Why are millions of Palestinians in Israel, in the occupied territories and around the world celebrating a prison break?

Movie watchers around the world (including Canadians) were thrilled when US GI Steve McQueen escaped from a German prison camp in the award winning 1964 movie “The Great Escape”. We admired the determination, patience and courage he and his fellow prisoners showed in digging an escape hole under the very noses of his hated Nazi captors. Palestinians are reacting the same way to the news this week that 6 political prisoners have escaped from a notorious Israeli jail. Read more.

Israeli security and intelligence services have been involved since Monday in the largest manhunt in the state’s history in the search for six Palestinians who escaped from high-security Gilboa Prison through a tunnel.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the massive manhunt’ involves police, two IDF battalions and fourteen companies of soldiers, as well as Special Forces. The newspaper added that there are around 200 roadblocks in place across Israel as part of the efforts to find the escapees. Special units including dog handlers and air support are also involved. More than 750 military vehicles are tied up by the search.

The incident constitutes a rare humiliation of the Israeli security establishment,’ said the New York Times, ‘and has provoked alarm about the security lapses that may have aided the fugitives’ escape.’

Palestinian jubilation

While the Israeli security establishment is humiliated and enraged, Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Israel took to the streets to celebrate on Monday, with people passing out sweets to strangers on the street as they held photos of the escaped prisoners. 

Jubilant Palestinians distribute sweets in Gaza City to celebrate the “liberation” of six Palestinians from an Israeli jail (Photo Mondoweiss)

For Palestinians the escape has symbolized one of their greatest collective “wins” in a long time. An estimated 20% of the Palestinian population, and 40% of the Palestinian male population, has been imprisoned by Israel at some point in their lives. 

According to the Palestinian Prisoner Rights organization Addameer, there are currently over 4,600 Palestinians political prisoners in Israeli jails, held in deplorable conditions, some times for decades. Over 500 are in what Israel calls “administrative detention” which means they can be held without charge indefinitely.

Many of those incarcerated have been accused of ‘terrorism” on flimsy evidence. Some merely for belonging to Palestinian resistance organizations which Israel designates as ‘terrorist organizations”.

The six escaped Palestinian prisoners are the boldest freedom fighters imaginable,” writes Gideon Levy in the Israeli daily Haaretz. “The Israelis who find this hard to admit would do well to recall many of the movies and television series they have seen: Escaping from prison is the perfect “happy ending.”

A classic case – “terrorist or freedom fighter”?

Forty-five year-old Zakaria Zubeidi is the best known inmate of the six. He was arrested and sentenced on suspicion of involvement in terrorist shootings.

Levy says he knows Zubeidi and his case very well. After he was captured, he was given a draconian sentence that lacked proportion when compared to sentencing norms in Israel for other convicts.

His story is a classic tale of a victim and a hero”, says Levy. “His father died when he was young; he was a teenager when his mother was shot and killed by IDF forces in the window of her home, and a few weeks later his brother was killed and his house was demolished by the army. Of all of his friends in the Jenin refugee camp who were immortalized in the wonderful 2004 documentary “Arna’s Children,” only he is still alive.

Prison conditions (i.e. for Palestinian prisoners) are a disgrace”, continues Levy, “failing any test of humanity and human rights, including a comparison with the conditions in which the worst criminal prisoners are held. (…) Decades without a furlough or a legal phone call with family, sometimes also without visits from family, living in such crowded conditions that even the High Court of Justice found it necessary to weigh in.”

Israeli revenge

Solidarity demonstrations have broken out all over the West Bank, and have been attacked by Israeli police.

Aljazeera reports that Israeli forces fired tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and live ammunition at crowds who were taking part in rallies on Wednesday evening across various cities in the West Bank, wounding at least 100 people.

In addition, Israeli military raided a number of Jenin-district villages and towns, for the third day in a row, detaining residents and confiscating the recordings of surveillance cameras. according to the Palestinian news agency WAFA. Military raids, break-ins and detentions are perceived as a form of “collective punishment” intended to force the six prisoners who escaped from a highly-fortified prison to turn themselves in.

Israeli troops have arrested at least five family members in the occupied West Bank of the Palestinians who escaped from a high-security jail this week, a Palestinian prisoners’ group told France 24, a media outlet..

What will happen to them?

The escapees’ whereabouts and intentions are unknown. Unless they are able to escape to a neighbouring country (which is not impossible) it seems unlikely that the prisoners will be able to avoid detection indefinitely. Israel is a small country, the military is everywhere, and Israel will no doubt be offering rewards and other incentives in the hopes of finding some Palestinian collaborator willing to betray them. If found, Israel’s fury will be intense. If they are not killed, observers fear they could be subjected to merciless torture in retribution for their audacity.

Canada should make the same demand of Israel as it does of China or any other country – to treat its prisoners in accordance with humanitarian norms.


Canada Talks Israel Palestine (CTIP) is the weekly newsletter of Peter Larson, Chair of the Ottawa Forum on Israel/Palestine (OFIP). It aims to promote a serious discussion in Canada about Canada’s response to the complicated and emotional Israel/Palestine issue with a focus on the truth, clear analysis and human rights for all. Readers with different points of view are invited to make comment.

Want to learn more about us? Go to http://www.ottawaforumip.org


  1. Peter, as you write, there’s no doubt that Israel will let anyone of the escapees get away. They will find them in the region or elsewhere, dead or alive. They are so arrogant that they can not abide that anyone can do one up on them, and so brutal, since brutality is second nature in Israel. They’ll torture hundreds and if need be thousands to get to them.
    Lives of Palestinians and possessions means nothing to most Israelis.

  2. At this time, my understanding is that 4 of the 6 escapees have been captured . Although the brazen escape has been described as a collective win for Palestinians , it will undoubtedly result in collective punishment and revenge by Israel for many Palestinians living in the West Bank and beyond. In addition, the situation for the 4600 Palestinians currently in Israeli jails will likely get worse . Sadly, much of the international community will continue to turn a blind eye.

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