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Israel recaptures four of six Palestinian jail breakers

Israel has recaptured four of the six Palestinian militants who escaped from a high-security prison earlier this week in one of the most spectacular breakouts in the country’s history, police said Saturday.

A picture released by the Israeli police on September 11, 2021, shows Zakaria Zubeidi (L) and Mohammad Ardah blindfolded after their recapture
A picture released by the Israeli police on September 11, 2021, shows Zakaria Zubeidi (L) and Mohammad Ardah blindfolded after their recapture

Since Monday’s breakout, the army has poured troops into the occupied West Bank for a massive manhunt.

But the two latest fugitives to be recaptured, who include a prominent former militant leader, were found hiding in a lorry park just outside Nazareth in northern Israel, police said.

Zakaria Zubeidi, 45, is a former militant leader of the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the West Bank town of Jenin.

Mohammad Ardah, 39, was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for his role in Islamic Jihad’s armed wing.

“Two more prisoners who escaped were captured a short time ago… while they were hiding in a parking lot for trucks,” the police said.

“The hunt for the other two fugitives continues.”

On Friday evening, police recaptured Yaqoub Qadri, 48, and Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, 45, both members of Islamic Jihad. Ardah was the alleged mastermind of the escape.

“Police located (the two fugitives) and chased them in a helicopter,” the police statement said.

“They offered no resistance when they were arrested in the south of Nazareth.”

– Huge manhunt –

Israeli media said police were alerted by residents who reported seeing two men searching litter bins for food.

Shortly after their capture was announced Friday, the army said that a rocket had been fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, but was intercepted by air defences.

Israeli police and troops had conducted a huge search operation for the six prisoners since they broke out of the high-security Gilboa prison through a tunnel dug beneath a sink in a cell.

The army closed all the checkpoints connecting Israel and annexed east Jerusalem with the West Bank in a bid to prevent them escaping into Palestinian population centres.

Nazareth, where the four were found, has a large Arab population.

The six fugitives were all members of Palestinian militant groups who had been convicted by Israeli courts of plotting or carrying out attacks against Israelis.

Mahmud Ardah, from Arraba near Jenin, was imprisoned in 1996 for attacks on Israel claimed by Islamic Jihad and was among four to receive a life sentence.

He was held in solitary confinement in 2014 after an escape tunnel was found at Israel’s Shata prison, according to his Islamic Jihad biography.

On Thursday, Israel announced a formal inquiry into lapses that allowed the six to escape.

An Israeli injunction is in effect against publishing details of the jailbreak investigation, even as local media report on the scramble to recover from the embarrassing lapse.

– ‘Heroic’ escape –

Israel’s public security ministry tweeted its congratulations Saturday to the security forces but stressed that their mission was “not finished”.

It thanked “the Arab citizens of Israel who aided in the capture of the terrorists”, after the manhunt focused on the north where many Arab Israelis live, Palestinians who stayed after the creation of Israel in 1948.

A statement from Islamic Jihad said the arrests would not erase the fact of the “heroic” escape, and said any attempt by the Israeli authorities to “take revenge” on the prisoners would be interpreted as a “declaration of war”.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, hailed the “heroes” of the “tunnel of freedom”, and Abbas’s Fatah argued that the arrests “would only increase the resolve” of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation.

When news of the escape first broke on Monday, many people in the Gaza Strip and in Jenin took to the streets to celebrate.

Demonstrations were also held in several West Bank towns and cities, with youths in Nablus setting tyres alight during confrontations with Israeli security forces.

With tensions running high, Israeli police on Friday shot and fatally wounded a Palestinian assailant during an attempted stabbing in the Old City of annexed east Jerusalem.

Palestinian armed groups had called for a “Day of Rage” in support of the prisoners as the manhunt continued. AFP