What happens next will be difficult for Israel, whatever the outcome. The six escapees are now heroes to the Palestinian public three times over.
It would be impossible for Palestinians not to revel in six prisoners carrying out a daring escape from one of Israel’s most secure and modern jails. Israel may be working overtime to demonise the six men as “terrorists“, but for Palestinians, they are among its finest and bravest foot soldiers.
They are prisoners of war, most of whom were serving long sentences after they tried to liberate their homeland by killing Israeli soldiers or settlers – those seen to be implementing and enforcing Israel’s decades-old occupation.
All Palestinians can identify with the plight of these men. Imprisonment is a rite of passage for much of the male Palestinian population; estimates are that many hundreds of thousands have passed through Israel’s jails over the past five decades.
Many are in jail awaiting trial, as were two of the six escapees. Others are in administrative detention – jailed without trial or even being told what charges are levelled against them. Inmates’ rights are serially abused. They are kept in overcrowded cells, have little contact with their families, and are often beaten or tortured.
In the summer, footage emerged – redolent of the abuses committed by the US army at Abu Ghraib in Iraq – of mass beatings of Palestinian inmates at Ketziot prison in Israel’s south in 2019. No action was taken even after the video leaked, presumably because this kind of thing – if rarely seen – is entirely routine. It confirms what Palestinian prisoners have long been saying.
And most Palestinian political prisoners are held in jails inside Israel, outside the occupied territories – the six fugitives broke out of Gilboa prison, in northern Israel – in flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions and Israel’s obligations under the laws of war. As a result, family visits are often difficult, if not impossible.
Humiliation for Israel
Every Palestinian will glory in Israel’s humiliation. Guards failed to spot the prisoners gradually widening a hole in the drainage system in their cell over many months. The six men moved undetected past a sleeping guard, and they planned a sophisticated getaway – seemingly assisted – that foiled a police manhunt hot on their tail.
But the celebrations in Palestinian communities across the region, and far beyond, relate not just to the jailbreak. Every day the prisoners remain free – and four were still at large on Friday, after two were reportedly caught in Nazareth – is another hammer blow against the occupation. That is not just the way Palestinians see it. It is how Israel’s officials and much of the public understand it too.
The six did not just escape from an Israeli maximum-security prison. They jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. They broke out of the small prison that is Gilboa into the much larger prison for Palestinians that is their homeland under occupation.
Every minute the men remain at large, Israel’s occupation is defied. Every minute they can’t be found, Israel’s system of control is defeated. Palestinians are reminded that freedom may ultimately be possible; that the occupation is not invincible.
Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant faction to which five of the men belonged, has urged Palestinians not to speak of this as an escape but as an “act of liberation”. This is precisely why Israel is determined that, as soon as possible, the men are returned behind visible bars – or maybe killed in a shootout, a fate that often befalls those who defy Israel. The point of its occupation is to crush any hope, any sense that freedom can be attained.
Hierarchy of confinement
In fact, like Dante’s circles of hell, Israel has created a hierarchy of confinement for Palestinians. The more they resist the fate intended for them by Israel – to be dispossessed and erased from their homeland – the more harshly Israel constrains them.
Prison is the ultimate punishment. But as is so often pointed out, Gaza is also a giant detention camp, the largest open-air prison in the world. The coastal strip, run by Hamas, is surrounded by an electronic perimeter fence, and besieged by the army and navy on all sides.
Over in the land-locked West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, formally the Palestinian president but in practice the unelected head of a few cantons in its midst, has won minor privileges for his own population through good behaviour.
By serving as Israel’s security sub-contractor – remember his infamous words saying “security coordination” with Israel was “sacred” – Abbas has managed to slightly loosen the chains of confinement. There are fewer Israeli checkpoints, and less of an Israeli army presence, in the small areas of the West Bank not being plundered by settlers.
But Israel’s furious reaction to the jailbreak, as well as the fugitives’ limited options in the face of this backlash, were a reminder of deeper realities. The occupied West Bank was put under immediate military closure – the cell door slammed shut – in a familiar move of Israeli collective punishment.
The six men are from Jenin and its immediate environs. The small Palestinian city in the northern West Bank is only a stone’s throw from Gilboa prison. They could have expected to be hidden there, if they could have reached it. In another act of collective punishment – a war crime – Israel arrested several of their relatives.
Given Abbas’s “security coordination” with Israel, however, the fugitives may prefer to stay out of the West Bank. Abbas has noticeably avoided expressing any support himself for the men. He recently met Israel’s defence minister, Benny Gantz, in a bid to revive a long-stalled “peace process” that served in the past only to perpetuate, and provide cover for, the occupation.
Israel’s intelligence agencies are constantly eavesdropping on Palestinian communications, and they operate an extensive network of collaborators in the occupied West Bank. Or as the Haaretz military affairs correspondent Amos Harel put it with revealing frankness: “With the possible exception of a number of totalitarian regimes, the West Bank is subject to as comprehensive and intensive intelligence coverage as anyplace on earth.”
The fugitives’ best hope of remaining out of Israel’s clutches may be leaving their homeland and crossing the border into Jordan. Amman would find it hard to return them, given their status as heroes and Jordan’s concerns about inflaming passions among its own large Palestinian refugee population.
But making such an escape would be no mean feat. Israel already has tight security along the Jordan Valley.
Underscoring the paradoxes of the occupation, Israel seems most concerned that the fugitives may try to break into Gaza. It has reportedly beefed up patrols around the perimeter. The coastal enclave may be an open-air prison, and has been under 15 years of Israeli blockade, but it is one where, uniquely, the Palestinian inmates have some degree of control inside the walls of their massively overcrowded, resource-poor, polluted cell.
Israel’s sanctions are mostly at arm’s length. It keeps the inmates on a near-starvation diet, and intermittently – when they start to riot – it sends in missiles or soldiers as the equivalent of punishment beatings.
The final option for the men is to stay inside Israel. Already, the Israeli media is hinting to its readers that the fugitives were aided, and sheltered, by Israel’s Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population who have very degraded citizenship. These Palestinians are the remnants of the native population who were otherwise expelled from their lands during the new state of Israel’s ethnic cleansing operations in 1948.
Some of Gilboa’s guards have been interrogated on the assumption that the prisoners received inside help. That is one way of seeking to diminish their achievement in escaping from an Israeli maximum-security jail. But it is also a finger of accusation pointing at Israel’s 1.8 million Palestinian citizens.
The Druze are a very small sect among the Palestinian minority whose young men are, uniquely for the minority, conscripted into the Israeli army. Afterwards, most end up with few opportunities apart from working in low-paying security jobs, often as prison guards.
Israeli authorities have every interest to shift the blame onto one or more of these guards for the jailbreak, if it means their own incompetence or complacency can be taken out of the spotlight.
Heroes three times
What happens next will be difficult for Israel, whatever the outcome. The six escapees are now heroes to the Palestinian public three times over. They originally made personal sacrifices to join the military resistance to the occupation and risk their lives. They carried out a bold and rare prison escape under the very noses of Israeli authorities. And now they are on the run, and most have so far evaded capture, despite Israel using every one of the many means at its disposal.
They have rapidly become symbols of the plight of every Palestinian – and what every Palestinian aspires to achieve through defiance.
Inspired by the six men’s actions, Israeli political prisoners have already rioted to stop efforts by Israel to collectively punish them over the prison break and move them to different jails. They are also threatening a mass hunger strike next week over new forms of collective punishment in response to the jailbreak, including cancelling already limited family visits. Hamas could fire rockets into Israel if matters escalate.
Support among the Palestinian public is likely to be rock-solid, and discontent – both against Israel and against Abbas as Israel’s security contractor – could easily explode across the region, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and among Palestinian citizens in Israel. Some Palestinians responded to a Hamas call for a “day of rage” in support of the prisoners on Friday, and there were warnings that an uprising could be imminent.
On the other hand, the new right-wing government of Naftali Bennett, after more than a decade of rule by Benjamin Netanyahu, is vulnerable to claims by his rival that both the jailbreak and the failed manhunt are evidence of dangerous incompetence on his watch.
For many of Bennett’s own supporters, the preferred outcome would doubtless be the fugitives’ execution while on the run. Alon Eviatar, a former Israeli intelligence officer, spoke bluntly of either catching or killing them. The latter outcome would be seen by much of the Israeli public as reasserting “deterrence” and as fitting “justice” for men widely reviled.
Most Israelis want a forceful message sent to Palestinians: that resisting their imprisonment – whether in a small jail such as Gilboa or in the bigger jail of the occupation – is futile.
For a while longer, however, Palestinians will be able to exult in the idea that resistance might actually achieve something after all.
• First published in Middle East Eye