Four of the six escaped prisoners who made a dramatic escape from a maximum security Israeli jail last week appeared separately in court late Saturday where prosecutors were ushing terror charges against them following a nationwide manhunt.
The arrests moved Israel closer to closing an embarrassing episode that exposed deep flaws in its prison system and turned the fugitive prisoners into Palestinian heroes. Late on Friday, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket into Israel in an apparent sign of solidarity, drawing Israeli airstrikes in reprisal.
The four wanted men were caught in a pair of arrests in northern Israel.
Early on Saturday, police said they had caught two men, including Zakaria Zubeidi, hiding in a truck parking lot in the Arab town of Umm al-Ghanam.
The Haaretz news site, quoting an unidentified defense official, said Zubeidi and fellow fugitive Mohammed Aradeh had been hiding outdoors for some time. The source said the two escapees appeared to have received no help following their escape and had no planned route on where to go.
Zubeidi was a militant leader during the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s.
While he has been linked to attacks on Israelis, he also was well known for giving frequent media interviews and for a friendship he once had with an Israeli pro-Palestinian female activist. Zubeidi over the years had received amnesty and taken college courses and was active in a West Bank theater movement before he was re-arrested in 2019 on suspicions of involvement in attacks.
Photos released by police showed Zubeidi, handcuffed and wearing a white head band, being led away by two police officers.
In a statement, police said that security forces, including the military, have been working "around the clock" to catch the fugitives.
"All of the forces were deployed at full strength, searched in open areas, collected every piece of information until they succeeded in solving the puzzle to locate these two fugitives," including Zubeidi, police said. The search for the final two prisoners was continuing.
Earlier, two other prisoners were arrested in Nazareth, an Arab city in northern Israel just west of Umm al-Ghanam.
According to Israeli media reports, local residents in both towns had turned in the prisoners.
In a statement issued late Saturday, Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, praised the Israeli security forces for the arrest of the four fugitives, describing the search operation as "determined and persistent."
"We have to maintain heightened readiness and continue until the mission is complete," Bennett said.
In Gaza, Hamas's armed wing pledged to include the six prisoners on the top of any future prisoner swap deal between the militant group and Israel.
"The heroes of the 'freedom tunnel' will come out with heads held high and the Qassam command has decided that there will be no exchange deal without freeing those heroes," said the spokesman, Abu Obaida, using the name of Hamas' military wing.
Hamas is believed to be holding two Israeli civilians and the remains of two Israeli soldiers who were killed during the 50-day Gaza war between the two sides in 2014. There have been no serious negotiations on brokering a swap. In 2011, Israel retrieved a soldier who had been kidnapped and held for five years by Hamas in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
For the Palestinians, the fugitives won praise for succeeding in freeing themselves from multiple life sentences. Fighting against Israel and taking part in attacks against the IDF or even civilians is a source of pride for many, and Palestinians consider prisoners held by Israel to be heroes of their national cause.
In the Gaza Strip as well as in the West Bank, Palestinians had organized sit-ins and joyful gatherings to celebrate the prison break.
While Zubeidi was a member of the secular Fatah group, the others belonged to the Islamic Jihad militant group, including four serving life sentences. All of the prisoners are from the nearby city of Jenin in the West Bank.
As soon as the news about the capture of the two fugitives was confirmed Friday, a flurry of bitter posts expressing disappointment and shock filled Palestinian social media.
Israel said late Saturday that Palestinian militants in Gaza fired a rocket toward Israel that was intercepted by Israeli air defenses. The IDF said it responded with airstrikes on a series of Hamas targets in Gaza.
The escape has exposed major flaws in the prison service and set off days of angry criticism and finger-pointing. The men escaped through a hole in the floor of their shared cell, tunneled through a hole outside the prison and according to media reports, escaped past a sleeping prison guard.
It has also increased tension between Israel and the Palestinians.
Earlier on Friday, Hamas had called for "a day of rage" to protest Israeli crackdown against imprisoned Palestinians, but the day passed without major confrontation.
In Jerusalem, a Palestinian suspected attacker died shortly after being shot by police in the volatile Old City, where he had reportedly tried to stab officers. Police said one officer was lightly wounded in the leg.
First published: 07:55, 09.12.21