Israeli authorities have grown increasingly frustrated, embarrassed and perplexed in the days since six Palestinians escaped from one of Israel’s most fortified prisons.
Amid speculation that the men might be hiding out in the West Bank, or could have crossed the border to Jordan, Palestinians are praying for their safety and hailing them as heroes.
Their escape is a huge morale boost for Palestinians, as it once again shatters Israel’s image of strength and invincibility in the face of an occupied people struggling for its freedom.
The seemingly impossible feat has generated comparisons to The Great Escape – the movie retelling the epic story of Allied prisoners of war who tunneled out of a heavily guarded Nazi POW camp during World War II.
The majority of the prisoners had been accused of involvement in planning or carrying out attacks against Israelis, and four of the six had been serving life sentences. Two had been awaiting trial.
Five of the men – Ayham Kamamji, 35, Yacoub Qadri, 49, Munadel Infiat, 26, Muhammad Arda, 39, Mahmoud Arda, 46 – are affiliated with the Palestinian resistance organization Islamic Jihad.
The sixth and the most well-known is Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, a former commander of al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militia affiliated with Fatah.
The men likely spent months digging the tunnel.
Israel’s domestic spying and torture agency Shin Bet, the military and the police launched a wide-scale manhunt, setting up nearly 200 checkpoints all over the occupied West Bank in search of the men.
Israeli police think it likely that the men split into smaller groups and some may have reached neighboring countries. The Shin Bet speculates the escape may have involved coordination outside the prison as well.
The men likely escaped around 1:30 am on Monday.
Suspicions arose in the early hours when a cab driver said he saw the men at a gas station near the prison and called the police at 1:49 am. The prison was reportedly notified at 2:14 am.
It was only at 3:29 in the morning that the Israel Prison Service reported three inmates missing, and it took another half hour before it became clear there were three others.
Those time gaps are also being investigated as part of the probe into the breach.
An official from the Israel Prison Service called it “a major security and intelligence failure.”
The architectural blueprints of Gilboa prison, as well as other Israeli prisons, had reportedly been published online by an architecture firm involved in construction – though it is unclear whether the prisoners would have had any access to the plans.
A wounded Goliath, Israel immediately began “a series of collective, punitive, retaliatory and arbitrary measures” against Palestinian prisoners en masse, according to prisoners rights group Addameer.
Prison authorities began transferring hundreds of prisoners in Gilboa to other locations for investigation and interrogations.
Prison authorities are also using a variety of tactics to retaliate, including withholding meals, denying prisoners certain rights they gained through protests and hunger strikes, conducting raids and searches of prison cells and scattering prisoners affiliated with Islamic Jihad across different rooms, sections and prisons.
Such Israeli raids, which at times are conducted by special units, are “extremely violent in nature” and constitute “collective punishment, torture and ill-treatment,” Addameer said.
Palestinian prisoners declared a state of “general alarm and rebellion” on Wednesday in response to Israel’s revenge measures since the escape.
Israeli prison authorities dramatically escalated their violence on Wednesday, sending in special units backed up by occupation soldiers and dogs.
Detainees’ hands and feet were tied, as some were thrown out of their cells and assaulted. Local media circulated photos showing ransacked cells:“If the escalation continues at this rate, there will be a real war in prisons and detention centers,” the Palestinian Authority’s commission for prisoners said.
In protest of Israel’s oppressive tactics, prisoners lit fires in their cells.
Katy Perry, the head of the Israel Prison Service, decided “that only one Islamic Jihad prisoner is placed in any given prison cell,” the newspaper Haaretz reported.
But the movement and its detainees vowed immediate resistance. Some 150 prisoners affiliated with Islamic Jihad refused to be forcibly transferred out of Ofer military prison near Ramallah.
The strength of the response forced Israel to back off. Israeli officials reversed the decision, “fearing mass disturbance,” according to Haaretz.
“They’re just scared of them,” one senior Israel Prison Service official told the newspaper.
Israel’s violent reaction “stems from the military failure and the security downfall of the occupation government,” the Palestinian Authority’s commission for prisoners said.
The group added that Israel is “working to cover up its failure and defeat in front of the solid will of the Palestinian prisoners.”
Israel is also taking out its frustration against the families of the escaped prisoners. Occupation forces have arrested multiple family members of those who had escaped.
The prisoners ripping their freedom from the clutches of the occupier is Israel’s latest humiliation in a series of events that Palestinians hailed as victories this year.
This started with the deterrence established when Palestinian armed factions in Gaza resisted Israel’s ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem and bombing campaign in May, and extended to the incident where a Palestinian shot back at an Israeli sniper through a small opening in the barrier between Gaza and Israel in August.
All Palestinians held by Israel as a consequence of resistance to Israel’s violent occupation and colonialism should be considered political prisoners – even if Israel portrays them as criminals and “terrorists.”
The British government also considered those it jailed during the armed struggle in Ireland’s north to be “terrorists” and criminals, but ultimately recognized their political status when it agreed to free them as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Most Palestinians are tried in Israel’s military court, while Israeli settlers are subject to civilian courts – an aspect of Israel’s apartheid system.
The military courts lack basic due process and have a near-100 percent conviction rate for Palestinians.
Just as the men’s escape from the occupier’s prison is a form of resistance, so too are the actions that place thousands of Palestinians inside those prisons in the first place.
Ali Abunimah contributed analysis.