Opinion |

Yes, the Palestinian Prison Escapees Are Freedom Fighters

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
A man walks by a banner depicting the six Palestinian prison escapees, Bethlehem, in the West Bank, on Wednesday.
A man walks by a banner depicting the six Palestinian prison escapees, Bethlehem, in the West Bank, on Wednesday. Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The six escaped Palestinian prisoners are the boldest freedom fighters imaginable. 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.”

The Acre Prison Break of 1947 – in which members of the Irgun, the pre-state underground militia led by Menachem Begin, broke in to the city’s prison to free militia members held by the British Mandate government – has been etched forever into the collective memory as part of the ethos of heroism. But what’s good for movies and for Jews is never applicable to Palestinians. The six escapees are only terrorists, and the national sentiment wants to see them dead. Meanwhile, social media is buzzing with witty cracks about the escape, perhaps in order to avoid dealing with its significance or to flee from the embarrassment.

The six defiant ones chose the path of cruel and violent resistance to the occupation. One can argue about its effectiveness against the strong and well-armed Israeli state, but its justness cannot be questioned. They have the right to use violence to resist an occupation that is crueler and more violent than any Palestinian terror.

After they were captured, they were given sentences that were draconian and lacked all proportion, particularly when compared to sentencing norms in Israel for other convicts. Their prison conditions are likewise a disgrace, failing any test of humanity and human rights, including a comparison with the conditions in which the worst criminal prisoners are held. Ignore the vile and fallacious propaganda about their conditions, with the photo of the baklava in prison: No one held in an Israeli prison has such conditions. 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.

Most of the six escapees have already served about 20 years in prison, with no chance of a future: Each of them received a few life sentences plus 20 to 30 years. Why wouldn’t they try to escape? Why shouldn’t there be a tiny bit of understanding for their act and even a secret hope that after having escaped they will disappear and begin a new life, like in the movies?

I know Zakaria Zubeidi very well; I could even call myself his friend. Like a handful of other Israeli journalists, I met him often over the years, particularly when he was a wanted man. Until about three years ago I was still sending him opinion pieces from the Haaretz archive that he wanted for his master’s thesis. Nevertheless, he remained a bit of a puzzle to me, and the entanglement that led to his rearrest about two years ago is still a mystery; Zakaria is not a boy, he is a father now, so why?

But his story is a classic tale of a victim and a hero. “I never lived like a human being,” he told me once. As a young boy, he was already carrying bags of sand at a construction site on Abbas Street in Haifa, while Jews his age were at home with their parents. 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. In 2004 he told me, “I am dead. I know that I am dead,” but luck, or something else, was on his side.

Like Marwan Barghouti and other Palestinian heroes, he wanted peace with Israel, but under conditions of justice and honor for his people, and he too felt that the only option left to him was that of violent resistance. I have never seen him without a gun.

I think about Zakaria now and I hope that he will escape to freedom, just as I hope that Barghouti will one day be set free. These people deserve to be punished for their actions, but they also deserve understanding and appreciation for their courage and above all for their righteousness. Israel decided to keep them in prison forever, and they are trying, each one in his own way, to annul the unjust, evil decree. They are exactly what I would call freedom fighters. Fighters for the freedom of Palestine. How could they be called anything else?

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