Following the receipt of new intel, officials have redirected the focus of the manhunt for two of the six Palestinian high-security prisoners who escaped from Israeli prison this week and remain at large. The other four were apprehended by Israeli security forces over the weekend.
As of Saturday evening, the search is also underway in Yokneam and the Jezreel Valley area, south of Afula. It is also taking place in the north-west edge of the West Bank and around Jenin, where shots were fired toward IDF personnel, according to Palestinian reports.
Defense officials believe that one crossed into the West Bank, while the other is still in Israeli territory, with the Israeli military participating in search efforts along the separation barrier. IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi arrived at the police station in Gan Ner, near Gilboa, on Saturday evening to monitor the progress of the search.
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The four fugitives who were captured over the weekend were apprehended in two separate arrests: two were caught in Umm al-Ghanam on Saturday after the other two were caught in Nazareth late Friday night. Since they were captured, the four have been in Shin Bet custody and were at the Nazareth Magistrate's Court on Saturday evening for a closed-door remand hearing.
Former Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade leader Zakaria Zubeidi and Mohammed Aradeh were captured by police officers and Shin Bet agents in the village of Umm al-Ghanam in north Israel on Saturday.
Their arrest came just hours after security forces apprehended two of the fugitives, Islamic Jihad members Mahmoud Aradeh and Yakub Kadari, in Nazareth late Friday night after civilians spotted two suspicious figures and reported them to the police. The two were taken for questioning by the Shin Bet security services. They did not resist arrest.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett praised security forces for having successfully captured four of the fugitives over the weekend, describing the operation as "determined and consistent," and crediting "smooth and quiet cooperation among all those involved." He added that "rapid information sharing and precise division of tasks among security forces, which will allow for maximum coverage of the area, must continue."
Police and security forces also consider the capture of the four escaped prisoners to be a significant achievement. They believe that capturing the four inmates will lead to new intelligence on the two inmates who remain at large, and will deal a blow to Palestinian morale, which has been high in the wake of the prison break.
Following the first wave of arrests Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said on Friday night that "We will celebrate at the end, after we’ve captured the sixth. We have to remain vigilant, these people are in a state of desperation and are capable of doing extreme things. "
Hamas Spokesman Fazi Barhoum said in response that "The arrest of the heroic prisoners is another round in the open and ongoing battle with the occupation. What happened strengthens the Palestinian people to continue the struggle against the occupation and support of prisoners."
According to a defense official, the arrest of Zubeidi and Aradeh in umm al-Ghanam came after a local resident who rode by on an all-terrain vehicle said he spotted two suspicious figures in the area and reported the incident at about 7 P.M. Friday night. Zubeidi asked the resident for food, he added.
Following the report, IDF soldiers arrived at the scene, and at about 1 A.M. found the fugitives' footprints and began to follow them. They called in the police counter-terror unit, and at around 4:30 A.M. found Aradeh in the wagon of a nearby truck. Shortly after, they found Zubeidi in a nearby olive grove. According to a police source, Zubeidi resisted arrest, but was quickly restrained.
A defense official told Haaretz that Zubeidi and Aradeh looked exhausted and dusty when they were apprehended, and that they had been hiding outdoors for a long period of time. He estimated that as in the case of the fugitives arrested Friday, the two had not received any help once they escaped and did not plan their route, counter to preliminary assessments.
Umm al-Ghanam residents said that security forces had been searching the village since the middle of the night, and that locals remained in their homes during that time. One resident, identified as Mohammed, said: "I don't believe that the escapees were helped, and I also don't believe that people tried to shelter them. Our village is very quiet."
The jailbreak from Gilboa Prison occurred early Monday morning when the six escaped through a tunnel they dug from within their cell, apparently over the last six months. All the escaped convicts – five members of Islamic Jihad and one Fatah member – are convicted or charged with planning or carrying out terror attacks against Israelis, including shootings, bombings and kidnappings.
Even though the prison break was well planned, defense officials said, the inmates split into groups of two afterwards, and improvised their next steps in an attempt to evade the security forces. Of the last two, one is believed to be hiding in the Galilee region of northern Israel, while the other is believed to have successfully crossed into the West Bank.
Zubeidi is the most infamous of the six. A former commander of Fatah's Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, he was behind the 2002 attack at a Likud party branch in Beit She’an in which six people were killed, among other attacks. He has long been considered one of the most wanted men in the West Bank. He was arrested in 2019 and charged with carrying out two shootings in Beit El in 2018 and 2019, as well as a number of terror attacks that were planned during the Second Intifada. His trial is ongoing.
The second inmate who was captured, Mohammed Aradeh, was serving three life sentences plus 20 years for his activities as part of the Islamic Jihad's military wing, of which he is considered a senior member. He was arrested in 2002 and convicted of membership in a terrorist organization, planning and carrying out terror attacks against Israelis and providing safe haven for terrorists.
Aradeh's cousin, Mahmoud, is believed to be the one who planned the escape from Gilboa Prison. He was captured several hours earlier in Nazareth.
Shortly after Friday's arrests, Gaza militants launched a rocket into Israel. The missile was intercepted. Following the launch Israeli fighter jets attacked several Hamas targets in the strip. No injuries were reported. In the West Bank, Palestinians who gathered to rally in support of the escaped prisoners clashed with Israeli forces, and in some areas shot at and hurled improvised explosives at the soldiers.