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 at about 3:30 a.m., after civilians in the area reported suspicious figures moving around near the prison, prompting a prison roll call.

Attempting 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 arrests, two 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 rockets were linked to the arrests.

In a separate episode earlier in the day, a Palestinian doctor, Hazem al-Julani, attempted 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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