Israel recaptures last two prison-break fugitives

Jerusalem (AFP) –


All six Palestinian fugitives who escaped a high-security Israeli jail through a tunnel dug under a sink are back in custody, after the Israeli army said Sunday it had recaptured the last two.

The inmates, who were being held for attacks against the Jewish state, became heroes among many Palestinians when reports emerged they had burrowed out using tools as basic as a spoon.

The full weight of Israel's security arsenal was deployed to catch them, including aerial drones, checkpoints on roads and an army mission to Jenin where many of the men grew up.

The massive manhunt lasted almost a fortnight, with four of the six recaptured last week.

In a tweet on Sunday, the Israel Defence Forces said the last two had surrendered "after being surrounded by security forces that acted precisely based on accurate intelligence".

The men, 35-year-old Ayham Kamamji and 26-year-old Munadel Infeiat, are both members of Islamic Jihad, an armed Palestinian Islamist movement.

They were arrested in a joint operation with counterterrorism forces in Jenin, in the West Bank, the army said in a statement to the press, and were "currently being interrogated".

Two other men who had helped the fugitives were also detained, it added.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett congratulated the security forces on Twitter, saying the operation was "impressive, sophisticated and speedy".

- 'Impressive' -

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

Originally from Kafr Dan, near Jenin, Kamamji was arrested in 2006 and jailed for life for the kidnap and murder of a young Israeli settler, Eliahu Asheri.

The inmates, who were being held for attacks against the Jewish state, became heroes among some Palestinians
The inmates, who were being held for attacks against the Jewish state, became heroes among some Palestinians AHMAD GHARABLI AFP

Islamic Jihad said Kamamji suffered abdominal and intestinal illness in jail and was subject to "medical negligence" by prison authorities.

Infeiat, arrested last year, had been jailed multiple times previously for his role in the armed group, and was awaiting sentencing at the time of the escape.

The other four men recaptured last week included Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, the alleged mastermind of the escape, and Zakaria Zubeidi, who headed the armed wing of the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.

Zubeidi was found hiding in a lorry park just outside Nazareth in northern Israel along with one of the other men, Mohammad Ardah, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2002 for his role in Islamic Jihad's armed wing.

- 'Spoon of freedom' -

Questions remain over how the embarrassing incident could have happened, and a formal inquiry has been announced.

A lawyer for Yaqub Qadri, the sixth escapee, told Palestinian television that the inmates had not planned to escape when they did on September 6.

She said they rushed ahead with it on that day because they feared guards had become suspicious and noticed changes in their cell.

The break-out had been planned for months, Ardah's lawyer told AFP.

"Mahmud told me he started digging (the tunnel) in December," he said.

Ardah told him he used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his jail cell.

Spoons have since become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, with protesters both inside and outside the Palestinian territories carrying them at demonstrations.

It has also inspired artwork -- for example in Kuwait, where artist Maitham Abdal has sculpted a giant hand firmly clasping a spoon -- the "spoon of freedom", as he calls it.