Palestinian prison break leaves Israelis red-faced, confused and amused

Shatha Hammad & Lubna Masarwa

Middle East Eye  / September 6, 2021

Celebratory gunfire rang out over Jenin after the news of the escape broke, while Israeli phones are flashing with Shawshank-themed memes as well as New Year greetings.

As Israelis celebrated the holiday of Rosh Hashanah on Monday, Palestinians were jubilant about something quite different: a dramatic and unprecedented prison break.

There are few issues more sensitive to the Palestinian cause than Israel’s brutal and sweeping imprisonment of Palestinians, and the discovery that a group of them had dug out of a heavily fortified facility overnight has immediately been seen as a resounding victory.

Celebratory gunfire rang out in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin as the news of the escape broke.

Before Monday, 4,650 Palestinians were being held in Israeli prisons.

That number is now six lighter.

Gilboa was built in 2004, during the Second Intifada, and is considered one of Israel’s most impenetrable prisons. Israelis have nicknamed it “the safe”.

Yet five members of Islamic Jihad and one of Fatah have undermined both the building and its reputation, and are now on the run.

Meron Rapoport, a seasoned Israeli analyst, described the prison break as a “great embarrassment to the Israeli security system”.

“The escape of six Palestinian prisoners from what is supposed to be one of Israel’s most guarded prisons presents the security system in a ridiculous, almost pathetic, light,” he told Middle East Eye.

Ultimately, sections of the Israeli public and opposition politicians will ask serious questions of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his government in the wake of this embarrassment, particularly following the killing of an Israeli border policeman at a Gaza protest on 21 August, which caused uproar among Israelis.

Yet, Rapoport said, “the escape has, of course, nothing to do with Bennett, as he can have no responsibility for what happens in prisons after less than four months in office”.

“But it will worsen his public opinion,” he added, “which has already been undermined by the Israeli sniper shooting case in Gaza. His government is not in danger of falling, because the parties that make it up want him to continue, but his personal credit is dwindling.”

As usual on Rosh Hashanah, Israelis are trading New Year’s greetings on social media. This year, those messages have been accompanied by various memes playing on the prison break and the image of the escape tunnel.

“Among circles in the Jewish centre-left, judging by the reactions on social media, the escape that took place on the eve of the Jewish New Year actually aroused some sympathy and appreciation for the fugitives who showed resourcefulness in the style of a Hollywood movie,” Rapoport said.

“Many shared a picture of the tunnel through which the prisoners fled, to which the caption was added: a year of new beginnings, a year of fulfilling dreams, a year of breakthrough.”

Palestinian celebration

That sentiment was certainly shared by the Palestinian factions.

“This operation constituted a major shock to the Zionist security system, in a major blow to Israeli security apparatus, considering that the escape happened in one of the most highly secured facilities,” Dr Walid al-Qatati, a member of Islamic Jihad’s political bureau, told MEE.

“This operation restored a sense of hope among our people for the possibility of victory, and reinforced the state of helplessness and a feeling of fear among the Zionists.”

All six of the escapees – Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah, Muhammad Qassem Ardah, Yacoub Mahmoud Qadri, Ayham Nayef Kammaji, Zakaria Zubeidi and Munadil Yaqoub Infaat – are from Jenin and its environs.

Senior Islamic Jihad member Khader Adnan described a mood of renewed hope among Palestinians there, now six of Jenin’s sons are on the loose.

“We have mixed feelings between joy at the success of the operation, and fear for their lives…but it boosted the morale of every Palestinian,” he told MEE.

“We call it a tunnel of freedom, we call it a liberation process, not an escape process.”

Yahya al-Zubeidi, Zakaria’s brother, also spoke of fear for the escapees’ safety.

“We received the news with mixed feelings of fear for Zakaria’s life, and joy for his liberation and his release from prison,” he told MEE.

Like many Palestinian prisoners, Zakaria Zubeidi was being held without conviction. He had been detained since 2019, and his family still held out hope at every court session that he would be returned to them soon.

“We expect that Zakaria and his companions are still inside Israel and have not reached Jenin yet… Israel alone bears the responsibility for their lives.”

High security

In the West Bank, Palestinians’ phones are buzzing with updates about the prison break.

With so many Palestinian lives and families touched by experiences in Israeli prisons, people are sharing memories and histories of imprisonment, and narrating the lives of those now on the run.

On Twitter, the hashtag “freedom tunnel” began trending on Monday, and there have been widespread calls to deactivate CCTV systems and delete recent footage to throw obstacles in the way of the Israeli search efforts.

Some even suggested confronting the Israeli army at checkpoints to distract soldiers from the manhunt.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials are left trying to get their heads around how the Palestinians managed to flee a flagship prison.

“It is the most guarded prison in the country. It is true that there are incidents of violence in it, but never such an incident,” said Makboul Tafish, former commander of the Northern and Central District in the Prison Service.

“Such a thing is planned for months and there should be intelligence on such things. Every day such a scenario should be checked, both in the cells and in the toilets.”

Ameer Makhoul is a leading Palestinian activist and writer, who was detained by Israel for 10 years in Gilboa. He said Gilboa is considered one of the most modern and strictest prisons in line with international standards.

“It was designed in different sections that are not connected, as if each section is a separate prison. The exits of each section pass through internal paths surrounded by walls with wires and monitoring devices,” Makhoul said.

“Its floor is built with reinforced concrete, with a layer of steel underneath it, which is also used in the manufacture of tanks. The prison is designated for people with high sentences and life imprisonment.”

Now the whole facility has been compromised, and Israel has bussed prisoners out and into other prisons. Meanwhile, the military has swept out across northern Israel and the West Bank, with Palestinians expecting lockdowns, raids and other repressive measures in the coming days.

“The occupation’s prison authority, along with its security, political and media establishment, are in a state of panic and recognition of failure. In times like this, the retaliatory response will likely be repressive, which is what they do so well, but it will only lead to more frustration for them,” Makhoul said.

“Today, and in the near future, prison authorities will shut all cells, preventing the prisoners from accessing the courtyards, which is one of the most frustrating punitive measures for the prisoners as it disrupts their daily routines and keeps them locked in the cells in the scorching heat.”

Though it is common for Palestinian prisoners to protest such conditions, Makhoul doesn’t expect such action this time.

“They are living a moment of euphoria and hope that ’the shackles shall be shattered’.”

Shatha Hammad is a Palestinian freelance journalist

Lubna Masarwa is a journalist and Middle East Eye’s Palestine and Israel bureau chief, based in Jerusalem