Fear and Elation Reign in Jenin After Six of Its Own Escape From an Israeli Jail

There is a thin line for the West Bank's Palestinians between life and death, and frequently that line runs through a prison cell

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A motorcyle in the Jenin refugee camp decorated with a poster in support of the Jenin-area residents who broke out of an Israeli prison on Monday.
A motorcyle in the Jenin refugee camp decorated with a poster in support of the Jenin-area residents who broke out of an Israeli prison on Monday.Credit: Nidal Shtayyeh
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Zakaria Zubeidi’s maternal grandfather, Mohammed Ali Jahjah, was one of the 66 prisoners who escaped from Israel’s Shata Prison in the major prison revolt of 1958. This detail in the family history was casually mentioned the other day by Zakaria’s uncle (on his father’s side), Jamal Zubeidi.

It’s been 63 years since that revolt, but this week’s focus of attention is nearly at the same location. The new Gilboa Prison, from which Zakaria Zubeidi and five other Palestinian prisoners escaped earlier this week, is a nearby extension of sorts of Shata.

Jahjah and Jamal’s father were born in the village of Qaisariya (Caesarea) on the Mediterranean coast and were either expelled from there or not permitted to return after the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. Jamal Zubeidi told Haaretz that Jahjah managed to cross into the West Bank, which was then under Jordanian rule, and to reunite with his family in the Jenin refugee camp. After that, but prior to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, he went to Jordan and was active in the Palestinian Fatah organization there.

After the events of so-called Black September in 1970, which saw clashes between the Palestinian organizations and the Jordanian authorities in the Hashemite kingdom, he left for Syria with other Palestinian refugees and militants. From there, he immigrated to Germany, where he was killed in a car accident. 

His daughter Samira remained in the camp and married Jamal’s brother, who died at a young age of cancer after he refused to provide Israel’s Shin Bet security agency with information in exchange for further treatment. He was survived by seven young children, to whom Jamal became a father figure. On March 4, 2002, during the second intifada, Samira was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier as she stood at the window of her home in the refugee camp.

Monday’s escape by the two prisoners whose trials are still ongoing (Zubeidi and Munadel Infiat) and by four prisoners serving life sentences came as a huge surprise to their families. Some had visited their relatives in prison just a few days earlier, after a considerable period when visits were not possible due to coronavirus limitations or other restrictions on movement.

An aerial view of Gilboa Prison showing how the escape was believed to have been carried out.

In media interviews, all of the relatives said the same thing: Anyone who was up early that morning read about the escape on social media, before the names were publicized. Then the phone calls began coming in to make sure that no one had missed the news. Friends started showing up at their homes, as did journalists. “We can’t answer any questions because we don’t know anything,” Jamal said, summing up their responses for Haaretz.

On the first two nights after the escape – or the self-release as they put it – friends and family, all of them male, gathered in the living room of Jamal’s modest home in the camp. Friends from Nablus brought trays of baklava to celebrate the six’s freedom.

They constantly and nervously listened to the news, mentally bracing for the possibility of an Israeli military incursion into the camp, as occurred in the villages of Kafr Dan and Arabeh, where the relatives of several of the fugitives were arrested, including five late Thursday night and early Friday morning. Everyone stayed awake until five or six in the morning and then went to bed.

Outside in the alleyways, there were more celebrations: People were handing out candy or firing into the air. “It’s natural that people would celebrate,” Jamal Zubeidi said. “And it’s natural that we would be joyful and fearful at the same time over the lives of the six – wondering what’s happening with them now, worrying about them. Worrying about what could happen to them, about what they [the Israeli authorities] will do to them.”

Jamal Zubeidi, Zakaria Zubeidi's uncle.Credit: Nidal Shtayyeh

From media interviews, it appears that older people expressed greater concern over the men’s fate, while the younger ones were more focused on celebrating victory.

Jibril Zubeidi, 36, was sure at first that it was ordinary convicted offenders and not security prisoners who had escaped from the prison. He got up early “because at seven I take my son to kindergarten,” as he explained it, and read of the escape. Then photos of the prison IDs of the fugitives were published. One of them belonged to his brother Zakaria. Jibril told Haaretz that he was surprised.

“There has been no verdict yet in my brother’s case. Maybe he wouldn’t have been given a very long sentence, so why escape?” On the other hand, he asked, “What kind of life do we have? I’m 36 and I’ve never seen the sea.”

Jibril Zubeidi with his son Daoud. Credit: Nidal Shtayyeh

His uncle Jamal, 65, was not surprised: “We’re in a situation in which the line between life and death is very thin,” he remarked. “And even if Zakaria were sentenced to 10 or 12 years, what would he do and how would he feel when he got out, when he was 60? Since 1967, all we’ve known are arrests, and people getting wounded and killed. There’s no longer any difference between living and dying.”

Whether or not Zakaria knew about the escape plan, his uncle said he was also not surprised that he went to visit the Islamic Jihad cell from which the escape was carried out. Prisoners often ask to stay with friends in other cells for a few nights, he said, and the prison authorities permit it.

One of the escaped inmates from Cell 2, Yaqoub Qadri, is a friend of Zakaria’s and was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Jamal explained. Jamal himself has been incarcerated in Israel eight times. On some of those occasions, he was held in administrative detention, without trial, but he was also prosecuted for involvement with the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The longest prison term that he served was a year.

Three of his sons are currently in jail in Israel, serving short terms. “Here in Jenin, we can’t stand the [Israeli] army or the Palestinian Authority. The PA is like Christians. It turns the other cheek to the occupation,” he said. Activities and conduct like his sons’ are seen as the opposite of “turning the other cheek,” one could conclude from his remark.

Jibril was released three months ago after serving 18 months in prison. (He had previously served a 12-year term for his activity in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades during the second intifada.) The military prosecution falsely charged him with very serious arms trading activities, he said, along with firing a weapon. He denied all the charges and in the end was asked to agree to a plea agreement – consenting to the minor offense of “incitement on Facebook.”

He agreed, he said, because he was tired of sitting in jail and knew the prosecution would not allow itself to admit it erred. After serving 10 months in prison, he was placed in administrative detention, arrest without due process. He went on a hunger strike for 27 days and was promised that he would be freed in six months. On the day of his scheduled release, he was again placed in administrative detention. That time a brief hunger strike led to his release.

A family history

Each of the six prisoners who managed to escape from Gilboa Prison has a family history that includes some or all of the following: life as a refugee; relatives shot dead by Israeli forces; childhood memories of military raids and home invasions; the expropriation of family-owned land for Jewish settlements; work in Israel; detentions; and participation in armed activity against the Israeli occupation.

The Jenin refugee camp.Credit: Nidal Shtayyeh

In addition to Zubeidi, two of the other five fugitives are from refugee families from the Haifa area. Yaqoub Qadri’s family lives in Bir al-Basha, a village founded by refugees in 1948. Munadel Infiat’s family settled in Yabed, a large village that took in a large number of refugees. Ayham Kamamji and cousins Mohammad and Mahmoud Ardeh are also from Jenin-area villages. Many members of the extended Ardeh family – some of whom have been killed in clashes with Israeli forces and some of whom are in prison – are affiliated with Islamic Jihad.

Israeli media outlets reduce and minimize the history of each of the six to the use of the term “terrorist,” which in Hebrew also implies saboteur. But that sabotages the reader’s capacity to understand the choices they have made in their lives – and the love showered upon them by Palestinians and the joy the Palestinians derive from their daring and success in remaining free up to now.

Even people who disagree with the path of Islamic Jihad and of Zubeidi see the six as being willing to make the greatest possible sacrifice (of life and liberty) for the continuation of the Palestinian fight for freedom. The reason Zakaria Zubeidi is the best-known of the six is not only due to the fact that Islamic Jihad does not speak with the Israeli media.

This small organization, particularly those in its military wing, follow the rules of covert, underground activity. They don’t run to tell everyone who their leaders are or seek out media coverage, as members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades did during the second intifada.

It can be assumed that part of the reason the six prisoners were able to break out of Gilboa Prison and avoid capture up to now has to do with planning skills and the capacity to maintain secrecy that members of the organization developed. That’s also why most of the prison breaks in Israel since the mid-1980s (both successful and unsuccessful) have been carried out by or with the participation of prisoners belonging to Islamic Jihad.

Attraction to Islamic Jihad

Small as it is, Islamic Jihad attracts young people who are not necessarily devout Muslims, but who are frustrated with what they see as the impotence of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian organizations vis-à-vis Israel – and their capitulation to it. They know they will be able to satisfy their desire to take part in armed activity from within the ranks of Islamic Jihad, which is not bound by political calculations and considerations (apart from support for Iran and its dependence in turn on Iranian support).

As a result, people who are not necessarily devout or who had been affiliated with organizations such as Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also join Islamic Jihad. Presumably they become more devout later on.

Even without being a devout Muslim and without being in Islamic Jihad, Jibril Zubeidi believes in God, the sovereign of the world and creator of everything. That is why he isn’t worried about his brother Zakaria. “I know that the sovereign of the world is the one who has decided: He decided that the digging of the tunnel would be successful, that the guard in the guard tower would fall asleep,” he said.

“God is the one who caused the police at first not to believe the reports of individuals near the prison. Zakaria’s case is in the hands of our God, not the refugee camp or friends. Zakaria has been shot a number of times; they [the Israelis] destroyed his home, spread terrible lies about him. When God wanted it, he was arrested. And then he left prison honorably. Half of our family is up there. Mother, father and my brother Taha [who was in Islamic Jihad and was killed in the Israeli army incursion into Jenin in April 2002]. Our God will decide whether or not Zakaria will join them,” Jibril Zubeidi concluded. 

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