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Heroic Myth of the Palestinian Escapees Could Underpin an Israel-Hamas Deal

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Protesters supporting the escaped Palestinian prisoners, Nazareth.
Protesters supporting the escaped Palestinian prisoners, Nazareth.Credit: Rami Shllush

For the Palestinian people, the escape from Gilboa Prison has become a heroic action in which six prisoners managed to overcome the Israeli security apparatus and set themselves free, even if only on borrowed time.

The breakout will be engraved in the Palestinian memory as a heroic myth; it has already forged solidarity across all the Palestinian factions. The prisoners, everyday Palestinians will say, are part of the consensus, and there is no difference between Mahmoud Aradeh, who led the escape with his four Islamic Jihad comrades, and Fatah’s Zakaria Zubeidi.

This show of unity was expressed last week in a statement by Abu Obeida, the spokesman for Hamas’ military wing. He announced that the six would be part of any future prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. The fact that the six aren’t Hamas members doesn’t play a role, at least as far as declarations are concerned.

Now the Palestinian arena is digesting the capture of all six fugitives, including Iham Kamamji and Monadal Infiat, who were caught Sunday morning in Jenin. It wasn’t hard to notice the bitterness, anger and disappointment not only in the city but throughout society.

Zubeidi and Aradeh – the dominant members of the cell – were captured earlier, but the fact that two managed to reach the West Bank left an opening for a feeling of victory. The fact that the two reached the Jenin area only strengthened the optimists. Jenin, especially its refugee camp, was viewed as a tough nut for Israel – any operation there was expected to face fierce resistance.

What worked for Israel to capture escapees at Mount Precipice in Nazareth and Umm al-Ghanam in the north wouldn’t work in Jenin, the optimists thought. But there, too, fugitives were caught without resistance. The prisoners, who in Israel are considered dangerous terrorist murderers, surrendered without conditions.

Scenarios of heroism on Palestinian social media remained in the virtual world. And if this weren’t enough, mutual accusations flew among the Palestinians from both sides of the Green Line.

A demonstrator holds up a spoon, reportedly the digging tool used by six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison, at a rally in Khan Yunis, Gaza.Credit: Said Khatib / AFP

The capture of the six fugitives also raises questions about the Palestinian factions’ ability to help their members on the ground, mostly in the West Bank.

Zubeidi and the five Islamic Jihad operatives are members of two large and well-known organizations. The prisoner escape should have encouraged every group that sees itself at the spearhead of the national struggle to stop at nothing to help its own people; for example, with secret messages to cells on the ground immediately after the fugitives left the tunnel.

But nothing was done. The show of strength of the armed men in the Jenin refugee camp didn’t help hide the prisoners or stymie the Israeli operation.

Even though there are a lot of weapons in the West Bank, especially in Jenin, it’s impossible to talk about an infrastructure that can challenge the Israeli security forces. The only infrastructure is that of the Palestinian Authority, and no one there even thought about stoking a confrontation with Israel by providing shelter to the prisoners.

Now the burden is with Hamas. Maybe some members of the group breathed a sigh of relief when the affair ended without a confrontation with Israel, but the end of the affair puts the group to the test.

Will Hamas insist on the release of the six as a key condition for a deal with Israel, or will it find a way to minimize this demand? After the fighting with Gaza in May, the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said he wanted 1,111 prisoners released in a future swap. Will that number now rise to 1,117?

The Palestinians would want that, but Sinwar is lowering expectations. As far as he’s concerned, the message has already sunk in, and the hope is the same size as the disappointment.

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