Mondoweiss / September 13, 2021
The six escapees from Gilboa breached something much more serious than a maximum-security prison — they burrowed into the granular underground of Zionism’s fragile psyche.
The symbolism is irresistible: six men—political prisoners according to world opinion, terrorists according to their captors—tunneled out of Israel’s Gilboa, a heavily guarded colonial stockade, and then disappeared into the early morning darkness in an escape so daring and unlikely that it surely would become a big-budget production if Hollywood didn’t hate Palestinians.
The hole from which they emerged beyond the prison wall couldn’t have been much more than a foot in diameter. How did six grown men squeeze through such a small cavity? How did they manage this feat of primitive engineering? How did they bamboozle the Zionist security apparatus? We don’t know. They just did. This unknowability informs the magic of their escape.
They emerged from the earth like precious resources, like natal organisms, like seeds determined to initiate life. Arabs rejoiced across two continents while Israelis and their imperialist sponsors vowed to reassert control: more law, more order, more spying, more imprisonment. As always when Palestinians prove capable of human behavior, the occupiers have been bellyaching about savagery and lawlessness, but underlying the outrage is the usual anguish that the natives again rejected their jurisdiction. The occupiers have been humiliated, demystified, outwitted by people whose supposed inferiority is a critical component of their self-esteem. No longer can Israelis be comforted by the scornful belief that Palestinians are simple beasts crawling around on their bellies. The six escapees breached something much more serious than a maximum-security prison; they burrowed into the granular underground of Zionism’s fragile psyche. First, that tiny hole. Next, the entire country.
The joy most observers felt about the escape speaks to the degradations of life under capitalism. So many of us, anxious and overworked, would like to surface from a small aperture into a different world. Yet we can recognize that the six men escaped due to incredible effort and devotion, exactly what will be required in a time of increasing scarcity and insecurity, of ecocide and entropy, in which terms like “segregation” and “lockdown” are a regular part of our vocabulary. We identify with the underdogs who made it out even though we know that the world is still far more dangerous for them. Those underdogs invited us to at least subconsciously read their breakout as a contest between rebellion and authority, imagination and constraint, primordialism and technology.
But the escape wasn’t merely a symbolic act. It was a physical miracle, with material repercussions we’ve yet to totally comprehend. A humiliated colonizer is a dangerous creature, prone to gratuitous violence as a means to reassert a sense of psychic superiority. The colonizer wants to capture and demean the escapees. The colonizer’s self-perception is contingent on these grand gestures of authority.
Gilboa is inside the green line, in what is improperly known as “Israel proper.” Once above ground, where did the men go? Presumably to the West Bank, with perhaps a subsequent flight to Jordan or Syria, which would require another daring escapade. Again, the magic is in the unknowing.
Two have since been captured in the biblical town of Nazareth, apparently snitched out by a pensive local. [Editor’s Note: Two more of the six fugitives, including Zakaria Zubeidi, were reported to have been captured in northern Israel since this article was originally published.] If it is true, for we can never rule out misinformation, the outcome is basically what most of us expected to happen in the case of re-arrest. Even here, though, there is cause for optimism. The occupier is damn near useless without the cowardice and mendacity of a few native informants. The dregs of Palestinian society represent the apogee of Zionism. Now we await news of the other four escapees.
Those four must be wary of high-level collaboration in addition to the usual snitches. The Palestinian Authority has already pledged to help return the men to Israeli custody. If they manage to cross into Jordan, they can expect no relief from King Abdullah, the fourth generation of Hashemite to collude with the Zionist entity. They emerged from beneath the prison to take up a life in the underground. They must find places where devotion to the cause is absolute and unquestioned. With less fanfare, we might follow their example.
Whatever becomes of the six men, they can already claim victory. We celebrate them because for the downtrodden life is embodied by resistance and nothing in the puffy and narcissistic environs of online punditry can match the thrill of a well-executed counterpunch.
Like thousands of fugitives and exiles and maroons throughout the centuries, they have illustrated that the oppressor’s notion of security is tenuous. It cannot be constructed of steel and cinder. Adequately motivated, the native can evade databases and infrared sensors; the native can tunnel below or soar above concrete barriers; the native can disappear into covert spaces to which the occupier has no access. There’s a fundamental weakness to societies reliant on massive surveillance and policing for visions of safety. Peace of mind is an illusion proportional to the benefits or travails of a person’s class position. Over and again, human beings with little social capital or legislative influence have proved capable of undermining strictures meant to comfort the economic and political elite at their expense. Despite a rough few months, nothing suggests that we’ll stop summoning those capabilities. The prisons and checkpoints that promise security (to the right citizen) ultimately comprise an architecture of delusion.
The delusion has been integral to Zionism since its beginning. Palestinians don’t exist; Palestinians will accede; Palestinians will emigrate; Palestinians will submit; Palestinians will forget. Here we are, over a century later, and the same Palestinians who were supposed to have disappeared a long time ago are embedded in the hearts of decent people across the globe.
Ultimately, the escape and subsequent responses elucidate the nature of Zionism and the type of future it wants to create: destructive, unequal, militarized, catastrophic. We don’t merely resist Zionism, but the set of values it represents on a deteriorating planet. The Zionist is generally aware of his ghoulish affiliations, whether or not he chooses them. Thus the Zionist’s delusional security apparatus. All Palestinian prisoners are political and all Israeli prisons express anti-Palestinian politics. Smart money is on the Palestinians. No colonial structure can stifle the native’s ingenuity and resilience.
Steven Salaita’s most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine