The collective Palestinian pride in the prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison stands in direct proportion to its reputation as the most highly guarded prison for security offenders. It is so well-secured, as is usually noted, that some ex-prisoners have floated the idea that the six men were helped by one of the guards. In any case, Islamic Jihad spokesmen are asking everyone to call this not an “escape” but “an act of liberation,” with the prisoners being lauded for liberating themselves.
Jibril Zubeidi, the brother of the prisoner best-known to Israelis, Zakaria Zubeidi, was imprisoned twice by Israel. Of the 14 years he served in Israeli prisons, seven were in Gilboa Prison. He first got there in 2005, a year after it was built. Over a year ago, he shared a cell with his brother, in the same Wing 2 from which the escape tunnel was excavated. He has harsh memories of the violent, brutal treatment he received from wardens, making it hard for him to believe that one of them assisted the escape. He has no doubt that the breakout involved a more prolonged, complex operation than observers believe.
“When I came to the prison I wanted to prepare falafel,” he said Wednesday in the spacious house he shares with his brothers, on a high hill at the edge of Jenin refugee camp. “Obviously, there’s no food processor in a cell for grinding the chickpeas, so you use whatever’s available. You fill a small coffee pot with chickpeas and crush them with a cup. I put the pot on the floor and started mashing the kernels with a cup. Some veteran prisoners told me not to mash them, since under the floor were sensors informing the central office that something was going on. If mashing chickpeas is detected by sensors, what about digging a tunnel?” he said.
He figures the excavation took more than a year. “Between six in the morning and eight in the evening there is no way to dig,” he says. “You are out in the yard between seven and 11. Guards come in three times a day for counting prisoners, checking that everyone is in their cells, at six in the morning, noon and at eight at night. Between these, they conduct daily searches. They use a hammer to check floors and windows, to ensure that no window was filed and that there is no open space under the floor. At least once a week, a warden goes through the cells at night, shining a light on the sleeping prisoners to verify that everyone is there.”
Another security measure is called “root canal treatment.” Zubeidi uses the Hebrew term for this. “Once in six months they take all the furniture and personal effects out of the cells in one wing, putting the prisoners in another one, with a special unit conducting a search in every cell. Last May I was in Wing 5, and for one week we had prisoners from Wing 2, which was undergoing such treatment,” he says. He was subsequently moved to Wing 2 and from there to Ketziot Prison in the Negev. The windows in a cell are enough, he says, to make life in jail intolerable, prompting prisoners to look for ways of escaping. There is a mesh over the window, behind which are iron bars reinforced with concrete.
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Another released prisoner, Rafat Hamduna, suggested another reason why the excavation took so long, under the noses of prison authorities. In an interview with the Islamic Jihad news website Falastin al-Youm, he said the diggers had two ways of disposing of the sand and earth they dug up: either through a large pipe going from the shower to outside the prison’s walls, or in garbage bags. In both of these cases, the prisoners had to dispose of very small quantities at a time to evade detection.
Along with the big surprise at the news of the “self-liberation” of the six prisoners, Palestinian social media were filled with declarations of the great victory they had given the Palestinian people, with the world stopping its talk about Afghanistan and returning its attention to Palestine. Their escape served as a reminder of the existence of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, who are prisoners of war and freedom fighters, said Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmeh. “All the sentences meted out by the occupation authorities are null and void, violating the Geneva Conventions,” he said in an announcement published in Palestinian newspapers.
Jokes and cartoons about Israel’s humiliation apparently appeal more to readers, as judged by the number of times they are shared on social media. “As much as you’re feeling down and depressed, one thing is certain: You’re not as down and depressed as the commander of Gilboa Prison,” states one popular post. In a cartoon just posted on Facebook, there is a photo showing a police officer examining the opening of the shaft, outside the prison wall. From the tunnel a hand emerges, giving him the finger.