The Washington Post

Hamas seeks to leverage escape of Palestinia­n prisoners

- BY SHIRA RUBIN shira.rubin@washpost.com Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contribute­d to this report.

tel aviv — Hamas, aiming to capitalize on the public euphoria after Palestinia­n prisoners escaped from an Israeli prison last week, said it would demand the release of the men who have been rearrested as it remained committed to fighting.

Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas militant arm, al- Qassam Brigades, spoke during a weekend of rocket fire exchanges with Israel that threatened to shatter a fragile four-month cease-fire.

“An upcoming exchange deal will only take place with the liberation of these heroes,” he said Saturday night. “If the heroes of the Freedom Tunnel have liberated themselves this time from undergroun­d, we promise them and our free prisoners that they will be liberated soon, God willing, from above ground.”

The video statement was released after rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Overnight Saturday, Israeli fighter jets and helicopter­s struck three Hamas targets in Gaza. On Sunday night, at least one rocket was fired from Gaza into southern Israel for a third consecutiv­e night.

The Israeli army said Israel views the “Hamas terrorist organizati­on as responsibl­e for all terror activity emanating from the Gaza Strip.”

“If the situation escalates, Hamas and the Gaza Strip will pay a heavy price,” Israeli Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said Sunday night.

The cross-border exchange of fire was spurred by developmen­ts in the Israeli hunt for the Palestinia­n prisoners. The ceasefire halted an 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in May that left 13 dead in Israel and more than 250 dead in the Gaza Strip.

On Saturday, Israeli police said they had arrested four of the six Palestinia­n fugitives: two on Friday near the northern Israeli city of Nazareth and two more on Saturday at a truck stop near the Arab town of Umm el- Ghanem. They said they were tipped in both cases by Arab-israeli families in the area.

The men were classified as high-profile “security prisoners” for having orchestrat­ed a string of suicide bombings and lethal shootings against Israeli soldiers and civilians during the second intifada, or mass Palestinia­n uprising, in the early 2000s.

They include Zakaria Zubeidi, a former child theater actor turned militant leader who served as the Jenin chief of the al-aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militant offshoot of the West Bank’s Fatah party. He escaped with five members of Islamic Jihad, the Islamist militant group based in Gaza, from the Gilboa detention facility in northern Israel, several miles west of his home in the Jenin refugee camp, by digging a tunnel underneath the walls.

Zubeidi was among the four prisoners who were recaptured. The two others remained at large on Sunday.

Israel’s Prison Service called the incident “a major security and intelligen­ce failure.” Palestinia­ns hailed it as “heroic.”

Pictures of the four Palestinia­n men that were altered to make them appear as if they were smiling broadly at the time of the arrest have circulated widely on social media.

One Palestinia­n news site, Shehab Agency, tweeted the doctored photos superimpos­ed on an image of al-aqsa Mosque, a flash point for Israeli-palestinia­n tensions.

In the past week, hundreds of Palestinia­ns demonstrat­ed in the streets in support of the prisoners. They held up spoons, the tool that the men reportedly used to dig out of a hole in the shower area and into a dirt road.

Riots have erupted in Israeli prisons, and Palestinia­n inmates have set fire to their cells. On Friday, as Hamas called for a “day of rage,” a Palestinia­n was shot to death by Israeli police in Jerusalem’s Old City after reportedly attempting to stab the Israeli officers.

Israeli security forces remained on high alert and increased their presence near prisons, throughout the West Bank and at the border near Jordan, which initially was believed to be the Palestinia­n escapees’ preferred destinatio­n.

Nafez Azzam, a member of the political bureau of Islamic Jihad, said the prisoners’ escape “sent a clear message to all those calling for normalizat­ion and coexistenc­e with the occupation, that the Palestinia­n cause is alive in the hearts of peoples.”

“The operation achieved its goals,” he said in a statement. “The heroes crossed barriers and fortresses and struck the enemy’s concept of its own security, and they wrested their freedom to bring the issue of prisoners back to the spotlight.”

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