Israel formally charges six recaptured Palestinian prisoners

The men were charged with escaping from the high-security Gilboa prison last month, while five others were accused of helping them.

A demonstrator holds up a spoon - reportedly the digging tool used by Palestinian prisoners who escaped - during a solidarity rally [Said Khatib/AFP]

The six recaptured Palestinian political prisoners who tunnelled out of a high-security Israeli prison last month were formally indicted on Sunday.

The men were charged with escaping from the Gilboa prison in northern Israel while five others were accused of assisting them, a prosecutors’ statement said.

The detainees – five from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group and one belonging to the armed branch of the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah faction – had been serving lengthy sentences, including life in jail.

Four were arrested between 1996 and 2006 and had been convicted of carrying out attacks against the Israeli army and civilian targets.

According to the charge sheet, at the end of 2020, they began digging a tunnel under the sink of their prison cell’s toilet.

“The defendants carried out the digging work daily in shifts, accommodated to their routine to prevent them from being caught, while using improvised digging tools,” the indictment said.

Palestinian prisoners

One of the inmates, Mahmoud Abdullah al-Ardah, 46, said after he was recaptured he used spoons, plates, and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel.

By September 5, the 30-metre-long (98 feet) tunnel, ending beyond the prison’s walls, was complete, the indictment said, with the men escaping that night.

The six – hailed by Palestinians as heroes in the struggle for statehood – were recaptured in batches during an Israeli manhunt in September.

In addition to al-Ardah – an Islamic Jihad member and the alleged mastermind of the escape – the prisoners included Zakaria Zubeidi, 45, who headed the Fatah armed wing in the northern occupied West Bank city Jenin.

The other four are Ayham Nayef Kamanji, 35, Munadel Infaat, 26, Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri, 49, and Mohammad al-Ardah, 40.

Israel has launched an investigation into how they pulled off their daring escaping.

A lawyer for several of the men previously told Al Jazeera the prisoners were briefly banned from accessing their lawyers under an order from the Israeli intelligence services.

The lawyer also said last month at least one of the Palestinians said he was being subject to mental and physical torture by Israeli interrogators.

Israel currently holds 4,650 Palestinians across various prison facilities. At least 200 are children, while 520 are administrative detainees – meaning they are being held without charge or trial, according to figures published by rights group Addameer.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies