The daring escape this week of six Palestinian resistance fighters from an Israeli maximum security prison has captured the imagination of Palestinians everywhere.
“You are far more dangerous than a Fatah or Hamas prisoner,” the Israeli interrogator told Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) prisoner Muin Fares to justify his excessive torture.
For Fares, since released and living in Gaza, these words trigger memories of Israel’s extensive prison system where Palestinian prisoners are categorized and sectioned according to their political affiliations. It is still the same system today inside all 23 prisons within occupied Palestine.
At dawn on 6 September, five Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners and the former commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (Fatah’s military wing) in Jenin, Zakaria al-Zubaidi, escaped from a prison in northern Palestine.
The prison they escaped from was the same maximum security Gilboa Prison where Fares was incarcerated, positioned between the city of Jenin and the Sea of Galilee; a heavily guarded facility designated for prisoners accused of terrorist attacks, or whomever Israel deems is a major ‘threat’ to its security.
The prisoners dug a tunnel under the bathroom sink – something that had been done and discovered by guards several years ago in the very same Gilboa prison. This time, however, the escape of the six captives and their intricately dug tunnel went unnoticed for at least three hours after they fled.
Privately-obtained information disclosed by a PIJ source reveals that the day before the escape, Zubaidi had requested a transfer from the Fatah prisoner section to the PIJ section. Aware of a strong link between him and the PIJ prisoners, the prison administration approved the transfer. Zubaidi’s brother Taha, who was affiliated with the PIJ’s military wing, Al-Quds Brigades, had been martyred in the battle of Jenin in 2002.
The other five PIJ prisoners in that section – Mahmoud Abdullah Al-Ardah, (captive since 1996), Muhammad Qasim Al-Ardah (2002), Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri (2003), and Ayham Nayef Kammaji (2006) – had all been sentenced to life imprisonment. They were active in the Al-Quds Brigades and had carried out a series of operations against the Israeli occupiers. The fifth prisoner was Munadel Nufay’at (a new prisoner since 2019), who also belonged to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Zubaidi’s request for transfer would cause an unexpected change in the escape plan, as 55-year-old Sheikh Raed al-Saadi, incarcerated for 33 years by the Israelis and dean of PIJ detainees in Israel’s prison system, was in that room. The title “dean” is bestowed upon detainees who have spent more than 20 years in prison, while those who have spent more than 25 years are nicknamed “Generals of Patience.”
Unluckily for Saadi, Zubaidi’s transfer would mean the transfer of Saadi to another section, as no more than six detainees are allowed to be assigned to Cell No. 5 in Section 2 of the maximum security prison.
Zubaidi has a long history of armed resistance. At the close of the second intifada in 2002, he and other Fatah members were given an amnesty after Operation Defensive Wall was concluded, and Zubaidi underwent a ‘rehabilitation process’ until he was re-arrested in 2019 for shooting at settlements in the West Bank.
Mahmoud al-Ardah, detained by Israel since 1996, is nicknamed “The Prince of Jihad (PIJ) Prisoners in Gilboa” and had been subjected to solitary confinement in 2014 after trying to escape Shata prison. During his years of captivity, he authored books such as Jihad Jurisprudence, Sheikh Al-Ghazali’s Influence on Islamic Jihad, and others that have not yet been published. His fellow escapee Nayef Kamamji, imprisoned since 2006, is also a writer but prefers the literary end of the spectrum – poetry, in particular.
For Palestinians, the West Bank city of Jenin represents a center of their struggle, a long history of particularly steadfast resistance – fighting until one’s last breath. Jenin is inextricably linked to “The Cause,” and specifically, to the countless Palestinian prisoners who relinquished their liberty for it. The city which Israelis call the “Hornet’s Nest” has been a security and military concern for the Israeli leadership for years, but increasingly so in the months after last May’s Battle of Saif al-Quds, when Palestinian resistance in the occupied West Bank was resurrected in defense of Jerusalem. As a potential destination for the six escapees, Israeli eyes will be fixed on Jenin and its surrounding villages where news of the daring prison break was celebrated with gusto.
This is not the first time that Palestinian prisoners have escaped from Israel’s maximum security prisons.
In May 1987, six PIJ detainees were able to break out of Gaza Central Prison. Coincidentally, many of them were in Fatah before joining the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (a group very close to the Islamic Republic of Iran) ranks inside the prison itself. The prisoners hid out in a house adjacent to the prison, while the Israeli army hovered above the Gaza Strip searching for them. The decision of the escaped prisoners to stay near the prison, a most unlikely hiding place, may have kept them safe for a while, but they soon split into two groups and dispersed. Some were re-arrested, and others were killed during armed clashes.
Israeli security services were mindful of this escape tactic in the current jail break. After initial estimates that the six prisoners had split into three groups with three possible destinations – Jenin, Jordan, and the Syrian Golan Heights – authorities switched direction and re-focused on the possibility that the escapees were still inside 1948 occupied Palestinian territories. Consider, however, that whatever information Israel announces or leaks is intended for public consumption. Occupation media plays a crucial role in Tel Aviv’s psychological war, whether to confuse fleeing prisoners and disrupt their plans, or influence and confound their families and the general Palestinian population.
Muhammad Jaradat, a freed prisoner who resides in Jenin and is prohibited from traveling, tells The Cradle about his time in Gilboa prison in 2004.
“I will never forget the day I entered the armored steel vault called Gilboa after a brutal interrogation for three months. I extended my hand from the tiny window that overlooks a sealed courtyard, hoping to touch the breeze from my city Jenin mixed with the winds of Marj Ibn Amer, but there was none. We were inside an armored box of iron and concrete, amidst a security system boasting the latest modern technology created by American and British minds – in order to break men.”
Jaradat, who was a member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, later published a book in Beirut entitled Ibn Taymiyyah: Between the Illusion of Reference and the Dominion of Blood. It was originally a doctoral thesis that a Palestinian university refused to discuss, and he still has a hard time getting copies of his book to Jenin, where he resides today.
Jaradat remembers his days in the same Cell No. 5 from which this week’s escape took place, explaining that it is several rooms away from the prison fence. During his time there, he recalls that Cell 5 detainees had asked the prison administration to exchange their (fewer in number) Fatah cellmates for PIJ ones. They offered to be moved to Cell 8, adjacent to the prison wall, a sensitive location from the perspective of guards. However, a prison security official was alarmed when he learnt that PIJ prisoners were being placed in a room adjacent to the wall, even though it was not an outer wall, but an internal one. And especially so, because like the prisoners who escaped a few days ago, Jaradat’s prison card was red, indicating a dangerous prisoner with intention to escape.
Interestingly, the prisoners escaped this week despite two previous attempts by the leader of the six, Mahmoud al-Ardah. Ardah is a close friend of the prominent commander of the Al-Quds Brigades and a Jenin battlefront leader Thabet al-Mardawi. Both are also from the same hometown, Arraba. Years ago, Mardawi tried to file down window bars in a bid to escape, but failed, and was placed in solitary confinement for several years as punishment.
Although the escape of Palestinian prisoners is not limited to PIJ prisoners, only a few of the mass escapes that Palestinians like to call “self-liberation” have succeeded.
The most prominent of these was in July 1958, when violent clashes took place between the prisoners and their jailers in Shatta, near Gilboa, both in the Beisan area.
Sixty-six prisoners managed to flee confinement, but 11 other Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers were killed in the daring escapade. The second successful escape was the aforementioned “Great Escape” of 1987. Then, in 1998, 24 prisoners from various Palestinian political factions tried to break out of Shatta prison. The plan would have succeeded had it not been for the third prisoner to emerge from the tunnel which had taken weeks to dig. He was wearing his shoes, and guard dogs were alerted to the sound of his steps.
Among the remarkable individual escapes is an attempt by Yasser Saleh, a PIJ member. Saleh was imprisoned in 1990 upon his return from Algeria, freed, then captured again in 1994, and released in 2009 after completing a 17-year prison term. While still incarcerated in early 1995, Saleh escaped from the Negev prison through a hole in the kitchen window, crawling to the outer bars which he cut with a large nail clipper.
Saleh was later arrested and transferred to Ashkelon prison, where he was classified as a dangerous prisoner. He was severely tortured after refusing to detail how he escaped and who had helped him.
Today, the families of the six men who made their bold escape from Gilboa Prison await news about their sons. One of them is the 73-year-old mother of Mahmoud Abdullah Al-Ardah. Her four other sons were also once prisoners, and she reflects on her pride in the heroism of Palestinians in their fight for liberation from occupation. She says all she wants now is to see her son Mahmoud before she dies.