Prisoners recaptured: lawyer visits denied, allegations of torture and mistreatment

Zakaria Zubeidi and Mohammed al-Ardeh seen here after been caught and detained by Israeli special agents near Afoula (Facebook)

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  September 14, 2021

According to his lawyers, Zakaria Zubeidi sustained “extreme beating” on the left side of his face during his detention, and has been hospitalized for treatment, claims being denied by Israeli media.

After one of the most dramatic prison escapes in Palestinian history, four of the six political prisoners who escaped a maximum security Israeli prison last week were recaptured over the weekend. 

The four prisoners, Zakaria Zubeidi, Mohammed Qassem Ardah, Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah and Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri were all captured by Israeli forces over the weekend in and around the Nazareth area in northern Israel. 

Mahmoud Ardah and Yaqoub Qadri were captured on Friday night in a neighborhood in Nazareth city, while Zakaria Zubeidi and Mohammed Ardah were captured just hours later hiding in a truck parking lot outside Nazareth.

The two remaining prisoners, Ayham Kamanji and Munadil Nfeiat, are still at large. Early reports claimed two prisoners escaped to Jordan, though recent reports from Palestinian media claimed that the two had made their way to the West Bank. 

The recapture of the prisoners came five days after their historic escape, and a subsequent nationwide manhunt by Israeli security forces. 

In the end, Israeli media and government officials claimed that it was with “the help of Arab Israeli citizens” that Ardah and Qadri were captured, saying that residents of the area called the police when they discovered the pair“digging through the trash.” Similar claims were made regarding the capture of Zubeidi, with Israeli reports alleging it was Arab residents who called the police after Zubeidi reportedly asked them for food. 

The accusations that it was in fact Palestinian citizens of Israel who turned the prisoners over to the police was vehemently denied, both by Palestinians in Nazareth and across the country. 

Many took to social media to express their frustration over what they called Israeli attempts to “sow discord” in the community, and urged their fellow citizens not to succumb to the efforts to divide them. 

For many Palestinians, the recapture of the four prisoners dashed the hopes that they would evade recapture, at least long enough to visit their families in Jenin, in the northern West Bank. 

Three of the four captured prisoners were serving life sentences in Israeli prison, and hadn’t seen the outside of a jail cell in more than 20 years. 

Despite the somber mood amongst Palestinians following the recapture of the four prisoners, groups of protesters made their way outside the Nazareth court on Saturday night where the prisoners were being processed, and chanted messages of support. 

Protesters also carried spoons and waved them, as a symbol of the spoon allegedly used by the prisoners to dig the tunnel that they used to break out of the prison. 

Palestinian political factions like the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements released statements following the recapture, with the former saying “They achieved honor by their successful escape operation, humiliating the occupying power and shattering its prestige. Arresting them will not wash away the shame of occupation, nor will it break [the two prisoners’] will. They will one day be free outside the jailer’s bars.”

Accusations of torture, mistreatment

Following the recapture of the prisoners, Palestinian political factions and rights groups warned against the torture and mistreatment of the detainees, after photos surfaced of Zubeidi at the moment of his capture, with cuts along his arms and a large swollen mass on his face. 

News spread on Palestinian media outlets over the weekend that Zubeidi had been admitted to the ICU for wounds he sustained during the arrest, after a photo allegedly showing him in the hospital was reportedly published by his brother, and circulated on social media.

Israeli officials denied reports that Zubeidi was hospitalized, but the Palestinian Detainees Affairs Commission said that he was hospitalized after being “brutally beaten” during his arrest. 

The committee spokesperson Hassan Abed Rabo said on Sunday that Zubeidi sustained “extreme beating” on the left side of his face, and that he was hospitalized at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for treatment. 

Protests broke out at major flashpoints in Jenin and other sites across the West Bank as news of Zubeidi’s hospitalization spread, while Palestinian factions vowed to retaliate for Israel’s treatment of the detainees. 

The Fatah movement, to which Zubeidi belongs, released a statement saying “the brutal assault and re-arrest of Zubeidi and his companions by the occupation army and security forces is a violation of international law, which dictates that detainees are to be protected and not harmed.”

“The Israeli government bears full responsibility for any harm inflicted on the lives of our heroic detainees,” the statement said.

An Israeli Magistrate Court in the Nazareth extended the detention of the four Palestinian prisoners on Sunday until September 19th. Prosecutors are accusing the four of a jailbreak, which is punishable with up to 20 years in Israeli prison. 

Additionally, Israeli police are reportedly claiming the four were planning to “carry out a terror attack,” though no one was harmed during the period that they were on the run, and they were found unarmed. 

The prisoners’ attorneys said that information about their clients was being restricted, and that up until Sunday, they were still being prevented from seeing their clients. On Monday, the Nazareth District Court rejected an appeal submitted by the attorneys asking to be able to meet their clients. 

Collective punishment

As of Monday, Israeli forces were still conducting raids on the homes of the families of the escaped prisoners, and arresting their relatives. In the early hours of Monday morning, Israeli troops stormed the Jenin-area village of al-Yamun and detained a relative of Ayham Kamanji, one of the two prisoners still at large. 

Over the course of last week, Israeli forces detained several family members of the escapees for interrogation.

During the manhunt, the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) conducted massive raids across its prisons, and stopped family visitation for all Palestinian prisoners — of which there are over 4,700 currently in Israeli jails. 

Palestinian prisoners rights group Addameer, along with a number of other human rights organizations sounded the alarm on Israel’s campaign of “collective, punitive, retaliatory, and arbitrary measures” against Palestinian political prisoners. 

The crackdown on prisoners also included “inter alia, the mass forcible transfer and interrogation of prisoners, the lockdown of all Israeli prison sections holding Palestinian political prisoners and the institution of arbitrary reprisals and punitive measures,” including cutting break and yard time, as well as closing the prison canteen. 

“Such measures violate the absolute prohibition of collective punishment in international humanitarian law and jus cogens, most clearly enshrined in Article 33(1) of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” rights groups said.

“In the absence of third-party supervision of IPS policies, the rights of Palestinian prisoners will continue to be violated with impunity, and the gravity of the situation will only increase,” the groups said in an urgent appeal. 

Yumna Patel is the Palestine correspondent for Mondoweiss