Israeli court sentences Palestinian jailbreakers to 5 years


Six Palestinians have been sentenced to an additional five years in jail for a 2021 escape through a tunnel from a prison in northern Israel, their lawyers told Israeli media. 

The six, already serving life terms for anti-Israeli attacks, escaped on September 6 last year from Gilbao prison through a tunnel dug under a sink.

Hailed as "heroes" by the Palestinians, their escape triggered a massive manhunt by army reinforcements and drones before their capture two weeks later.

Apart from the extra prison sentences, the men were each fined 5,000 shekels (about $160). 

"My client told the court he did not regret the escape because he had nothing to lose," lawyer Raslan Mahajana told reporters.

Among the escapees was Mahmud Ardah, a member of the militant Islamic Jihad group, considered the mastermind of the operation.

After he was recaptured, Ardah said he had used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel.

He escaped along with Zakaria al-Zubeidi, a chief of the armed branch of president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party.

His brother, Daoud al-Zubeidi, was killed on May 15 in an Israeli army operation in Jenin refugee camp on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The bold escape dominated newscasts, sparked heavy criticism of Israel's prison service and prompted the government to launch an inquiry. According to various reports, the men dug a tunnel through the floor of their shared cell undetected over several months and managed to slip past a sleeping prison guard after emerging through a hole outside the facility.

The judge ruled that the sentence took into account the fact that the prison break paralyzed the nation for days, the costs it took to recapture the inmates and the harm to public security caused by having prisoners under life sentence and convicted of serious crimes escape.

The five-year sentence will be added to the prison terms the prisoners were already serving. Five other inmates charged with assisting the men were sentenced to an additional four years.

Israel considers all six of the escapees to be terrorists. Five of them are from the Islamic Jihad militant group, with four of them serving life sentences. The sixth, Zakaria Zubeidi, is a member of the secular Fatah group. Zubeidi was a militant leader during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s and well known in Israel both for his militant activity and his love for giving media interviews.

Palestinians consider prisoners held by Israel to be heroes of their national cause and many on social media celebrated the escape and held demonstrations in support of the prisoners.

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