'I'll Be Freed in Seven Years in Hamas Deal,' Palestinian Mastermind Behind Jailbreak Says

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Mahmoud Aardeh in the Nazareth District Court, in Israel, last month.
Mahmoud Aardeh in the Nazareth District Court, in Israel, last month.Credit: Rami Shllush

10 P.M., Nazareth Police. An hour earlier Mahmoud Aardeh, dubbed the “architect” of the Gilboa Prison escape, was captured. “I’m responsible,” Aardeh told Shin Bet interrogators, describing in detail how he and his cellmates escaped. “We had two goals – the first was to see our families and live in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority protective custody,” Aardeh told them. “The second was to prove to all Israeli security organizations and the Israeli government that they’re incompetent. We managed to dig a tunnel under the most heavily secured prison in Israel, because they worsened our conditions as prisoners.”

The operation’s codename was “The Road to al-Quds,” and the security prisoner even planned to write these words on the cell wall prior to escaping, but ran out of time.

The interrogators’ first asked Aardeh why he included Zachariah Zubeidi in the escape. “The plan was to reach the PA and through him receive a parole from Israel.” In a later interrogation he said: “I’ve been planning the escape from the moment I was transferred to Gilboa Prison. I looked at the floor and realized I could escape.”

Hole in the ground from which six Palestinian prisoners escaped, outside Gilboa Prison, Israel, last month.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“We began digging on December 14th, 2020,” Aardeh is quoted as saying in a memorandum by a Shin Bet questioner. "I began to dig with a piece of iron I took from a locker that had been in the cell a few years ago. I dug the entrance to the tunnel for 20 days. Underneath that there was another iron plate – I scratched around it till I removed it.” At this point he reached a 15 cm layer of concrete, but him and his partners kept digging.

The prisoner who did most of the digging, while the others covered for him, was Munadel Anfiat. The escapees made progress by lying flat as they dug, using a hammer and chisel. The problem wasn’t the digging, but rather the amounts of dirt accumulated as a result. "We built a designated chamber for the dirt,” Aardeh told his interrogators. “We improvised sand bags from clothes. Every time we made progress we’d hit a concrete column and would make a detour." Eventually, the prisoners built a 30-meter-long tunnel. "We dug until we saw the sun without bars. Then we knew we made it.”

Security forces near the tunnel exit outside Gilboa Prison, last month. Credit: Gil Eliahu

A month and a half prior to the prison break, the prisoners decided to add Zubeidi to the escape plan. “It was clear to me and (Iham) Kamamji that Israel would come after us, so we had to create some protection. The best solution was protective custody in the Palestinian Authority and Zubeidi has very powerful connections.” Aardeh said Zubeidi agreed to help them. “There was no problem in transferring Zubeidi to our cell. Kamamji is the Islamic Jihad spokesman in the cellblock and anything he asked for – he’d receive.”

Zubeidi confirmed in his own interrogation by the Shin Bet that the prisoners wanted him to help them with the Palestinian Authority. "I’m appreciated because of my family catastrophes and also as someone who doesn’t collaborate with Prison Service intelligence,” said Zubeidi. “Nobody would turn down an offer to escape from prison if they have that chance. We took into account the possibility that we may die.”

According to Zubeidi, he didn’t tell the prisoner serving as the cellblock’s spokesman that he planned to escape from prison “because he’s one of 'Biton’s people' (a moniker for the Prison Service intel unit, coined after a former officer) and might have informed the Prison Service." Zubeidi also told his interrogators that he passed almost freely between cellblocks. For example, a month prior to the escape he moved to a cellblock occupied by Hamas prisoners in order to talk to his family by phone.

In Zubeidi’s first interrogation, near Umm al-Ghanem village, where he was apprehended a week after the escape, he said: “there’s a Hebrew saying – Freedom has no price. A man sitting in prison wants only to reach his family, like a bird."

Zubedi explained that “all I did was in order to show the State of Israel my hatred for the situation my children and I are in. All I want is to live like Jews live in Israel."

“We have nothing to lose”

Aardeh claimed that during the escape he refused to receive outside help, something the Shin Bet finds hard to believe – but hasn’t proved otherwise. “What motivated us to escape was worsening prisoners’ conditions” he said. “We have nothing to lose.”

Though they planned to escape a few days later, the prisoners instead broke out a few hours before Rosh Hashanah, after a guard noticed dirt in the sewer during an inspection. “I feared that it would lead them to discover the tunnel,” Aardeh said.

The Prison Service’s failure to identify the tunnel, through intelligence or physical evidence, is clear in Aardeh’s testimony. Alongside the dirt blocking the sewer, another guard noticed the floor tile in their cell was broken. Neither matter raised suspicion at the Prison Service. The prisoners also noticed that guards had stopped manning the watchtower closest to them. “If the tower had been manned we would have dug further, so as not to be discovered,” Aardeh said.

Israeli security forces in the Arab village of Na'ura during a search for six escapes prisoners, last month.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Having filled a bag with clothes, water, snacks and radios, they entered the tunnel. First in was Anfiat followed by his cousin Muhammad Aardeh, Zubeidi, Yaaqub Qadri, Kamamji, and last out was Aardeh himself, the mastermind. “I crawled for ten minutes in complete darkness. I began to see light and realized I had reached the end of the tunnel. At the exit I saw Anfiat calling me and reaching to give me a hand out of the tunnel.”

Though they planned to reach Tamra, the six prisoners got lost, and ended up at a mosque in Naoura at five in the morning. After praying, they asked people on the street help take them to Umm al-Fahm, but, according to Aardeh, nobody would. Later, Aardeh managed to obtain a cellphone and called his brother, who he hoped would drive them to Jenin. “He asked if I’m calling from prison and I said yes,” Aardeh told his interrogators. “I told him to come to Naoura. He said he couldn’t because he was sleeping. I understood that he didn’t want to come.”

At this point the prisoners decided to split into pairs, without telling one another where they were going: should they be caught, they couldn’t give each other up. Aardeh said they kept walking towards Nazareth, searching for food in the garbage. Three days after escaping, Aardeh and Qadri had no idea where they were. “We realized we were very far from the West Bank, so we thought we’d work for a bit in Israel, and then move there.” On the fourth day of the escape, they were caught.

The escape took place after an aborted attempt by Aardeh in 2014. “I won’t try to escape again,” he promised Shin Bet interrogators. One interrogator asked Aardeh “Where will you be in seven years?” He said: “I’ll be free after a deal with Hamas. I’m sure I’ll be included in the deal and get to be free.”

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