A history of successful Palestinian prison escapes in Israel

Israeli security personnel stand together outside the walls of Gilboa prison after six Palestinian militants broke out of it in north Israel (Reuters)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  September 6, 2021

Following the escape of six Palestinian prisoners from a prison in northern Israel on Monday, MEE takes a look at its precedents.

Palestinians have celebrated the escape of six Palestinian prisoners from an Israeli jail on Monday, with pictures emerging of sweets being handed out around Ramallah and other occupied West Bank locations.

Israel has launched a massive manhunt in response to the six men – five members of Islamic Jihad and one from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade – who escaped from the supposedly high-security Gilboa prison in the country’s north.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli jails since the country was established in 1948 and virtually everyone in the occupied Palestinian territories knows someone who has been imprisoned or detained by Israel.

Those imprisoned are often elevated to hero status among Palestinians and the stories of jailbreaks over the decades are told and re-told like legends.

Middle East Eye takes a look at some of the most important Palestinian breakouts since 1948.

1958 Shatta prison escape

In arguably the biggest prison break since 1948, around 190 Palestinian and Arab prisoners attempted to seize control of the Shatta prison north of the Jordan Valley on 31 July 1958.

After fierce fighting between the inmates and the warders – in which 11 prisoners and two warders were killed – 77 managed to successfully escape the prison.

An Egyptian man, Ahmed Ali Othman, who was accused of leading the prison break, would be acquitted of murdering one of the wardens by a court in Haifa two years later.

1987 Gaza Prison escape

Another major multi-prisoner jailbreak occurred on 17 May 1987 in Gaza Prison, located in what was then the fully Israeli-controlled Gaza Strip.

The break was led by Gaza native Misbah al-Sur and included Saleh Ishtiwi, Sami al-Sheikh Khalil, Muhammad al-Jamal, Imad al-Saftawi, and Khaled Saleh.

Jamal, Sur, and Khalil were all eventually tracked down and killed, while Ishtiwi was recaptured. The others managed to flee the Gaza Strip.

1996 Kfar Yona Prison

On 4 August 1996, two prisoners – Ghassan Mahdawi and Tawfiq al-Zaben – escaped from Kfar Yona prison in the West Bank.

The two managed to successfully dig an 11-metre tunnel and escape. However, Mahdawi was arrested again in 1997, while Zaben was arrested in 2000.

1998 Shatta Prison

A number of prisoners once again attempted to escape Shatta Prison in 1998 by tunneling from their cells to the outside of the prison.

Though initially seemingly successful, upon arriving at the other side of the tunnel the prisoners were immediately discovered by sniffer dogs and reimprisoned.

May 2002 Ofer Prison break

In May 2002, four alleged members of Islamic Jihad escaped from the Ofer Prison, a facility located in the occupied West Bank, west of Ramallah.

Riyad Khalifah, Amjad al-Dik, Khalid Shanitah, and one other were jailed during the Second Intifada, a period between 2000 and 2005 that saw an uprising by Palestinians in the occupied territories that left thousands of Palestinians and hundreds of Israelis dead.

According to an interview given by Amjad al-Dik to the Arab America website, the walls of the prison were poorly constructed, eventually allowing the prisoners to escape by tunneling out using cutlery and their fingernails.

“The grounds and walls of the prison were not properly built, were easy to break, and uncomfortable to walk on. The three of us came up with the idea of escaping prison. It might be a one in a million chance, but we were willing to test our odds,” he said.

Though their escape was successful, they were eventually hunted down by Israeli security forces – three were rearrested, while Khalifah was killed in a gunfight.