One morning in early September of 2021, I woke up to a social media frenzy. As I was trying to open my eyes and focus on what was on my screen, it was apparent that something exciting had just happened. “Six Palestinians escaped from Gilboa Israeli prison,” read the headline. Gilboa Prison is supposed to be the highest security prison in Israel, located just north of the West Bank. This seemed impossible. Apparently, the men had escaped by digging a tunnel with a rusty spoon. I could not believe what I was reading; it seemed like a dream — like a Hollywood movie.
As the news spread all over the world, we saw an image of an Israeli police officer peering into the tunnel with a surprised look on his face that seemed to say, “We don’t know how this happened.” Prison officials who had found the tunnel said it had been dug under a bathroom sink in one of the cells. It became clear that the six men had been digging the tunnel for six months before making their break. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, an Israeli Prison Service (IPS) official described the escape as “a major security and intelligence failure.”
According to the IPS official, there were a number of security failings that led to the prison break, including getting help from outside parties, delayed responses to suspicious activity and potentially having access to the prison’s blueprints — which were freely available online at the time.
The escapees, who are all from Jenin, had originally been incarcerated in Gilboa for different acts of resistance, and each had been subjected to systematic abuse and torture while inside the prison. Their names already had red flags against them and prison officials knew they needed to be watched, as one of them had previously escaped.
Both the Gilboa Prison escapees and the spoon have become symbols of heroic resistance. During protests, Palestinians now hold spoons up high while marching and call the tunnel a “freedom tunnel.”
Although we were overjoyed with news of this story, we couldn’t hide our fears that they would eventually be recaptured — we knew that they would pay an enormous price when they were found again. Their brief but jubilant time on the outside was a joy to watch from my home in Gaza City. As news came that they had all been recaptured, we Palestinians felt as if we had too been arrested. As soon as they were put back in prison they were subjected to torture, with reports stating that they had been electrocuted, beaten and bruised, and one of them, Zakaria Zubeidi, had been placed in hospital in a life-threatening condition.
Although they were only free for less than two weeks, it seemed their escape was worth it — for themselves and for the hopes of other Palestinians. One of the escapees, Ayham Kammaji, who was captured while high up in some trees, said, “I was never happier than when I was breathing the air of Palestine and eating from its fruits.”
In a conversation between Zakaria and his lawyer a few months after the capture, Zakaria said, “While Muhammad al-Ardah and I were sitting in an olive grove, I saw pine trees that had been planted by the occupation forces over our olive trees, and next to the pine trees were olive trees were sprouting from where they had been cut. I said to Muhammad “see how they planted pines in place of olives, but new olive trees are emerging from their roots. They cut the olives but they forgot that it has roots.”” This felt like a metaphor for all Palestinians: no matter how many times they try to cut us down, we will always grow new life from our roots.
Although Gilboa six are all imprisoned again, the time they spent as free men allowed them to taste freedom, which has given them hope to survive while back in jail. The story also gave hope to Palestinians all over the world, who saw what it means to not give up and to continue fighting for freedom and justice.
Posted: March 20, 2022
Mentor: Jessie Boylan