Israel Charges Palestinian Jailbreakers With Escaping, No Security Offenses

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The Palestinian prisoners appear in court via video chat, on Sunday.
The Palestinian prisoners appear in court via video chat, on Sunday.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The state filed charges against the six Palestinian security prisoners who had escaped from Gilboa Prison last month.

The six were charged with escaping by the Nazareth Magistrate's Court; no security-related charges were filed against them since their detention. The maximum penalty for fleeing prison is an additional seven years in jail. Five other inmates were charged with aiding them in the escape, which also carries a maximum sentence of seven years.

Israeli police had initially suspected that the fugitives planned to carry out a serious terror attack while on the run, a crime that carries a sentence of up to 15 years.

The six, all residents of the West Bank town of Jenin, broke out of prison on September 6 through a tunnel that they dug over a period of about nine months, prompting a two-week manhunt.

One of the escapees was Zakaria Zubeidi, a Fatah party activist and former commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin. The other five were members of the Islamic Jihad militant group.

Two of the prisoners, Mahmoud Aradeh and Yakub Kadari, were captured on September 10 in the Israeli Arab town of Nazareth. Two others, Zubeidi and Mohammed Aradeh, were apprehended the following day near the Israeli Arab village of Umm al-Ghanem.

The remaining two, Iham Kamamji and Monadal Infiat, were captured in Jenin on September 19.

Mahmoud and Mohammed Aradeh, who are cousins, and Kadari and Kamamji were already serving life sentences. Zubeidi and Infiat have other criminal proceedings pending against them on charges that led to their incarceration at Gilboa, but they had not yet been convicted of them. Several of the escapees were nearing the end of their sentences. 

The investigation into the escape found that the prisoners began working on the tunnel in December, after they removed a metal cover on the restroom floor of their cell and discovered that the space underneath was hollow. The effort to dig the tunnel was allegedly led by Infiat and Mahmoud Aradeh, with the help of other prisoners who did not escape. 

Prisoners who knew about the escape plan swore on the Quran that it would remain secret; anyone who divulged information would be treated as an enemy, the indictment said. 

Iham Kamamji at the hearing to extend his detention, last month.Credit: Amir Levy

They used metal railings, dishes and other utensils that they sharpened and aluminum trays. The earth that they removed was divided among sewer openings around the prison as well as in trash cans, among other places.

The prisoners said during their questioning that they moved up the date of their planned escape over concern that one of the guards at Gilboa prison had discovered their plan. According to a source with knowledge of the investigation, the breakout was initially planned for Yom Kippur, which this year fell on September 16.

It was then moved up to September 7, and finally moved up an additional day. Two of the escapees said they had been due to receive help from people beyond the prison walls, but that did not occur because the escape was pushed up.

A government committee that is being convened to investigate the incident will be headed by retired District Court Judge Menachem Finkelstein. The panel will have a long list of failures to examine, including why the six, all natives of the Jenin area, had been jailed in the same cell.

Three of the prisoners had been deemed a high escape risk, and the prison did not have a patrol vehicle outside the facility to monitor attempted escapes. The committee will also probe why the Prison Service's intelligence branch did not find out the jailbreak plans, why the system for jamming cellphone reception was not fully operational, and why the prison's building plans were available on the internet.

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