‘We are living in graves, and our demand is freedom’ – the Gilboa prison break one year later

The six Palestinian detainees who escaped from Gilboa Prison (MEE - AFP)

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  September 9, 2022

The Tunnel for Freedom, when six Palestinians escaped from Israel’s notorious Gilboa prison, has become an iconic moment in modern Palestinian history. One year later, the six prisoners have been re-arrested but the unity their daring action inspired lives on. 

During the dawn hours of September 6, Israeli forces invaded the city of Jenin in a mass assault which included the firing of live ammunition, sound bombs, and teargas. 

One Palestinian, Mohammad Sabaaneh, 29, was killed, and more than 16 Palestinians were injured, mostly with live ammunition or bullet shrapnel. Two are still in critical condition according to a spokesperson at the Ministry of Health.

The timing of the Israeli military operations, which have become common place in Jenin and Nablus, coincides with a pivotal anniversary in contemporary Palestinian political history — the Tunnel for Freedom operation (nafaq al-hurriyeh) which took place a year ago on September 6, 2021.

The story of six Palestinian political detainees — Zachariah Zubeidi, 47, Munadel Nfeiat, 26, Mohammad Ardah, 39, Yacoub Qadri, 49, Mahmoud Ardah, 46, and Ayham Kamamji, 35 — has become an iconic moment in modern Palestinian history. 

One year on, the six prisoners have been re-arrested by Israeli authorities — following a fervent manhunt involving the entire Israeli security apparatus. Ever since their re-incarceration, they have been on the receiving end of a number of punitive measures taken against them as punishment for their daring escape. The families of the prisoners, who never got the chance to see their beloved sons, brothers, and husbands during their few fleeting days of freedom on the run, have suffered immense losses over the past year, as they still await the day they can reunite with their loved ones behind bars. 

The road to the great escape

“I got a call from one of my sons telling me, yaba, Ayham escaped from prison,” Foad Kamamji, the father of Ayham Kamamji, recalled exactly a year later to Mondoweiss. “I asked how he knew, and he said it was all over the news, and that’s when I saw Ayham’s face.”

For the Kamamji family, and the other families of the escaped prisoners, the second week of September of last year was filled with anxiety, celebration, and optimistic prayer that their prisoners would get to enjoy one more day, one more hour, before their inevitable recapture. 

“I was at once happy he got to experience freedom, but my heart was so afraid. I couldn’t but imagine all the different things that could have happened to my son,” Foad explained. “I didn’t know where he could be, or what could happen.” 

Palestinians hailed the escape as a new sign of unified hope. During the hunt for the men, different cities and towns continued to protest settler abuses, despite Israel’s “mafia-style coercion” in its hunt for the six men.

“Somebody needs to tell the story of the fighter…You cannot just take a picture and write that he is a terrorist,” Zachariah Zubeidi, 46, once said.

The actual escape is almost mythical in plot, but for the Palestinians, public conversation focused on the inspiration, the anxieties, and the sense of political revitalization, regardless of political affiliation.

Looking back on the escape and the social waves it created, we are presented with the opportunity to examine the entwined realities that allowed the escape to take place.

Held in Israeli prison since 1996, Mahmoud Ardah was known for his “stubbornness and tenacity.” He was allegedly the mastermind behind the prison break. Yet the kind of determination and steadfastness he displayed was not merely an innate characteristic, but carved out of the experiences Ardah witnessed throughout his childhood and adult life. 

Ardah’s first encounter with Israeli prisons was in 1991, at the tender age of 15. Despite being a minor, he was sentenced to four years in prison, and only enjoyed two years outside of prison before being rearrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. Perhaps it is due to this harrowing past that Ardah is also known to prioritize the well-being of juvenile detainees.

Ardah had attempted to escape prison twice in 2014, before the brief success of September 2021. 

Zubeidi, a co-founder of the Palestinian Freedom Theater in Jenin, is no stranger to Israeli measures against Palestinian detainees and their families. His own mother, Samira Zubeidi, who opened The Stone Theater on the top floor of her home, was killed during the 2002 Jenin invasion, along with her son and Zachariah’s brother, Taha. 

After Israel bulldozed his  home and the Stone Theater, Zubeidi would experience the pains of becoming not only motherless, but also of losing a sibling at 27. That same year, amid the invasion of Jenin in 2002, Israeli forces arrested Mohammad Ardah, at 19 years of age, and sentenced him to life. 

A few years later, after having already lost one brother and his mother, Zubeidi would join the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah’s armed resistance wing. Given amnesty by Israel, Zubeidi turned to theater, a space and form of expression that lingered with him through his mother. 

The Freedom Theater was founded in partnership with the slain Juliano Mer Khamis. Mer Khamis once said, “We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle…we’re not healers…we are freedom fighters.” Indeed, the six detainees not only fought for their actual freedom, but for the right to be free from all the prisons imposed on Palestinians throughout their lives.

“Ayham was able to liberate himself by himself, not in the way the Israeli military would want it,” Foad told Mondoweiss. “For me, those 14 days of escape did not feel like 24 hours per day, it felt like each day was worth 24 years,” Ayham’s father said, looking back. 

Kamamji is the eldest of six sons, and was arrested in 2006 and sentenced to life in prison. Only 35, Kamamji was arrested at the young age of 19. With less than two decades outside of Israeli prisons, Kamamji was exposed to the violence of both Israeli incursions and the splintering factional divisions that were peaking at the time between Hamas and Fatah.

In November 2017, Ayham’s younger brother Ahed was also arrested and taken to the notorious Gilboa prison. Adding to the pain, they were both denied family visitation when Israeli authorities issued a decision in October 2018 banning their mother from seeing her sons until 2020. Their mother never made it to that date, passing away in 2019. That same year, Israeli forces arrested Zubeidi. 

In 2020, Israeli forces arrested the youngest of the escapees, 26-year-old Munadel Nufeiat. That same year, the planning and preparation for the escape of 2021 would ensue. Nufeiat had spent a total of five years in Israeli prisons across his life. Most astonishingly, he was supposed to be released after a few months, before escaping with the six. According to his brother, Nufeiat refused the oppression” he was facing in Israeli prisons. 

Indeed, while four of the six detainees were serving life sentences, Zubeidi and Nufeiat were still awaiting trial. Nufeiat was held with no charge or trial for more than a year and a half.

For the family of the young Nufeiat, news of his escape came as a surprise, as they watched the reports flooding from media platforms. Yet the freedom was short-lived.

“We will return to all of Palestine,” Yacoub Qadri yelled from behind the Israeli officers, who ushered him out of court, in the aftermath of his recapture. “Our demand is freedom! We are living inside of graves!” he shouted. 

As though it was not enough to place the detainees under abusive conditions, Israeli authorities went after their families next.

‘The party is over’: crackdown in Israeli prisons

Mahmoud Ardah and Yaqoub Qadri were re-captured on September 10, and Zubeidi and Mohammad Ardah were re-captured on September 11. All detainees were interrogated by Israeli intelligence officers and placed under “abusive conditions,” according to their lawyer.

Kamamji and Nufeiat were the last to be re-captured on September 19, 2021. After almost 14 days on the run, Kamamji turned himself in. 

On May 22, all six prisoners were tried and sentenced to an additional five years in prison, a fine of five thousand NIS ($1,450) each, and a probation period of 3 years. 

Yet for the prisoners and their families, the moments they lived hovered somewhere between a nightmare and a dream, seeking some sort of holy grail towards a moment of no chains, no guards yelling the headcount, no raids on prison cells.

“The Israeli Prison Service attempted to seize the opportunity, as they have plans and tactics that they want to impose in order to restrict collective social life in prisons,” Qadura Faris, head of the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society (PPS) told Mondoweiss. “In addition to the punishment imposed on the detainees, they were physically assaulted and placed in solitary confinement.”

According to their lawyer, Kamamji and Nufeiat were brutally beaten and tortured by Israeli forces upon their arrest. “Ayham is complaining of pain in his head, and this is all a result of the brutality and savagery experienced during the arrest and interrogation,” Faris told Mondoweiss. 

Since their recapture, the six detainees have been transferred and separated from one another, and placed in solitary confinement — a practice deemed illegal under the Convention of Torture, which Israel has ratified since 1991 as a UN member state.

The 39-year-old Mohammad Ardah has been in solitary since last November, denied the most basic daily necessities, including recreational yard time. His cell is commonly subjected to violent raids. Ardah complains of severe back pains, yet the IPS has denied him medical care, according to his lawyer.

In a phone call with his father, prior to turning himself in, Kamamji had informed Foad of his intention to turn himself in, so as not to “endanger his community,” referring to Israel’s illegal practice of inflicting collective punishment.  

The vengeful campaign was not exclusive to the six escapees, extending to other communities, and to Palestinian detainees in general. For example, Israeli forces not only began punishing the six, but also retaliated against all that were suspected of aiding them or extending support, including detainee Iyad Jaradat, who was tried with the six. 

“When the Tunnel of Freedom escape took place, the Israeli Prison Services took it as a chance to impose policies they couldn’t enforce in the past,” Faris explains to Mondoweiss. Such Israeli measures have been escalating since 2018, as detention conditions have witnessed a serious deterioration.

In 2019, Israeli Minister Gilad Erdan adopted a set of punitive policies against Palestinian political detainees. 

“The party is over,” he told reporters proudly.

Yet what Erdan’s recommendations meant in practice was that political detainees would receive “the minimum [resources] required under international law.” Erdan continued to push for discriminatory policies even when the Israeli military warned that this would provoke and escalate tensions. 

Erdan’s recommendations included reducing water consumption, ending autonomy in prisons, eliminating detainee spokespersons, cutting financial balances for detainees, and ending group prisoner cooking. In practice, this has meant an increase in raids by Israeli special forces into detention centers, where Palestinian minors and children are imprisoned. 

Shortly after Erdan’s recommendations, Ofer prison, west of Ramallah, was raided. Unconcerned with risking the lives of more than 1200 detainees, including minors and children. Israeli armed forces fired teargas into prison cells, beat detainees with batons, and burned three prison cells.

“What normal person wouldn’t want to escape?” Kamamji’s father asked in indignation. “You must remember why anyone confronts anything, and you must question anyone that makes abuse seem normal.” 

Prison break ‘changed everything’

“It changed everything,” Foad Kamamji told Mondoweiss exactly a year after being summoned by Israeli intelligence, along with his son, to be interrogated about the escape of Ayham on that September day.

“The military had punished us all, including myself,” Foad said. Following the escape and manhunt, Israeli authorities Foad the right to travel and freedom of movement. 

“Prior to the escape, I would travel twice or three times a year, and I didn’t have any travel restrictions, but afterwards I traveled in March and was denied by Israeli authorities,” he explained to Mondoweiss

In the short time span between escape and recapture, Israel terrorized entire communities and neighborhoods, especially their families, who were taken into military detention and brutally interrogated. Yet the terror campaign persists, not only against the families of the escapees, but against Palestinian hopes of successfully breaking free from Israeli colonial domination. 

The military and Israeli intelligence operation “Break the Wave” was launched in February/March of this year, almost six months after the Freedom Tunnel escape.

However, the abuses and punitive measures inflicted on Palestinian detainees and their families long preceded the Freedom Tunnel operation, and is one of the drivers of Palestinian prisoner confrontation with Israeli Prison Services and authorities.

On April 14 of this year, Foad’s youngest son and Ayham’s youngest brother, Shaas, 29, was killed during an Israeli military incursion on Jenin. Five others were killed across the West Bank including a 14-year-old boy, Qusai Hamamra, in Bethlehem, and human rights lawyer, Mohammad Assaf, 34, in Nablus. 

“I was only able to see Ayham in May,” Foad recalled the bitter month where he contemplated how to tell his eldest son that his youngest brother was killed. 

As Foad attempted to find the heart and capacity to inform his recaptured and tortured son about the tragic loss on May 13 of this year, Israeli forces raided Jenin once again and shot Daoud Zubeidi, Zachariah’s older brother. 

Daoud was declared dead at Rambam hospital on May 15 in Haifa, after Israeli settlers led by Ben Gvir stormed the hospital and chanted for the killing of Zubeidi’s brother. 

Zachariah’s appeal to contact his family to grieve and give condolences was denied, according to Qadura Faris. 

The killing of Zubeidi’s brother was a mere two days after Israeli forces shot and killed the notable Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, in Jenin on May 11 of this year. 

‘The happiest days of our lives’

It is within these entwined histories and realities that Palestinians operate. Even though the six escaped briefly in 2021, there are more than 4500 detainees that continue to suffer Israeli abuses inside prisons. 

It is no wonder that there is a growing movement inside Israeli prisons against the inhumane practices of the IPS. This movement still holds on to the rejuvenated sense of hope that Tunnel of Freedom inspired. As Kamamji said during his trial, surrounded by a group of armed border guards: “we will have victory, we will conquer from above ground as we conquered from below it.” 

Yet what the memory of the great escape shows is the ways in which Palestinians are also imprisoned in their own homes. The Israeli military, spearheaded by the Israeli government and its settler movements, continues to control every aspect of Palestinian life. 

It is within these dynamics that Palestinians have been unifying against Israeli practices. Whether in the form of the Unity Intifada of last year, or the new found hope provoked by the escape through the Tunnel of Freedom. 

Even those that witnessed the bulldozing of their homes, or the killing of their mother and brother as in the case of Zubeidi, are not afforded the right to challenge and confront their abuser. 

When they do confront, Palestinians are further tortured in ways that are perhaps too grotesque to capture in words. It is a labyrinthine system that targets families, friends, communities, economic vulnerabilities, and political ruptures, to make Palestinians feel the pain of entertaining the notion of freedom. 

“Those days of freedom,” Kamamji’s father says heavily, “they were some of the happiest days of our lives.” 

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss