The great escape has sparked outrage among Israelis, celebrations amongst Palestinians, and represents an embarrassing failure for Israel’s security apparatus, which could lead to an explosion of violence across the occupied Palestinian territories.
On Monday at approximately 1am local time, guards at Israel’s Gilboa prison realized that six detainees were missing from their cell. The maximum security jail and its staff had failed to prevent the inmates from escaping using a tunnel, which they reportedly used to travel underneath Gilboa’s outer wall. Local farmers near the prison said they saw suspicious figures fleeing through farmland.
In the wake of the escape, Palestinians staged celebratory marches through the streets of cities in the West Bank and Gaza, sparking fears among the Israeli political establishment of what may come next as a result of the capture or killing of the escaped prisoners. According to Israeli Minister of Public Security Omer Bar Lev, “precise and detailed planning” had led to the escape, whilst Israel’s Channel 12 stated that Bar Lev should consider relieving Israel’s Prison Service Commissioner Katy Perry of her duty.
All major Palestinian political parties congratulated the prisoners on their escape, except for the Fatah Party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, Abbas made phone calls to Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Defence Minister Benny Gantz to congratulate them on the Jewish religious holiday of Rosh Hashanah and stressed the need for greater collaboration.
The most significant aspect of this prison break is what it could pave the way for inside the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Five of the six escaped detainees are members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) Party, whilst the other, Zakaria Zubeidi, is a former leader of Fateh’s now disbanded Tanzim militia group attached to the al-Aqsa Martys brigades. Zakaria Zubeidi, who originates from the West Bank city of Jenin, commands a great deal of respect from Palestinians for coordinating armed resistance against Israel during the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising). Jenin has notably become a focal point for armed resistance against Israel in the past year, with independent groups of youths forming small militia-type groups which have confronted occupation forces.
Zubeidi, who was let out of prison in a Palestinian Authority-negotiated amnesty deal in 2007, was later arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment, with the Israeli Shin Bet (secret police) claiming he resumed operations and had confessed to two attacks on Israeli forces in 2018 and 2019. With Zubeidi, a national figure of armed resistance having escaped, the biggest consideration for Israel will likely be what he chooses to do next.
Armed gunmen in Jenin took to the streets on Monday night following the prisoner escape operation, possibly indicating that armed groups in the city may have been inspired to wage armed resistance attacks as a result of it. If Zubeidi returns to Jenin, he could end up sparking a large-scale armed confrontation between Palestinians and the Israeli military. If this does occur, then this is also terrible news for the Palestinian Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas. If Jenin turns into a warzone, then similar armed uprisings may be encouraged across the West Bank.
The joint list of Palestinian armed groups, headed by Hamas, inside of the besieged Gaza would also likely encourage events to escalate by attacking Israel also, while smaller Palestinian militias inside Lebanon may fire rockets. On Monday night, Israeli warplanes struck two military training sites inside Gaza’s southern city of Khan Yunis, in what the IDF claimed was a response to incendiary balloons being sent over the separation fence between the two sides.
Since the murder of Palestinian Authority (PA) critic Nizar Banat by PA forces in the West Bank, mass mobilisations have continued to take place throughout the occupied territory, with demonstrators calling on President Mahmoud Abbas to resign. The close relationship that has formed between the PA and Israel has led most Palestinians to see it as nothing more than a collaborator helping Israel’s military to continue its illegal occupation.
Now that the six prisoners have escaped, all other Palestinian political parties, including Hamas, have a perfect opportunity to ignite a joint West Bank-Gaza armed resistance campaign. If Israel manages to find the escaped captives, its confrontation with them may backfire dramatically, for if the prisoners are killed then they will become martyrs and an inspiration for further armed attacks against Israeli forces. This armed campaign may eventually end up being the beginning of the end of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank if PA forces are to intervene, as the guns may then be turned on them.
What looks on the surface to have simply been a Hollywood-style prison break and an embarrassing failure of Israel’s security establishment may lead to an explosion of violence inside the West Bank and a possible battle with the armed groups inside Gaza. All of this is terrible news for Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, whose coalition government will likely collapse in the event of a repeat of May’s 11-day war.
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