Middle East Eye / September 8, 2021
Israeli forces arrest family members in a campaign of ‘collective punishment’ as the manhunt continues
Since their sons escaped the high-security Israeli prison of Gilboa on Monday, families of the six Palestinian prisoners have barely slept, fearing for the lives of their loved ones.
Several family members have already been arrested as of Wednesday morning, in what the Palestinian Prisoners Club has described as “collective punishment” and an attempt to pressure the escapees.
The six ex-prisoners tunnelled out of Gilboa prison in northern Israel after they dug a hole from their cell toilet floor to access passages formed during the prison’s construction, according to Arik Yaacov, Israel Prison Service’s (IPS) northern commander.
According to Israeli public radio, the tunnel was dug over the course of several months.
Only during the morning prisoner count did the Israeli prison authorities discover the escape.
Reports identified the escapees as Zakaria Zubeidi, former commander of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, as well as Mahmoud Abduallah Ardah, Mohamed Qassem Ardah, Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadr, Ayham Nayef Kamanji, and Munadil Yaqoub Nfeiat, all members of Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement.
An extensive search operation was launched early on Monday morning with Israeli authorities deploying hundreds of policemen and drones, according to Israeli reports.
They do not yet know if the prisoners have reached the city of Jenin.
‘I am proud of him’
Family members of the cellmates who spoke to Middle East Eye in Jenin expressed mixed feelings of pride and fear.
Nidal, Munadil Nfeiat’s brother, said that they woke up to the news that six Palestinian prisoners – including his brother – had escaped the Israeli prison.
“My brother spent a total of six-and-a-half years in prison. It has been a year and a half since his last detention, and until this moment, no charge was brought against him,” he said.
“We knew [the news] from the media. We hope that God will protect all the six prisoners.”
Nfeiat, 26, is from Ya’bad, southwest of Jenin, and had been in jail since 2019 without charges.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces detained his father for interrogation but released him hours later.
Nfeiat’s mother told MEE that she has not been able to sleep since she heard the news about her son and that she has refused to eat or drink until she can be sure that he is safe.
“I have not visited him or heard his voice over the phone for too long, I miss him so much, and I could not sleep last night. I am scared and worried about him,” she added.
“He is a nice young man who loves to help people. His friends and neighbours love him. What he did is a matter of pride, I am proud of him because not anyone can do what he did.”
Although Nfeiat’s family is happy that their son escaped the prison, they are afraid the Israeli forces might resort to killing him.
“I was so happy when I heard the news, but I will remain worried that the occupation would kill him until I hear some news reassuring me that he is fine,” his mother said.
In jail for nearly 20 years
Following the jailbreak, Israeli intelligence summoned members of 35-year-old Ayham Kamanji’s family from the village of Kafr Dan.
Kamanji had been detained since 2006 and sentenced to life on charges of killing a Jewish settler and participating in other armed activities against Israeli targets.
After they were called to the Israeli military camp in Salem near Jenin, his family was interrogated about his escape and asked whether they had any information about him that may help the Israeli intelligence find him.
“They have summoned me along with my son, Majd, and questioned us about our last visit to Ayham in prison, what we talked about and the topics we discussed,” Fuad Kamanji, Ayham’s father, told MEE.
“They also asked me about who Ayham might probably contact after his escape, and to whom he would resort. They asked about his relationships outside of prison.”
According to Fuaad, Israeli intelligence threatened the family with punishment if they concealed any information or provided assistance to their son during the search operation.
“I told them that our son Ayham was detained nearly 20 years ago, and that life has changed a lot since then. Where would he go? And who would he resort to? Even if he came to the village, people may recognize him only because of the photos [circulated over internet], but he would not recognize anyone.”
Fuad told MEE that the Kamanji family remains constantly worried that their son will be killed by the Israeli forces.
“Every time my phone rings, we get scared that we would receive bad news,” he said.
Previous escape attempts
Freed Palestinian prisoner Maher al-Akhras, who has been imprisoned by Israeli authorities for at least five years in total since he was 18, was cellmates with some of the escapees during his administrative detention.
He told MEE that the Israeli prison authorities tended to impose tighter restrictions on some of the escapees due to their multiple previous attempts to escape.
“They were always preoccupied with the idea of escape,” he said.
“I have never seen anyone like these young prisoners; they were merciful to all prisoners, very nice to everyone. They were humane and used to help any prisoner affiliated to any political faction.”
However, Al-Akhras added the escapees were stubborn and aggressive with their jailers.
“They were relentless and very strong that the Israeli prison administration considered them as prisoners to be reckoned with,” he continued. “These young men attempted to escape many times and dug several tunnels, but they did not succeed, so the prison authorities imposed further restrictions on them.”
According to Al-Akhras, the Israeli prison administration paid special attention to the six prisoners during their visits to the prison doctors for medical checks, imposing tight restrictions on the whole section where their cell is located.
“They insanely imposed restrictions and deployed guards on the section where they stayed,” he said.
“They were always thinking about how they would get their freedom, never relied on exchange deals. They always depended on themselves, turning a blind eye to deals of the century,” he added, referring to the normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab states last year.
Shatha Hanaysha is a journalist based in Jenin