Palestine's great escape - #23

Six prisoners tunnel out of "high security" Israeli jail using a spoon (seriously).

Some good news for a change this week. We woke up yesterday morning to reports that six Palestinian prisoners of war had managed to escape from Gilboa, an Israeli prison in the north.

The six men — named in Palestinian and Israeli press as Zakaria Zubeidi, Mahmoud Arda, Muhammed Arda, Yacoub Qadri, Iham Kamamji and Mondal Infiat— escaped through a secret tunnel they had dug out of their shared cell.

Photos and footage of the tunnel were circulating online all day on Monday.

All six men are from Jenin, a Palestinian city which is only a few miles away from the prison. According to Google Maps, it’s only a 45 minute drive from the prison to Jenin, which is just across the “Green Line” inside the West Bank.

If that proximity to their home town seems to you like a security lapse from the point of view of the Israeli occupation, then strap in: that’s the least of it.

According to Israeli press reports, the group “managed to escape by using a tunnel they had dug under the floor of their cell’s bathroom”. The six prisoners “used a rusty spoon that they hid behind a poster to dig the tunnel.”

Which, you have to admit, is pretty hilarious.

Israeli occupation police said that the jail break was “one of the worst incidents of this kind to have ever happened in the country.” The prison is supposed to have been a “high security” facility.

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Police are reported to be investigating the possibility that this was, at least in part, an inside job. I wouldn’t rule that out totally, but it seems far more likely that the escape was possible due to a combination of Palestinian ingenuity, their determination break for freedom and the sheer incompetence of the Israeli occupation forces.

On the former points, Israeli newspaper Haaretz says that prison officials are still flummoxed as to “how the inmates disposed of the dug up sand, and how was it never discovered”.

Several details about this escape all point to a series of total failures on the part of the Israeli occupation forces.

Haaretz says that architectural blueprint for Gilboa prison had been available to download online for years, as it had been published by the prison’s construction firm. The paper explained that after this was discovered:

Poreh Yaacovi Karni Architects' website was taken offline on Monday, but a Google search can still yield the prison's architectural blueprint, as well as those of other prisons across Israel.

It’s likely the jail breakers had help from the outside. A smuggled mobile phone is also believed to have been involved.

Palestinians in the escapees’ home town of Jenin (as well as those in Gaza) took to the streets to celebrate this morning.

According to a senior Israeli police official, the group “could be at any place in the country” by now. Israeli patrols have supposedly been stepped up near the boundary line with Gaza and the border with Jordan to prevent their escape.

It will be interesting to see where the group turns up.

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Hiding from the Israeli occupiers in Gaza would obviously be the safest place for the escaped prisoners of war. Israel’s last two major wars against Gaza — in July 2014 and May of this year — proved that the occupier’s ground forces are no longer able to enter the liberated interior of the Palestinian enclave without Palestinian freedom fighters imposing a very serious cost in response.

Hiding in Jordan would be far more dangerous. But most dangerous of all would be to hide in the West Bank. Several Palestinian commentators on Monday remarked that the collaborationist Palestinian Authority would now be working overtime to find them on behalf of Israel’s occupation regime.

Veteran journalist Abdel Bari Atwan said that the escape was an “indication that Palestinian security has declared a state of emergency and will carry out the duty of treason, searching for them and arresting them.”

If the PA does indeed hand them over to Israel (as seems likely in the event that they do turn up in the West Bank) Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies could have another crisis on their hands — and they are already deeply unpopular.

Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the escaped six, was already something of a legend among Palestinians in the West Bank. And he is from Abbas’ own Fatah faction to boot, being a former commander of the Al Aqsa Martyr's’ brigade.

In 2007, Zubeidi actually handed in his freedom fighter’s rifle in return for amnesty from the Israelis (something he did on the advice of the PA). But the Israelis reneged on this deal only four years later. He was jailed again in 2019.

Zubeidi will be a familiar face to many people in the West from the documentary by Juliano Mer-Khamis: Arna’s Children. Mer-Khamis’s mother Arna — who was an Israeli Jew that married a Palestinian citizen of Israel — founded a centre for children in Jenin refugee camp affected by Israeli violence during the first intifada.

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But during the second intifada, the centre was destroyed by Israeli occupation forces, who essentially flattened the camp with military bulldozers.

The film followed all these event over the course of years, as well as a group of the eponymous children, some of whom became Palestinian fighters during the second intifada. Zubeidi was one of those children, and went on to defend the camp during the Israeli invasion when he was grown.

Zubeidi was the last of “Arna’s children” left alive. Part of the reason he took the deal was because, after the second intifada, he had co-founded the Freedom Theatre in the camp with his friend Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was sadly murdered by an unknown gunman in 2011).

Many Palestinians posting online today are comparing the escape to the US TV series Prison Break.

What immediately popped into my head was the theme to the 1963 film The Great Escape, memorably starting Steve McQueen and a young Richard Attenborough.

In it, a large group of British and American prisoners of war escape from a Nazi prison camp by digging a tunnel.

Let’s hope, though, that the Palestinian great escape doesn’t end in the same way as that film, with most of the prisoners caught or killed.

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My articles this week

Two articles for The Electronic Intifada this week. Firstly, here’s my latest depressing story about the sorry state of the Labour Party and how institutionally anti-Palestinian it has become. It seems even the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has become too “controversial” for officials in Keir Starmer’s Labour.

The good news, though, is that Starmer has not yet fully consolidated his power and that there are enough good Labour members left to stop things like a full ban on PSC from conference happening.

But my big article this week was this, my other EI piece.

It was a long piece on a topic I have covered before — the duplicity of Guardian columnist Owen Jones when it comes to the issue of Palestine (as, indeed, when it comes to most issues — Jones is a notorious flip-flopper).

In the feature I wrote about just how appalling Jones’ record on has been on the issue of the fabricated “Labour anti-Semitism crisis” (he’s promoted it all along). His latest crime has been to smear Ken Loach: despite initially posting a supportive tweet, he soon reversed course, apologising for doing so and implying that Loach was an anti-Semite.

His main justification for this was the claim that Loach’s 1987 play Perdition was “hurtful to Jews”. So I spend a large part of this article getting into the truth about the historical facts behind that play (which was censored after a ferocious Israel lobby defamation campaign).

Zionist leaders collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust: an inconvenient fact which that racist movement’s supporters would prefer you didn’t learn about.

The piece has been going viral and has prompted a furious response from Jones. Since he didn’t do me the courtesy of linking to my piece — the very piece he was attacking — I will respond in kind and not link to his. Suffice it to say for now that it was a pretty tired justification of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis (treading all the usual misleading ground).

Read the article that Owen Jones doesn’t want you to see here.

Finally, here’s this week’s Middle East Monitor column, about Israel’s appalling medieval siege on Gaza.

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Corrections: The prisoners escaped on the morning of 6 September, not “this morning” (i.e. 7 September) as this edition of the newsletter initially stated. The spelling of the surnames of the prisoners has also been corrected.