FTER SIX Palestinian detainees escaped the maximum-security prison of Gilboa in northern Israel on September 6th, mass euphoria reverberated across the occupied Palestinian territories. Celebrations erupted in the West Bank cities of Jenin and Hebron as well as in Gaza: People on the street waved flags and handed out sweets while drivers honked their horns in jubilation. To many, the prison break was a symbolic victory over the occupation and its infrastructure, and a thumb in the eye of the Israel Prison Service (IPS), which has said that Gilboa’s prisoners are more securely guarded “than the money in Bank of Israel safes.” On social media, people posted pictures of spoons, in reference to the ones the escapees reportedly used to dig a 20-meter tunnel out of Gilboa. They also shared memes of Zakaria al-Zubeidi, one of the six fugitives—formerly a leading figure with the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the largely defunct armed wing of Fatah, the dominant political faction in the West Bank—photoshopped into a poster for the American TV series Prison Break. Online, many prayed for the escapees’ safety. In Jenin, leaders of the militant political movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad called on anyone who encountered the escapees to provide them with food and shelter.
The next week, after four of the six detainees had been recaptured inside Israel, the mood among Palestinians was somber. In the West Bank city of Ramallah, a taxi driver told me that his mother had spent the night crying. A sign posted on a nearby store—shuttered at midday on a Monday—explained simply: “I’m too depressed to work today.” Anger and disappointment rippled across social media amid calls for mass protests in the West Bank. On September 17th, demonstrations broke out in downtown Ramallah, at the Qalandiya checkpoint, and in Hebron’s al-Fawar refugee camp. At the al-Jalamah checkpoint near Jenin, several hundred Palestinians protested, setting fire to tires and hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers.
Israel’s imprisonment of Palestinians has long been a galvanizing issue across the occupied territories and inside Israel. While Israelis tend to label detainees as terrorists, Palestinians view them as political prisoners resisting an illegal occupation that imposes its will through systemic violence: Many of the Palestinians in Israeli prisons are there for infractions like throwing stones at Israeli security forces, or for their membership in Palestinian political factions that are banned by Israel. According to Palestinian Authority (PA) statistics, Israel has detained more than 805,000 Palestinians since 1967—amounting to 20% of the total Palestinian population in the occupied territories. Today, according to the prisoners’ rights organization Addameer, there are approximately 5,000 Palestinians in prison, including 173 children and 14 elected members of the now-defunct Palestinian parliament. Addameer reports that 145 of these detainees are being held without charge or trial in what’s known as administrative detention and 494 are serving life sentences. Reverence for these prisoners is such an integral part of Palestinian society that posters bearing their names and faces paper the walls of every city, town, and village, and when prisoners stage mass hunger strikes for better conditions—as they did from within six prisons inside Israel in 2017—Palestinians often hold protests and shut down businesses in support.