With rockets and rhetoric, Hamas seeks to leverage Palestinian prisoner escape

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, sirens sounded four times throughout southern Israel after rockets were fired from Gaza for a third consecutive night. In response, the Israeli army struck four Hamas military compounds, it said in a statement.

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 cease-fire 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, with the hashtag #freedom_tunnel.

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.”

Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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