RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Lawyers for two Palestinians who were captured after escaping from an Israeli prison last week said Wednesday their clients were badly beaten during their arrest, with the most well-known of the prisoners suffering a broken jaw and two broken ribs while in handcuffs.
Six Palestinian prisoners, five of whom have been accused of deadly attacks against Israelis, tunneled out of a maximum-security prison in northern Israel on Sept. 6 in the first mass prison break in decades. Four were recaptured around five days later, apparently while hiding outdoors.
The escape from Gilboa prison in northern Israel exposed a series of security mishaps and was hailed by Palestinians as a show of defiance against Israel’s half-century occupation of territories they want for a future state. Two of the prisoners are still at large.
Lawyers were able to meet with the recaptured prisoners for the first time late Tuesday and early Wednesday, providing the first opportunity to hear of the escape from the prisoners themselves, rather than Israeli officials and media reports.
A veteran Israeli human rights lawyer representing Zakaria Zubeidi, a well-known militant accused of deadly attacks during the 2000-2005 uprising against Israel, said the security personnel who arrested him handcuffed him and then asked his name.
“He said Zakaria, and then he was beaten very badly,” Avigdor Feldman told The Associated Press. He said Zubeidi was taken to a hospital where he was given painkillers for the fractures in his jaw and two ribs. Feldman said there were no further abuses during days of interrogation.
A lawyer for Mohammed Aradeh, who was captured along with Zubeidi, said his client was beaten during his arrest before being taken to a nearby police station, where he was stripped naked and subjected to hours of interrogation. The lawyer, Khaled Mahajneh, told the local Al-Jarmaq news outlet that his client has a visible head wound and has been continuously interrogated since then with little sleep.
“He doesn't even know what day it is,” Mahajneh said.
Israeli police declined to comment. The Shin Bet internal security service, which is currently holding the recaptured prisoners, did not respond to requests for comment.
Israeli security forces have been accused of torturing high-profile prisoners in the past, most recently in 2019 after a deadly bombing in the West Bank. The Shin Bet said at the time that interrogations are carried out in accordance with the law. A 1999 Supreme Court ruling forbids torture, but rights groups say it still occurs and that perpetrators are rarely held accountable.
Lawyers for the escapees described a far less sophisticated plot than initially suspected, saying their clients had no plan for what to do once they tunneled out of the prison.
They said the escapees did not seek help from local Arab residents to avoid getting them into trouble with authorities and were not given any outside assistance. Instead, they kept to rural areas and tried to live off the land, eating wild fruit and waiting for things to settle down.
“They didn’t have any intention to commit any kind of terrorist attack,” Feldman said.
The lawyer for Mahmoud Aradeh, another recaptured prisoner, said his client was the architect of the escape and that work on the tunnel began last December.
The six prisoners went to a mosque in a nearby village after the escape and then split into three groups, the lawyer, Raslan Mahajneh told Palestine TV. He said they tried to enter the occupied West Bank but were unable to because of the heavy Israeli security presence along the frontier.
He said his client was being interrogated for up to eight hours a day but was not tortured or deprived of sleep.
Aradeh and Zubeidi grew exhausted after they were unable to find water, leading to their arrest, Aradeh's lawyer said. The two were found hiding in a truck parking lot in the Arab town of Umm al-Ghanam. The other two were arrested hours earlier in the nearby Arab city of Nazareth.
Israeli media have reported that local residents tipped off police, leading to the capture of the four prisoners. But the lawyers for the Aradehs disputed that, saying security forces stumbled on them by chance. The Aradehs are cousins. It was not clear if their lawyers are also related.
Palestinians have celebrated the escape and held demonstrations in support of the prisoners. Taking part in attacks against the Israeli military or even civilians is a source of pride for many Palestinians, who view it as legitimate resistance to military occupation.
Israel considers it terrorism and typically hands down heavy sentences, even in cases where attacks are thwarted or unsuccessful. Four of the six escaped prisoners, including the Aradehs, were serving life sentences after being convicted on terrorism charges by Israeli military courts, which most Palestinians view as biased and illegitimate. All were members of the Islamic Jihad militant group except for Zubeidi, who is affiliated with the secular Fatah movement.
Feldman said Zubeidi, who is awaiting trial on terrorism charges dating back to the height of the uprising, was only invited to take part in the escape two days before it happened and did not expect it to succeed.
“He was amazed at how easy it was to escape,” he said.