Third episode of The Heroes: Beyond the walls of Gilboa
The third episode of the documentary series "The Heroes", exclusively on Al Mayadeen, reveals how The Heroes dug the tunnel and the struggles they faced throughout that period until their liberation from the Gilboa Prison.
If you missed the previous episode, click here.
During the third episode of The Heroes, Al Mayadeen will talk about the story of how the Gilboa tunnel was dug, from the idea to the drawing board to the execution, all the way to the sunlight that shone on the six heroes as soon as freedom embraced them outside the cruel walls of the Israeli occupation's Gilboa Prison.
"Liberate yourself from prison, uncle Mahmoud... if I were in your shoes, I would liberate myself." That is was Asinat Al-Aridah told her uncle, the architect of Operation Freedom Tunnel, who never let the idea of liberation slip out of his mind.
With Asinat's words, the third episode of Al Mayadeen's The Heroes series kicks off, where the story of Mahmoud Al-Aridah and his five comrades' liberation, starting from the conception of the idea in Al-Aridah's mind, all the way to freedom from the Israeli occupation's chains to which they were bound.
The Heroes named the tunnel's gate after Palestinian Martyr Kamal Abu Waer, the cancer-stricken freedom fighter who died in 2020. Abu Waer was among the Palestinian freedom fighters who resisted the Israeli occupation during the 2003 Al-Aqsa Intifada. He was given six life sentences and 50 years in prison.
Abu Waer was a fellow inmate of The Heroes' up until he fell ill. He caught COVID-19 in 2019 before he was diagnosed with throat cancer and transferred between prisons up until he was martyred in 2020 due to medical neglect from the Israeli occupation.
The Heroes named the group of inmates who dug the tunnel after martyr Mohammad Al-Ashqar, who was martyred in Al-Naqab prison on October 22, 2007, after an Israeli task force raided the prison and used, among many other things, rubber bullets. The raid left 250 wounded prisoners, nine of which were in critical condition, including Al-Ashqar.
A plan as old as Gilboa
The plan of liberation has existed as long as Gilboa prison has, where the idea began to form in Mahmoud Al-Aridah's mind as early as 2003. He was in Shata Prison at the time, and that is when he started researching. He would ask former Gilboa inmates about the prison; its layout and the shape of the cells and bathrooms, and that is when he found the prison's weak point: the bathroom's floor is made of steel, and it can be removed, allowing for a tunnel to be dug.
After studying the prison based on the testimonies of former prisoners, Al-Aridah began submitting applications for transfer to Gilboa until his request was realized in 2005. He went into the bathrooms, found what he wanted, and proposed the idea to several prisoners. However, his proposal was rejected, as the other inmates found the idea to be impossible to execute.
The operation was suspended, and Al-Aridah was sent back to Shata in 2007, remaining there for years to come. He was put in solitary confinement in 2011 and 2014, but during his stay, he found in Section 7 of the prison a layout similar to that of Gilboa. He proposed his idea to some prisoners at first, only to be surprised later to find out that they had agreed on liberating themselves via the prison's walls. However, that plan was never realized.
Later on, Al-Aridah proposed his plan again, with prisoners working on tunnels for 16 months. They dug several tunnels, but some of them ended up in the sewers, and after most of the work was completed, the tunnel was discovered, which led to Al-Aridah being sent to solitary confinement again, only to end up in Gilboa again in 2017. He drew up another plan with only two prisoners. He prepared all the tools he needed to liberate himself, only working for a few hours, a single day per week.
"When liberation comes to mind for a prisoner, maybe only one or two out of ten thousand are thinking of liberating themselves," said prisoner Ahmed Al-Aridah.
From reinforced walls to monitoring, high-end technology, daily searching, and inspection, surprise searches, and being under the guards' eyes around the clock make the prisoners think that escaping is impossible, said Al-Aridah.
Strikes and breach
Two issues occurred during the final stage of the plan: a massive breach and an event that was not taken into consideration, a mass hunger strike. The breach happened when the prisoners that Al-Aridah agreed with did not take the matter seriously and one of them made a joke about the plan to an official, prompting Al-Aridah to postpone his plans.
Another attempt took place in 2018, but it was also postponed due to certain events in Gilboa.
On December 14, 2020, following an inspection, Al-Aridah was transferred from cell 14, where he had decided to dig the tunnel. Four months before the plan, Al-Aridah proposed it to prisoner Yaqoub Qadri without knowing where the starting point would be. He also told Ayham Kamamji, and to justify working in the cell, Al-Aridah would tell the inmates that he was working on a place to hide cellphones.
Why Operation Freedom Tunnel was a success
Prisoner Mahmoud Al-Aridah told Al Mayadeen about one of the main reasons why Operation Freedom Tunnel was a success, saying that the secret was that he surrounded himself with a group of men who were taught by him during his 2015 stay in Gilboa.
When he chose the team members, there was a large-scale search being conducted. He met Munadel Nafi'at in 2014, Mahmoud Chreim in 2017, Qusai Merhi upon his arrest, Ali Abu Baker was his cellmate for months ahead of the execution, and Mohammad Abu Bakr through Nafi'at and Ali Abu Bakr. Meanwhile, he had several encounters with Yaqoub Qadri, Ayham Kamamji, Mohammad Al-Aridah, and Iyad Jaradat.
Liberated prisoner Kifah Al-Aridah said, "The operation was executed and it was done under complete secrecy in the section and prison itself. In the beginning, only one person supervised the whole operation, Mahmoud Al-Aridah, for a while, and I believe that is one of the reasons behind the operation's success."
Mahmoud's experience and his previous experience gave him the required skills to work with steel, reinforced concrete, and harsh conditions, leading to success. There were very accurate calculations, especially when it came to the pathway of the tunnel, for one does not know which direction they are digging in once underground. They had very limited equipment due to being in prison, not allowing them anything that indicates where they are headed, but Mahmoud Al-Aridah's experience allowed him to know which direction to take exactly.
Al-Aridah did not have the prison's blueprint; all the information he had came from the tunnel he dug in Shata in 2012 and 2014. His section in Shata had the same layout as his section in Gilboa, even in the way it was built.
The cells are built in a manner where one square meter is dug up and four pillars are placed with 3.5 meters between the pillars, with 80 cm dedicated to sewage pipes, making for a long pathway under the bathrooms from the beginning of the section until its end.
The blueprint was complete in Al-Aridah and the team's mind, and after they were able to get through the reinforced concrete, working with dirt was much easier. "The smell of dirt filling up the room was one of the most beautiful scents," Mahmoud said.
Difficulties that accompanied the process
Many were the difficulties that The Heroes faced before they were finally able to open the door to the tunnel, notably with the steel plate that was located under it covering the whole room. Mahmoud asked Nafi'at to cut it and Merhi and Chreim to lift it, which was a highly difficult process, and spent two days getting through it.
They believed that if they held the plate upright, they would have a better chance of cutting off parts of it, but that only made it more difficult. They started running out of time, as the occupation forces were about to conduct their regular inspection, and holding it upright caused it to bend and stiffen up, which made it impossible to lay it back down.
The security inspection took place at 3h00. The sheet of steel was upright, and the door was open. They had 45 minutes before the section was going to undergo inspection, so they were asked to remain on high alert.
Eventually, after hours of hard work, they were finally able to cut through the steel, but the cut was not perfect, meaning that the sheet was still bent due to The Heroes' inability to be as precise as much as they needed to be. They tried to straighten it but to no avail, which meant that the door to the tunnel was not perfectly aligned with the floor and was sticking out.
It was then decided that the bent part of the sheet must be cut. The Hero of the sheet-cutting was initially Mahmoud Chreim, according to Mahmoud Al-Aridah, as well as Qusai Merhi, and then when danger approached Munadel also played a significant role.
Al-Aridah tells Al Mayadeen that during March, the third month, the prison administration decided to conduct a search to check on the interference of communication devices. The prisoners had to step outside their adjacent cells. However, the tunnel was open at the time and Al-Aridah, who was still in his cell, refused to step out and argued that he took a shower until he closed the tunnel at the last minute.
At the beginning of April, Al-Aridah was assisted by Munadel. The latter entered the tunnel with difficulty, and when he wanted to get out, he could not. His hand was stuck beneath his chest and signs of tension began to appear on him as he continued to try to exit the tunnel. Soon after, signs of fainting began to appear on Munadel so Al-Aridah began digging from underneath his body with great difficulty. Half an hour later he was able to free Munadel and get him out.
The operation was not just filled with stress, anxiety, and exhaustion. Mahmoud recalls several significant moments throughout his message. He recounts a story that took place while working towards the exit. At the time, Chreim and Munadel were finalizing preparations under room 2 and room 1+2, while Qusay dug under room number 5, after having reached room number 6.
At one point, Qusai fell back due to shortness of breath, so Al-Aridah entered the tunnel to take over his place. At that time, there was a challenge between Al-Aridah, Munadel, and Shreim, with the latter two challenging Mahmoud and Yaqoub, the eldest amongst The Heroes, to work on arranging the space beneath room 6. The two succeeded in digging a large space and won the challenge.
During the work, Mahmoud received an accidental nigh-fatal blow from Yaqoub. Al-Aridah recalled the story with a laugh and explained that while transporting the stones out of the tunnel, Al-Aridah asked Yaqoub to throw the medium-sized stones over to him. As he did that, a stone hit Al-Aridah's head. "It was very difficult... and we laughed a lot," Al-Aridah said.
In a display of Mahmoud's personality, it is significant to note that Mahmoud recounted an event that could have ended his life with laughter, treating the incident, altogether, as a joke.
Night of the Temblor
The most difficult time throughout the operation has been described as the "night of the temblor." The temblor, or as known in Arabic as "Al-Zalzalah," is the term used by Mahmoud Al-Aridah in his speech, to express the horrors of one of the most stressful nights.
Al-Aridah explained that "In May of 2021, I and Qusay were working in excavations. After we went down, I heard the prisoner Iyad Jaradat screaming that there was a sudden inspection, so I came out of the tunnel, and I thought that our plan has been exposed."
The prison authorities were at the main door of the bathrooms section while Al-Aridah was inside the bathroom stall which was locked. Within seconds, Al-Aridah was able to close the tunnel's door. This was phenomenal as typically closing the freedom tunnel took approximately 45 minutes. At that time the guards were asking the Hero to get out of the bathroom stall. Simultaneously Qusai was at the tunnel door but from the inside of the tunnel. He screamed "Open the door", thinking it was a joke.
Simultaneously, the guards asked him, "What are you doing, Mahmoud, are you digging a tunnel?" To which he responded, "Yes, and I don't want to go out," and he started laughing.
Qusay was close to opening the door, however, when he heard the sound of the guard's keys he knew that it was serious. On the other end of the tunnel, guards refused to wait and asked Mahmoud to leave the bathroom.
The guards then asked about the number of prisoners in the room, to which the latter replied that they were five.
During the inspection, Munadel, Muhammad Al-Aridah, and Chreim were in the kitchen and were ready wanted to smash objects in their surrounding in the hopes that this will distract the guards. However, the incident passed and the guards remained oblivious and left. This was the end of the night of the temblor.
The moment of Liberation
Exiting the tunnel of Freedom is a moment The Heroes will never forget, especially after months of exhausting work. After the first stage was concluded, the digging of the tunnel, the hardest part would be the escape itself. In the time leading up to the final liberation of The Heroes, all scenarios remained possible. However, the moment of Liberation took place, and The Heroes saw the sunlight outside of Gilboa.
It is worth noting that the Gilboa Prison has five sections, each of which has 15 rooms, and each room contains six prisoners.
Following news of a successful liberation operation from the prison of Gilboa, hundreds of families were on the lookout as the names of The Heroes were still unknown. It was a while before the images of prison cards of The Heroes revealed their names and identities.
After learning that his brother was of one of the Heroes of the Giboa Freedom Tunnel Operation, Yahya al-Zubaidi, brother of prisoner Zakaria, said that “We ourselves were surprised that Zakaria was amongst them.” Yahya expressed the feelings that swept him at the time, saying "Here, feelings were mixed: feelings of joy because our brother escaped from prison, and feelings of fear because he is in oblivion. We know nothing about him."
The liberated prisoner Hosni Issa said that The Heroes ignited a revolution, and made every prisoner think of doing the impossible in order to free himself through his own will and break the jailer's chains.
Al Mayadeen then asked, "Where did this revolution erupt: inside prisons with the prisoners, or with you abroad?"
Issa responded by saying "In all prisons, of course, a revolution has occurred among the prisoners. Every prisoner, who was thinking about other things, started thinking about how to create a way out to get outside the bars, outside the world of captivity."
Freed prisoner Muhammad Arandas said that when he learned of the escape he expected that The Heroes would be arrested within hours.
"Gilboa prison, which I know well, and is similar to the Nafha prison in structure, even a little tougher, and also known as 'the safe', [...] that six prisoners could escape from it is unbelievable. Indeed, I was expecting that in mere hours they would be arrested," he said, adding that "Their arrest, will happen through the use of military dogs. Of course, in addition to that, there are round-the-clock patrols around the prison without interruption, and the prisoners know very well when they pass, but these patrols, regardless, pass around the prison almost around the clock."
Hoda Al-Aridha, Mahmoud Al-Aridha's mother, said she felt joy intertwined with shock for hours. "For the first time in thirty years, our family has no prisoners. We were all free," she said.
As for Nidal Nafa'at, Munadel's brother said he learned the news at 5 am, and it was not something any of the Nafa'at family members expected. He added, "We know the prison facilities. They are fortified, and it is impossible for anyone to get out. We stayed for 13 days feeling proud, because our brother liberated himself, and he was not alone but with his comrades."
Fouad Kamamji, the father of Ayham, said “I know Israel’s treachery, so I was afraid that you would kill him,” adding that "We were happy and felt victorious, and when I knew that he had fled, I was afraid of Israel and its treachery, and what it could do to him."
He continued, "I was very afraid for Ayham. I thought it was the end. I visited him a week or two before the operation, so I remembered the visit for a moment. Was it something like a goodbye between me and him? Was it the last time I saw him... and so on! I don't know, But there was a feeling inside of me convinced that Ayham is alive, and that he will remain alive.”
What the heroes did is too big for "Israel" to hide
The Israeli occupation authorities tried to mitigate the impact of the Freedom Tunnel Operation and sought to withhold it from the media. However, the success of the operation was louder than any Israeli attempt to shadow it. The Heroes became a point of conversation across the country, regionally, and even internationally as the news spread quickly throughout media pages.
The Freedom Tunnel Operation soon became a subject of study and analysis by journalists, researchers, and human rights organizations across the globe. However, as the stories varied, so did much of the analysis given the fact that little was known about the operation at the time of its happening.
"Israel" recognized the operation as a security breach, and that can not be considered a coincidental incident given that "Israel" as an occupation entity is grounded primarily by its superior security capabilities. At least that is the image it had painted for itself.
The steadfastness of freedom fighters, both inside and outside of Israeli prisons, has begun to threaten the Israelis as reported by Israeli media. The revolution that erupted fueled the determination of freedom fighters across Jenine, the West Bank, the occupied interior, occupied Al-Quds as well as Gaza. It also fueled popular uprisings and solidarity campaigns across the occupied Palestinian territory. According to Israeli media, these threats are greater than any "Israel" had faced in the past.
From Gilboa, six Heroes discredited one of the greatest Israeli security institutions and attained their liberation. From here on, the free path of The Heroes begins.
To know more details about Operation Freedom Tunnel, watch the upcoming episodes of The Heroes on Al Mayadeen at 21:00 Al-Quds time.