Palestinians flee the occupation's jails: Israel’s escapee crisis

Mohamed Abu Shaar , Wednesday 15 Sep 2021

When six Palestinian detainees escaped from the Gilboa, one of the newer and most fortified prisons in Israel, it trigged a political and security crisis

Israel’s escapee crisis
(photo: AP)

The leader of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade Zakaria Al-Zubeidi — one of those who were rearrested after the jailbreak — was taken to an Israeli hospital’s intensive care unit after being tortured, his brother revealed through social media. According to The Jerusalem Post, mosques in Jenin told Palestinians that Zubeidi was in a critical condition.

Palestinian protesters moved towards the Jalameh checkpoints to express their anger, followed by clashes with Israeli forces. The aftermath of the jail break continues, especially since it greatly embarrassed Israel and impacted the security situation with Palestinians.

Palestinian detainees Mahmoud Al-Arda, Mohamed Al-Arda, Yacoub Al-Qadri, Ayham Kamamji, Monadel Anfiaat — all members of Islamic Jihad — and Al-Zubeidi, escaped from Gilboa prison on 6 September, and most of them were captured a few days later. Israel said the detainees escaped by digging a tunnel from the bathroom in their cell using a spoon they hid inside the jail cell.

Israel is continuing extensive investigations to find the flaws that led to the authorities’ failure to discover the tunnel digging and notice the prisoners fleeing. A judicial official close to the investigations told the Hebrew website Walla!: “The prison guard sitting in the monitoring room should have been watching the security cameras, but instead was watching television and did not notice the six detainees escaping as seen on the security cameras.” The source added that when the six detainees came out of the tunnel, the guard dogs in the courtyard began to bark. “Israeli prisons have a new system that turns on when dogs bark,” the source revealed. “It came on and an alarm went off in the monitoring room, but, again, the guard did not notice it because he was watching television.”

Walla! reported that security cameras recorded the escape and the six detainees fleeing the tunnel. Al-Zubeidi was one of the first to emerge. Cameras also showed one detainee who had trouble coming out of the narrow tunnel, and the other detainees had to pull him out.

 The six men fled the prison and reached a mosque in Al-Naoora district in occupied north Palestine, changed clothes and separated into three groups.

 When, four hours later, the authorities realised they were missing and deployed Israeli security forces, army and police, the escapees decided against heading to their hometown of Jenin in the West Bank. Instead, they decided to hide in the town of Al-Nasra close to Hebron in occupied north Palestine.

Israel captured four detainees while Kamamji and Anfiaat remain at large, and Israel is on high alert in their pursuit with predictions that at least one of them has reached Jenin. This worries Israel because it expects a bloodbath if it attempts to invade the Jenin Refugee Camp to arrest them, since the camp is teeming with armed men from many Palestinian factions. Although it recaptured most of the men who escaped, the incident has embarrassed Tel Aviv, giving rise to extensive domestic criticism of Israeli officials.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett broke his silence and asserted these flaws happened due to deficiencies in the state and its agencies. He blamed his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu for such failures and promised to undertake radical reforms. Over the past six decades, there have been many escapes by Palestinians from Israeli prisons using a variety of means, including digging tunnels.

In July 1958, 66 detainees attempted to flee Shatta prison which led to the death of 11 Palestinian detainees and two Israeli soldiers; the rest were re-arrested. In 1969, Mahmoud Abdullah Hammad, alias Mahmoud Al-Sayfi, from the town of Silwad in the West Bank, managed to escape from a prison in Ramallah after hitting a prison guard in the courtyard. Al-Sayfi was on the run for nine years in the Silwad hills and surrounding area. In August 1970, he crossed the Jordan River and from there went to Kuwait.

The Great Escape was in May 1987, when six detainees escaped from Al-Saraya prison in the centre of Gaza City. They sawed through the prison bars in their cell on the second floor of the prison. It took them seven continuous days and no one noticed what they were doing. They began sawing the back of the metal bars late during night prayers and sometimes during the call for dawn prayers.

Another attempt to escape was in 1988 when 24 detainees from several Palestinian factions tried to flee Shatta prison. Detainees who had short sentences or were hesitant left the cell, and the rest chose the most experienced of them to begin digging a tunnel inside the cell. Another escape was attempted at Shatta prison in 2014, but authorities discovered the tunnel by the time it reached four metres.

Although Israel succeeded in recapturing most of the recent escapees from Gilboa prison, Palestinians see the incident as a great victory because it gave Israel a security shock and shone a light on Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons who suffer harsh conditions, which have worsened after the escape. Israel punished all detainees by shuffling and moving them around, and several detainees were beaten at many Israeli prisons. The incident also overshadowed Egypt-sponsored negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. The Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, asserted that no prisoner exchange will take place until the release of the detainees who escaped Gilboa. A spokesman for Al-Qassam said: “The heroes of the freedom tunnel will come out with their heads raised high.

The leadership of Al-Qassam decided no exchange deal will be made without the release of these heroes.” He further promised that the Palestinian detainees will soon be freed above ground. Hamas and Islamic Jihad openly threatened they would begin military escalation against Israel if detainees were abused in Israeli prisons or if the Israeli army invades Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, where Israel suspects the fugitives have sought refuge.

With these threats returned a policy of “dripping rockets” whereby for three days rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip against near by Israeli settlements. Israel responded by bombing Palestinian faction locations, which could lead to full-fledged military confrontations between the two sides. This is even more likely in light of detainee problems and Palestinians accusing Israel of reneging on its commitments in the truce that was reached after Israel’s war on Gaza in May.

Whatever the repercussions of the Gilboa escape, it is certain this incident triggered a new round of confrontations between Palestinians and Israel in general, and Palestinian detainees and Israeli prison authorities in particular. The latter are trying to take advantage of the recent escape to withdraw privileges or rights that detainees gained following long hunger strikes and protesting Israeli abuses against them.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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