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Israel Captured the Palestinian Fugitives Without Collateral Damage. This May Quell West Bank Violence

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Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud Aradeh in a video hearing in Nazareth, today.
Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud Aradeh in a video hearing in Nazareth, today. Credit: Gil Eliahu

The Palestinian jailbreak affair that rocked Israel in the past two weeks came to an end on Sunday morning after the last two fugitives were arrested in the West Bank city of Jenin. As was the case in the capture of the two previous pairs of prisoners about a week ago, the security forces operated impeccably: The fugitives were returned to prison alive and well, and no other person was harmed during the search. That is the surest way to calm the atmosphere in the territories, after there was genuine fear that the success of the escape would inspire terror attacks in the West Bank and perhaps even lead indirectly to a renewed escalation in the Gaza Strip.

The realization that the fifth prisoner was in the Jenin area had already begun to dawn last week. When the prisoner crossed into the West Bank, he was caught on one of the cameras placed along the much-breached separation barrier. At a later stage, the film was cross-referenced with additional information, which determined with certainty that he was in Jenin.

Later it turned out that the sixth prisoner was also there, and that the two were most likely hiding inside the refugee camp in the city. There was tight intelligence surveillance by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces intelligence units, in the hope that the escapees would make mistakes and reveal their precise location. The Police Special Anti-Terror Unit was placed on alert for several days, until the decision to activate it on Saturday night.

That happened when it was discovered that the two had left the camp and were in a safe house in the eastern part of the city. A police anti-terror force surrounded the house towards morning, when additional forces from the unit and the military placed roadblocks on the access road from the refugee camp to the neighborhood where the prisoners were hiding, for fear that armed Palestinians would come to help them.

The implementation of a "pressure cooker," the military order for surrounding wanted individuals during a standoff, lasted for about 20 minutes, until the two handed themselves over without a fight. Another two Palestinians suspected of helping them were arrested along with them. None of the four were armed. Apparently they were well aware that if they carried a weapon, they would have less of a chance to stay alive.

That was the end of the affair that began almost two weeks ago, with the embarrassing escape of prisoners from a supposedly top-security facility in Gilboa Prison. And it is also the best conclusion for Israel, because the six were returned to their prison cells (hopefully separately), the intelligence and operational control by the security forces in the field was proven once again, and there was no bloodshed, which could have led to additional casualties on both sides.

Even so, there has already been a series of stabbing attacks and attempted attacks in the past two weeks, at least some of which can be attributed to the tailwind caused by the escape. We can reasonably assume that the six will remain heroes in the eyes of the Palestinians, but there is no question that had they become dead heroes, martyrs, the damage that would have been done by their deeds would have been far greater.

Palestinian prisoner Mahmoud Aradeh in court after being recaptured, earlier this month.Credit: Rami Shllush

The successful captures arrived with good timing for the senior officials involved. Nadav Argaman will end his tenure as head of the Shin Bet at the beginning of next month. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai needed an operational achievement after a period during which he was criticized for various failures in his areas of responsibility. And the IDF was also seeking a win, after the negative reverberations aroused by the death of sniper Barel Hadaria Shmueli in an incident at the Gaza Strip border.

And it could perhaps be a good opportunity for a voluntary resignation by Israel Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry. It is already clear that the escape was made possible by many serious failures that were her responsibility. A commission of inquiry, as generous and forgiving as it may be, won't absolve Perry of responsibility.

This may be the time for the commissioner to take a precursory step, which will also be better received by the public. The mishap in the Israel Prison Service is not only significant – a warden who fell asleep at the watchtower, regulations that were not properly followed – but systemic. Despite the huge sums invested in the prison service over the past decade, the organization was exposed in disgrace. It would seem that someone on whose shift these things happened will no longer be able to repair defects on such a scale.

In the Palestinian arena, Gaza remains the major and urgent problem, even if the manhunt after the escapees did not supply the match that was supposed to rekindle the conflagration. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett greatly enjoyed his visit with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi last week in Sharm al-Sheikh, but the summit meeting still didn't lead to a solution of the immediate problems in the Strip, first and foremost the salary crisis. As long as Hamas' most recent demand has not been met – the final third of the Qatari assistance money, worth $10 million a month – it is doubtful whether it will be possible to declare a lull.

On Sunday, Arab media outlets cited vague Egyptian promises about a solution that will be formulated. Without it, there is a good chance of a renewed conflagration in the Strip, when what begins with incendiary balloons continues with the launching of rockets.

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