Israel prison break: An indictment of the occupation

Ameer Makhoul

Middle East Eye  /  September 13, 2021

Light has emerged through a tunnel in the ground, a ray of hope for all Palestinian freedom fighters even as they are shackled.

As news spread last week of six Palestinian prisoners escaping from Gilboa prison, the morale of the Palestinian people was bolstered. Amid the despair of life under occupation, light emerged through a tunnel in the ground, carrying the message that what once seemed impossible could be possible.

Popular symbols emerged, including a tunnel hole, the number six, and a spoon, referencing the simple tool used to dig the tunnel. Palestinians felt a collective responsibility to protect the six men – four of whom have since been captured by Israeli forces – and to honour their sacrifice.

Israeli political, security and media institutions viewed the event as a strategic failure, one that threatened Israel’s deterrence power over the Palestinian people and the broader region. The escape, planned for months, was indeed a total failure of the system, including prison authorities, the Shin Bet and police.

Israeli authorities exacted revenge against other Palestinian prisoners, using a collective punishment strategy to take away their rights. These prisoners became hostages and scapegoats, as Israel attempted to salvage its image and create a “portrait of victory”. Israel’s deployment of extra security forces, known for using brutal tactics, poses a threat to these prisoners’ lives – and could lead to further escalation.

Broad consensus

When it comes to Palestinian political prisoners, there is a broad political, emotional and social consensus in Palestinian society. Prisoners represent a broad segment of Palestinian society, and Palestinians know that they sacrificed their lives for the sake of Palestine and liberation from Israel’s occupation. As such, responsibility for their liberation rests with the entire Palestinian people.

There is almost no Palestinian family whose sons, daughters, relatives and neighbours have not been imprisoned. Almost every type of individual or collective behaviour is considered by the colonizer as a violation that requires imprisonment, according to its laws. Student political activity at Birzeit is deemed to be “terrorism”, while Palestinians in Ramallah are barred from visiting Jerusalem.

Since 1967, around a million Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli forces. To the Palestinian people, none were arrested and imprisoned on criminal charges, but rather because they contributed to the pursuit of freedom and national liberation.

But those physically in jail are only one aspect of Israel’s regime of imprisonment and oppression. Indeed, entire families – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons – are prisoners of the same state of captivity.

Their lives are centred on the pace of the occupation, running parallel to the lives of their captive relatives. They plan their lives around prison visits and the accompanying hardships, and they deal with deep anxiety, especially when they hear news of campaigns to suppress prisoners, hunger strikes, or prisoners falling ill. How many Palestinian mothers are unable to sleep, thinking of their captive sons being oppressed?

National liberation

Anxiety and fear are constant in the Palestinian mentality. A mother fears for her imprisoned son during the cold of a harsh winter; a wife fears for her captive husband’s health and mental wellbeing; and a daughter fears for her captive father, who will miss her graduation or marriage. Palestinian joy is tinged with sadness, as smiles hide tears.

Historically, Palestinian freedom fighters relied on the belief that the national liberation movement would liberate them from imprisonment, and embrace their families if any harm were to come upon them. But today, in light of the Palestinian leadership’s weakness, a dangerous decline in international support, absolute US support for the Israeli occupation, and the failure of key players – such as the EU – to put pressure on Israel, this collective journey has taken on more of an individual dimension.

The six escapees knew the dangers they faced, but they took the risk in order to raise the voice of Palestinian truth and justice. That in itself is a great victory – a Palestinian voice urging the world to do its duty and end the occupation and the colonial settlement project in Palestine, as a condition for a permanent and just solution.

As hundreds of Palestinians continue to languish in jails, with prisoner-exchange negotiations occasionally building hopes only to dash them, it is clear that occupation prisons do not provide for basic human rights. Even those rights they do have were achieved through collective actions, and the prisoners paid a heavy price through punishment, torture and repression.

Today, Palestinian prisoners are resisting despair with a small ray of hope. The Palestinian people and international solidarity activists will support them, building hope for their cause even while they are shackled. The six prisoners not only escaped from a highly secure prison; they also paved a broader path towards freedom.

Ameer Makhoul is a leading Palestinian activist and writer in the 48 Palestinians community; he is the former director of Ittijah, a Palestinian NGO in Israel. He was detained by Israel for ten years