Palestinian Jailbreak to Freedom

Published September 8th, 2021 - 10:52 GMT
A Palestinian demonstrator detained by Israeli soldiers
A Palestinian demonstrator is detained by Israeli soldiers during a protest near the West Bank village of Tubas, near the Jordan Valley, on 29 January 2020 (AFP)
For Palestinian prisoners, prison break is a resistance method that seizes the power of life and death — and the power of release — from the Israeli state.

In the early morning hours of Monday, September 6, 2021, six Palestinian prisoners managed to escape the highly secured Galboa Israeli jail. This is rare. There are very few successful prison breaks in Palestinian history, the most popular of which was in 1987 from Gaza Prison, when six prisoners cut the iron bars and escaped. 

Another escape happened in 1996 when three prisoners dug a tunnel, two of whom escaped disguised in women’s clothing and the third was caught because of his men’s shoes

A prison break is even rarer in a new prison (Galboa opened in 2004), described by Palestinian prisoner support and rights organisation Addameer as the “most intensely secured of its kind where occupation authorities incarcerate Palestinian prisoners”. Even the Israeli Prison Services statement at the opening of Galboa Prison reads, “no one will escape Galboa”.

It is still too early to determine how the six prisoners escaped, and the method will likely remain a secret for some time. So far, we know that the prison authorities discovered the escape during a headcount around 1:00 GMT. Reports note that prisoners used a rusty spoon hidden behind a poster to dig a hole through the concrete and metal rebar floor of their bathroom and crawled their way out of the prison facility. 

This remains a speculation, however. Particularly because metal spoons (and other metals) are not allowed into the cells of Israel prisons. But of course, such tools may have been smuggled in other ways, as happened in 2003 when three prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped from Ofer Prison. The escape makes it harder to believe that Israeli security and surveillance mechanisms are impenetrable. On the other hand, it makes it easier to believe that Palestinian prisoners are determined to be free, using all means possible.

In my research, I study hunger strikes as a means of prison resistance. I show how prisoners choose death over prison dehumanisation. Since 1968, prisoners have embarked on such last-resort resistance tactics, seizing the power of life and death from the state and establishing an active role by weaponising their lives. 

Professor Banu Bargu developed the term ‘necroresistance’ to explain this process, which is about transforming the body from a site of subjection to a site of insurgency, presenting death as a counter-conduct to the administration of life. For Palestinian prisoners, prison break is yet another resistance method that not only seizes the power of life and death from the state but also seizes the power of ‘letting someone free’ from the state. 

Hunger strikes are limited in what they can achieve, compared to prison breaks; the latter is one of only two methods that can free sentenced prisoners. The other method is swap deals, the latest of which was on October 18, 2011 when 1,027 Palestinians were freed in exchange for an Israeli soldier. 

Now that the six prisoners are free, Israeli authorities have deployed sniffer dogs and set up checkpoints in areas around Galboa, as expected. In the following hours, we may even read about collective punishment mechanisms — including the imprisonment of family members — to pressure the prisoners to turn themselves in to Israeli authorities. 

Imprisonment is a daily, ongoing, and increasing reality for Palestinians, of all ages, genders and locations. As of September 6, 2021, there are 4,650 Palestinian prisoners. There is no Palestinian family that has not been touched by Israeli imprisonment, often used to collectively punish, dehumanise, and oppress the colonised populations. At least a million Palestinians have experienced detention in those jails since 1967.

As a Palestinian woman myself, political imprisonment has been central to my upbringing. I often hear about new Israeli orders of detentions, many of which are administrative detention: without trial, conviction or charge. As of September 6, 2021, there are 520 Palestinians under administrative detention, initially used by the British Mandate authorities to put Palestinians in prisons without charge or trial, and used by the Israeli authorities for the same reason. 

The story of Galboa escape brought back prison memories from home: the inability of prisoners to have (regular) family visits, talk on the phone or receive mail. Escape, for Palestinian prisoners, makes their life harder because Israeli authorities will continue to search for them, but may allow for more regular contact with family.

All stories of prison escape provide a lot of hope for prisoners and their families. As the story of the prison break came to the forefront, Palestinians and allies around the world joined an online discussion about abolition. In some ways, thanks to a growing abolition movement, the world is re-thinking incarceration in its totality. Moving beyond prisons requires collective alternatives that re-think punishment and challenge their existence as the sole way to achieve collective justice. 

Prison abolition is a joint struggle to change structures, dismantle systems of oppression, grasping things at roots, and abolishing conditions that make prisons the solutions to problems. It is an invitation to re-imagine alternative tools and spaces that are not oppressive, dehumanising, criminalising and colonial in nature.

Dr. Malaka Shwaikh is a Palestinian academic based in Scotland. Her research is at the intersection of prison resistance, focusing on hunger strikes, prison abolition and decoloniality.


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