ECONOMY

Recaptured Palestinian prisoners become folk heroes

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Israeli forces this weekend captured the last two Palestinian escapees from the country’s most secure prison, capping an extraordinary fortnight in which the prisoners became folk heroes and the spoons they used to escape a symbol of Palestinian pride.

Israel relied on aerial reconnaissance, several police units and the help of a secretive unit of the military, 9900, which analyses surveillance images using artificial intelligence, to capture the six prisoners who escaped from Gilboa high-security facility on September 6.

In contrast, the Palestinian prisoners burrowed out of the jail in northern Israel using a spoon, the handle of a kettle and, according to one of their lawyers, plates left over from their meal. Five of them are members of the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, one of the most militant Palestinian factions and designated terrorists by the US and Israel.

For many Israelis, it was a damning indictment of their prison officials, whose amateurish mistakes became fodder for internet memes — one prison guard was either asleep or watching TV, the prison’s phone number wasn’t updated in a police directory, and the blueprints for the prison had been posted online by the firm that built it.

“It is done,” prime minister Naftali Bennett said after all six had been captured, praising the military, the Shin Bet intelligence agency and the Israeli police for their work. As for the failures that led to the escape, he said, “What has broken down — it is possible to rectify.”

Arab-Israeli protesters with Palestinian flags and spoons as they demonstrate in the mostly Arab city of Umm al-Fahm in northern Israel © Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

But for many Palestinians, the escape has been a rare opportunity to cheer hometown heroes and mock Israel simultaneously. About 4,650 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons accused of security offences, rights groups say.

“It was so empowering to see these six guys break out of Israel’s highest security prison with something so simple as a spoon — it made the Israelis seem so tiny,” said Salina Daw, an 18-year-old Palestinian student from Haifa, a mixed Arab-Jewish town in Israel.

In Jenin, the West Bank town where the last two men were eventually captured and historically a hotbed of militancy, the escape only added to the myth of Zakaria Zubeidi, the most high-profile of the six.

Zubeidi, 45, became a militant after Israeli soldiers shot his mother and brother, eventually rising through the ranks of the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade. He was accused, but never convicted, of violent attacks against Israeli civilians during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising. After a 2007 amnesty he was pardoned, but rearrested in 2019 after Israel said he had shot at buses heading to Jewish settlements considered illegal by most of the international community in the occupied West Bank. His trial had yet to begin.

“What a great man — he lost his mom, his brother, and his house twice, and I can only hope he will be truly free one day,” said Nazek Jarrah, a 54-year-old housewife who sent her children out to nightly demonstrations in support of the escaped prisoners. “What he did, only heroes can do.”

The escape prompted spontaneous demonstrations around the occupied West Bank, with Palestinian grandmothers mocking Israeli soldiers with spoons.

At a barber’s shop not far from Zubeidi’s home in the Jenin refugee camp, a crowd of young boys lamented his capture a few days after his escape. “I felt like the sky was crying,” said Abdallah, 18. “What he had done was so amazing, it raised our morale.”

The Gilboa prison from which six Palestinian prisoners managed to escape © Amir Levy/Getty Images

Outside, in the crowded alleyways of the camp, Wael, 36, said he had spent years in the same prison Zubeidi ran from (for “defending the camp”, he said, a common code for taking up arms against Israeli soldiers in the 2002 Battle of Jenin), and the escape felt like a dream. “What else can a prisoner think of?” he said. “Life in an Israeli prison is impossible, and all we think of is freedom.”

For now, Israeli engineers are examining prison security afresh. Prisons Service commissioner Katy Perry said at least 300 escape attempts had been foiled in the last year. The fact that the six escapees were rounded up within two weeks illustrated Israel’s reach and ability to operate within the occupied territories, analysts said. Members of Islamic Jihad in Gilboa prison had tried two similar escapes in 2014.

For Palestinians, the thrill of this latest escape had not been completely dulled by their capture, said Zakaria’s younger brother, Yahya, who himself had spent years in Israeli prisons for security offences. “All of Palestine is a big prison that we are waiting to be freed from,” he said. “Zakaria showed for us the symbolic act of the liberation from the small prison.”

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