Gilboa escapees on trial as Palestinian prisoners launch mass disobedience

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  February 16, 2023

In the aftermath of the Gilboa Prison break, Palestinian prisoners have faced harsh punitive measures by the Israeli Prison Service. They are now fighting back as the Gilboa escapees stand trial.

In September 2021, 6 Palestinian political prisoners successfully orchestrated the most high-profile prison break in modern Palestinian history, escaping the notorious Gilboa Prison and evading Israeli authorities before they were finally recaptured after several days on the run. Popularly called the “Freedom Tunnel” operation (nafaq al-hurriyah in Arabic), the escape has become an iconic moment for Palestinians. 

Seventeen months later, the Gilboa six are back in prison, and up against an Israeli court hearing.

Just last Tuesday, February 14, Zachariah Zubeidi, 47, Munadel Nufeiat, 26, Yacoub Qadri, 49, Mahmoud Ardah, 46, Mohammad Ardah (Mahmoud’s cousin), 39, and Ayham Kamamji, 35, appeared before the Nazareth central court to face their charges.

The appeal made for the six prisoners and the additional five people who were charged with aiding and abetting their escape was rejected by the court. 

“The rejection came in the form of a 50-page report,” Khaled Mahajneh, the leading lawyer on the case, told Mondoweiss. “What the courts are trying to emphasize is that the appeal is not only rejected, but nothing will overturn it. Most of the times, rejections are submitted in the form of a few lines, but this was fifty pages,” he expounded.

“We were expecting appeal to be rejected,” Amany Sarahneh, from the monitoring division of the Palestine Prisoner’s Society,

told Mondoweiss. “Clearly, no precedent exists for a Palestinian case that has received a positive response,” she explained.

On the same day as the trial of the Gilboa six, Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons have announced the start of mass disobedience protesting the punitive deterioration of prison conditions ever since the Gilboa Prison break.

‘I forgot the 29 years inside those prisons the moment I exited the tunnel‘

Ardah and Qadri were the first to be captured after their short-lived period of freedom.

Mahmoud told me that he walked into a field of cows,” Mohammad Ardah, the older brother of Mahmoud (the architect of the escape) and the cousin of Mohammad, another of the escapees, told Mondoweiss from his home in Arraba, Jenin“He went up to the cow and began kissing it. He said if he had a camera he would’ve taken pictures with her.” 

“They ate pomegranate and cacti,” Mohammad

continued in the same breath, recounting his brother’s narration of those five days of freedom. “And they also ate a type of olive that grows out of season.” 

“It’s a green olive. Mahmoud told me he must have eaten a kilo of it,” he continued, pausing only to laugh. “Now keep in mind, this type of olive gives you a stomach ache, there is no human that can handle it. But for him it was delicious.” 

“He had been in prison for 28 years,” Mahmoud’s brother told Mondoweiss. “In September of 2021, when he escaped from the tunnel and saw freedom, when he saw the sun, saw the world, the earth and the hills, he told me ‘I forgot the 29 years inside those prisons the moment I exited the tunnel’.” 

Mahmoud Ardah was recaptured along with Yacoub Qadri when a nearby Israeli police car stopped nearby them and requested identification. The men attempted to pose as workers from the West Bank, but were recognized and arrested.

Mahmoud was first arrested at the young age of 16, only to be arrested once again in 1996 at the age of 21. Having turned 48 this January, Mahmoud has spent 27 consecutive years inside Israeli prisons, minus the five days of freedom in 2021. Yacoub Qadri, 50, has been inside Israeli prisons for 20 years, also excluding the five days after the Freedom Tunnel. 

The Freedom Tunnel was Mahmoud’s third escape attempt. He had tried twice before in 2014, both of them unsuccessful. 

“The men enjoyed the five days,” his brother told Mondoweiss. “Those five days are celebrated like they were worth 50 years,” he said. 

For Nufeiat and Kamamji, their moment of freedom continued until they reached Jenin refugee camp. “This is where the two men stayed for three days,” a resistance fighter from the Jenin Brigade, Abu Mujahed, proudly told Mondoweiss during an interview conducted last October — in the same safehouse that had held the wanted men. 

Recapture and crackdown on prisoners

Mahmoud Ardah and Yaqoub Qadri were recaptured on September 10, while Zubeidi and Mohammad Ardah, Mahmoud’s cousin, were recaptured on September 11.  Kamamji and Nufeiat were the last to be apprehended on September 19 in Jenn refugee camp, turning themselves in to protect their communities from Israel’s punitive measures of collective punishment.

Since their recapture, the six detainees have been held in solitary confinement under the pretext of being “a threat to Israeli national security,” according to Mahajneh. Moreover, the six men have been constantly transferred from one prison to another every few weeks in “al-bosta’, a bus ride that doubles as a torture chamber for Palestinian detainees. 

Nufeiat’s arrest before the escape was on February 11, 2020, and he is now being held in Israeli prison with no charge or trial. Likewise, Zachariah Zubeidi, who was arrested on February 27, 2019 after having been released in an amnesty deal brokered by the Palestinian Authority (PA), is now also held without charge or trial. 

“Zachariah today, especially after the Freedom Tunnel, has become a political echo,” Abu Mujahed said as he sat in the same room that had harbored Nufeiat and Kamamji.

“Especially considering that he [Zubeidi] was arrested after he was provided with amnesty under agreements, this shows you that diplomacy is not effective,” he continued. 

At the same time of the six men’s court hearing on Tuesday, the prisoners’ movement has launched a campaign of mass civil disobedience against the tightening grip of Israeli authorities on their living conditions. 

“Mahmoud’s last message was that all international support should be geared to focus on the case of prisoners,” Mohammad Ardah told Mondoweiss. “Send their stories to the world in order to mobilize to stop the crimes that are being committed by Israel against them.”

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, there are 4,780 Palestinian prisoners spread across 23 Israeli prisons. Some of the detainees, including children, are being illegally transferred from the West Bank to prisons built beyond the Green Line, a violation of Internal Law. 

The story of the six is less about the escape, and more about the momentum and drive which pushed them to pursue freedom. “The issue of prisoners is the most important,” Mohammad Ardah explained. 

Punitive sentences

Not only were the six charged with an additional five years on their sentences, but those charged with aiding and abetting them had an additional four years added to their sentences.

Most of the six are sentenced to life in prison, so another five years on a 99-year sentence is peanuts. For those indicted as accomplices, however, another four years is vengeful.

“They equalized escapees and associates,” Mahajneh told Mondoweiss. “For aiding and abetting prisoners of war, they should have given the other men — at a bare minimum —half the sentence of the escapees, instead of a nearly equal sentence.”

‘We are headed towards frighteningly harsh times’–

Khaled Mahajneh –

As a lawyer who has years of experience with Israel’s military court system and cases of Palestinian political detainees, Mahajneh describes these additional sentences as punitive, “serving to add to the series of daily punishments that prisoners face inside prison walls.”

Recognizing the continued escalation of Israeli assault and mass arrests of Palestinians, Mahajneh expressed concerns on his own effectiveness as a lawyer. “Sometimes, I walk into the court and I feel that no matter what I do, I cannot benefit my clients,” he confessed to Mondoweiss. “These courts do not care about legal procedures. It even gets to the point that they’ll hold a secret hearing with secret evidence, where neither the lawyer nor the defendant are allowed to be present.”

“The prisons are full, the courtrooms are full, and we are headed towards frighteningly harsh times,” Mahajneh warns.

Mass disobedience in Israeli prisons

After his recapture, Yacoub Qadri shouted from the courtroom “our demand is freedom! We are living inside graves!” For Palestinian detainees, the conditions which they must endure in Israeli prisons resemble a kind of death. 

On Tuesday afternoon, amid the escalating repression of Palestinian prisoners, the Prisoners Emergency Committee, formed in 2021 following the Israeli crackdown on prisoners in the Freedom Tunnel’s wake, released a statement condemning the latest call by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to deny prisoners access to water by limiting water flow to an hour per day for collective use. 

The statement affirmed civil disobedience in the face of these punitive measures. “To those that decided to fight us with bread and water: we will respond with a battle of freedom and martyrdom,” the statement said. 

That morning, Israeli Prison authorities had cut off hot water from prisoners in Nafha Prison, located in the south of Palestine in a desert region that can average 0 to -15 degrees Celsius at night. 

For months, Israeli Prison Services had begun enforcing new punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners. 

At the same time, new arrests continue to pile up. In the last 48 days alone, more than 780 Palestinians have been detained, according to the Palestinian Prisoner Society. 

“Every day, you have 50 cases entering military courts,” Mahajneh told Mondoweiss. “The absurdity of the charges also shows you the likely escalations that will continue inside and outside the prisons,” he said. 

According to Mahajneh, some of the charges thrown at Palestinians, even children as young as 13 who are tried in military courts, are that the accused gave interviews to the Israeli media celebrating resistance or expressing support for Jenin refugee camp.

“Dark days are ahead,” Sarahneh warned “All developments we see are inherently political,” she said, referencing the connection of the crackdown to the prevailing political climate in Israel, specifically regarding the rise of the fascist right and the ongoing Israeli campaign against the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank and Jerusalem. 

“We are at a phase that is transformative. It is tied to an unprecedented government that shows extreme racism and unprecedented incitement against prisoners,” she continued.

For Palestinians who face the harshness of Israeli policy-makers, these measures are felt daily. “Look at the latest policy, which is fundamentally tied to a pivotal resource for the entire human population — water!” Sarahneh says. “They are taking away water.”

The current wave of prisoner disobedience was launched to obstruct the Israeli Prison Services, but it also has a symbolic goal. “It is to emphasize that the resolve inside the prisons is stronger than any policy the Israeli government tries to enforce,” Sarahneh says.

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss