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Prison Break Has Already Derailed Palestinian and Israeli Plans, and Could End a Precarious Quiet

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Palestinians rally in support of prisoners held in Israeli jails, in Ramallah, on Wednesday.
Palestinians rally in support of prisoners held in Israeli jails, in Ramallah, on Wednesday.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP

The mood in Gaza City and in Ramallah in recent weeks had focused almost entirely on feverish attempts to bring as much relief as possible to Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, taking advantage of the positive diplomatic momentum in the region. Although the Palestinian factions in the Strip, especially Hamas, threatened to escalate tensions with Israel, it was clear to all that no one wanted another war. The Qatari envoy to the Strip, Mohammed Al-Emadi, bounced among Gaza City, Ramallah and Jerusalem, meeting with representatives of all the sides and advancing significant easing of restrictions.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was in the midst of drafting an address to the United Nations General Assembly summarizing a successful month from his perspective. It included a meeting with Defense Minister Benny Gantz that provided a direct line to the Israeli government and an easing of civilian and economic restrictions; open dialogue with Washington and the expectation of a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden; a summit meeting in Cairo with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi; and anticipation of developments in the Arab world that would have positive economic implications for the Palestinians.

The escape of the six prisoners from Gilboa Prison in the early hours of Monday morning reshuffled the deck. There was no script for this scenario, and a prisoner release wasn’t on the Palestinian radar. To Palestinians, the only possibility for the release of prisoners who had not served out their sentence was in the context of a prisoner exchange with Israel. That’s also why the prisoners and their families are so excited by any report of a pending exchange. No one even imagined that six Palestinian security prisoners would be able to break out of one of Israel’s highest-security correctional facilities.

No wonder, then, that news of the escape has dominated the Palestinian conversation. The Palestinians who are held in Israeli prison or detention are at the heart of the Palestinian consensus. No one criticizes them, and the Palestinian Authority is careful not to harm them in any way. The escape has the support of the full range of the Palestinian political spectrum, from Hamas to Fatah and of course Islamic Jihad and other factions.

The Israeli narrative, that these are dangerous prisoners with blood on their hands, has no meaning in its Palestinian counterpart. On the contrary, they are seen as heroes who overcame one of the most sophisticated security apparatuses in the world to break free, against all odds. The call went out immediately for Palestinians to protect and shelter them if needed, and not to cooperate with the search.

Mahmoud Abbas, then a presidential candidate, is carried by Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the six Palestinian jailbreakers, during a campaign visit to the Jenin refugee camp, in 2004.Credit: Enric Marti/AP

The Israeli response, especially inside the prisons, shows that the consequences of this incident go far beyond the escape of six prisoners. The decision to disperse security prisoners among different prisons was leaked within minutes, provoking near-immediate violence.

The subsequent prison riots and the clashes and rallies throughout the West Bank may be a sign of things to come. Palestinian organizations called Thursday for a “day of rage” across the West Bank and marches to locations where confrontations with Israeli soldiers are inevitable. The events of May testify to the volatile potential of this development and its ability to wear down Israeli security forces. Nor does the timing portend calm; it is mid-September, shortly before the October 1 anniversary of the beginning of the second intifada, which could add fuel to the fire.

The Palestinian Authority and its security services cannot afford to be seen as helping Israel capture the fugitives. But neither can it shelter the escapees. A repeat of events during the second intifada, when wanted men hid at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or with Yasser Arafat in the Muqata in Ramallah, is impossible two decades later.

Even if Israel does not seek the PA’s help, capturing the six escapees in PA territory poses a significant challenge that could have serious consequences; if the fugitives were to die in the process, the consequences could be even graver. Palestinian officials share this concern, telling Haaretz that for them it would be better for the prisoners to flee to a nearby state or the Gaza Strip, so as to avoid having to deal with the consequences of their capture in the West Bank.

At the same time, the organizations in the Gaza Strip cannot afford to remain indifferent to developments. If the events of May led them to fire rockets into Israel, the prisoner issue could no doubt do the same. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders and spokesmen have already set the bar high: Any harm that comes to the prisoners will incur a response. If another round of violence results, all the achievements of the Qatari envoy will have been for nought. The prisoner exchange talks would presumably also be suspended; who would release prisoners at such a time? The prison break is a complex event for which Palestinian leaders, in both Gaza City and in Ramallah, were unprepared. They must now recalibrate their actions in accordance with developments.

But Israel also faces a new reality. A commission of inquiry and any conclusions regarding the Israel Prison Service’s conduct are internal matters, but measures taken against Palestinians in Israeli prisons will also affect the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and possibly the stability of Israel’s governing coalition. The search for Zakaria Zubeidi and his five cellmates is not only a security operation. It is also a political and diplomatic event that will require careful consideration by Abbas, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Hamas leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar of their moves.

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