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A spoonful of Palestinians crack the notorious Israeli “safe”

An artist works on a mural painting glorifying six Palestinian prisoners who escaped from Israel's Gilboa prison almost two weeks ago, in Gaza City, on September 18, 2021. The humble spoon has taken its place alongside traditional flags and banners as a Palestinian resistance symbol, after prisoners were said to have carried out one of Israel's most spectacular jail breaks with the utensil. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The safe! That's what the Israelis called the maximum security prison in Gilboa. Well, it doesn't seem like much of a safe anymore, not since six Palestinian men escaped from it in what is effectively the most notorious jailbreak of the last 20 years.

While Israelis launched a giant manhunt, trying to clear up the embarrassment, Palestinians were celebrating the escape as an act of defiance against the occupation and a much needed boost to morale.

So how did they do it? How did six men tunnel out of an Israeli maximum security prison?  Well, they did it using a spoon, of course, a rusty one.

In the early hours of Monday morning on September 6 a daring prison escape took place in cell number five, wing two, of the Israeli maximum security prison in Gilboa, nicknamed "the safe".

Six Palestinian men broke out of their prison cell through a hole under the shower, using a tunnel that they had dug with a rusty spoon.

Gilboa prison was built in 2004 and sits six kilometers away from the West Bank and just 16 kilometers from the Jordanian border. This is where Palestinians are sent to serve long and even life sentences, considered one of Tel Aviv’s toughest prisons; the cells even lack windows.

The escapees had to dig a 22 meters long tunnel which had taken several months to complete before finally escaping on September 6 at around 1am.

The prison authorities didn't realize there had been an escape until locals reported seeing something suspicious to the authorities, who then informed the prison, and by the time they did a headcount and realised six prisoners were missing three hours had already passed.

The six men who escaped were Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, incarcerated since 1996, life in prison; Mohammad Ardah, incarcerated since 2000, life in prison; Ayham Kamamji,  incarcerated since 2006, life in prison; Yaqub Qadri, incarcerated since  2003, life in prison; Zakaria Zubeidi, in prison since 2019, awaiting trial; Munadel Infeiat, incarcerated since 2019 without charge.

Five of the men are members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, meanwhile, Zakaria Zubeidi, perhaps the most famous of the six, is also a former commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and a very prominent figure in the Palestinian Resistance.

His mother was killed by an Israeli sniper, as was his brother, and their home has been demolished three times by the Israelis.

On the morning of the escape videos emerged showing the Israeli prison guards examining the tunnel which the prisoners had dug.

The fact that six Palestinian resistance fighters had outsmarted everyone at one of Israel's most highly secured prisons with just a rusty old spoon drew laughter and mockery online as people compare the prison breaks to movies like Shawshank Redemption and flooded the internet with memes.

Now in western movies and media the Israelis always love to portray themselves as extremely intelligent and competent perpetuating this myth that they are smarter than everyone else and they're the best in technology and security.

Well, it turns out all that was needed to defeat one of their maximum security prisons were six determined Palestinians, and one spoon, a rusty spoon which they hid behind a poster, hence the comparisons to Shawshank.

They did not just dig a tunnel but also managed to evade and avoid 40 guards, three watchtowers, two walls, barbed wire, security cameras and a pack of sniffer dogs.

The Israelis, of course, didn't find the jokes very funny and launched a manhunt in an attempt to capture the men, however, when news of the escape broke many towns and cities in Palestine erupted in celebration with people handing out sweets in the streets.

Both Hamas and Fatah celebrated the escape calling on Palestinians to protect and aid the escapees.

Most of the men come from Janine, which is located not too far from the prison, and residents of their hometown erupted in celebration as did Palestinians in Gaza, Jerusalem, the West Bank,… hailing the six as heroes.

Protests were also held in solidarity with those who are still incarcerated, after Israel in response imposed punitive measures such as moving prisoners of Islamic Jihad into different prisons; closing the prisoner shop which sells basic necessities.

The Israelis also limited the number of prisoners allowed in the yard at any given time and reduced the time they were allowed to spend outside to just one hour a day.

This whole incident was such an embarrassment for the Israelis that they even began arresting the family members of the escaped men as a form of collective punishment, detaining at least seven family members, and this reminds us of last year when the Israelis killed, Iyad Halla, a 32 year old autistic Palestinian man who the Israeli forces killed in cold blood.

They raided his parents' house in an attempt to find something incriminating and intimidate his family.

Meanwhile, the Israeli media has begun offering a myriad of responses as to why this escape happened.

First, they said that the blueprints for the prison were posted online by the architectural firm that built the prison; the firm's website has subsequently gone offline.

At one point, Israeli media also reported that, perhaps, one of the guards may have fallen asleep, or that the prisoners may have had someone helping them on the inside, or the outside.

Many wild explanations were trending, except the very obvious one, that they have simply been outsmarted and defeated by the six freedom fighters.

Now despite the success of the escape and finally being free and able to breathe in the fresh air of Palestine again, this freedom was to be short lived, unfortunately.

A few days later, on the night of September 10th, four of the escaped men were captured by Israeli forces, just a few hours apart.

Yaqub Qadri and Mahmud Abdullah Ardah were detained just a few hours later in a nearby town.

And in the early hours of September 19 the last two men, Ayham Kamamji and Munadel Infeiat, were detained by Israeli forces near their hometown of Jenin.

And of course, one of the first things the occupation does is post photographs of the men and handcuffs on social media in order to show off and posture, and more importantly, before they've been beaten and tortured for they surely wouldn't want to post those pictures would they?

And while the Israeli media calls the men terrorists, it's quite ironic, given that Zakaria Zubeidi has been waiting two years for a trial and Munadel Infeiat hasn't even been charged with any crime let alone convicted.

But of course, the other four are only terrorists in the eyes of the occupying power because they dare to resist, and they surely didn't receive fair trials.

Although there were rumors online and in the Israeli media that the captured men had been turned in to the occupation forces by other Palestinians, this is false.

This claim was refuted by one of the escapees Mohammad Ardah who insisted that no one had reported them or turned them in, it was simply bad luck, as they were spotted by an Israeli patrol.

The escapees never interacted with anyone, never asked for assistance, precisely, to avoid the Israelis exacting revenge on others.

Indeed, it was widely feared that were the men to be recaptured, they would face severe punishment at the hands of the Israelis, which, unfortunately, proved to be exactly what came about.

A photograph of Zakaria Zubeidi shows his face completely swollen from the beatings, after being arrested.

Zacharia had been beaten and tortured so badly that he had to be transferred to a hospital intensive care unit, his brother has told the media that it is very difficult to get any news or updates about his health as this is being kept secret by the Israelis.

Later on, the occupation court decided to extend the detention of the four escapees who had been recaptured and even blocked them from meeting with their lawyers, making it difficult to check on their health and well being.

Zacharia's defence lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, told The Associated Press that Zacharia was taken to hospital and given painkillers because of fractures to his jaw and two of his ribs having been beaten during his arrest.

Mohammad Ardah, who was captured alongside Zacharia, was also severely beaten during his arrest before being taken to a police station and stripped naked for interrogation.

The four escapees are being held by the Shin Bet in another prison and put through excruciating interrogations that last all day.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi has served as an official spokesperson of the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace process and, until last year, as a senior member of the PLO executive committee, having held several posts within the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, as well as the PLO.

She has founded several bodies and institutions dedicated to Palestinian self determination, such as the Independent Commission for Human Rights.

With the West marking the anniversary of the so called Abraham accords what are your thoughts on the current state of the resistance and do you think it is headed in the right direction?

Now, the celebration of the Abraham Accord is really a very cynical manipulation of a very bad situation and which the conflict is perpetuated with the complicity and collusion of some Arab countries or some Arab regimes that were either blackmailed or bribed into normalizing with Israel, which means normalizing the occupation and injustice and lawlessness ... That's another issue we can talk about for a long time, Palestinian resistance is ongoing, it has never stopped.

The question is, what shape, does it take, what expression does it adopt? it adopts many shapes many expressions and basically it is firmly embedded in the Palestinian people's refusal to surrender.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

What the escape from Gilboa means for the resistance

Why is this escape so important in its timing, scale and nature, and how does it play into everything mentioned?

The most significant aspect of this latest phase is, of course, the expression of total unity among the younger generation, of all Palestinians everywhere. The six liberated or self liberated prisoners have captured the imagination of the Palestinian people, and actually of the world, of people of conscience.

These are Palestinians unjustly imprisoned in many cases, and, unlawfully kept within prisons in Israel and judged by a military court of the occupation and kept in one of the most secure prisons in Israel.

And they managed persistently, and in an amazing way, to dig this tunnel and to be able to find their way to freedom. It gave the Palestinians a sense of hope, a boost of morale, that even Israel's most militarily secured location is not immune to the Palestinian spirit and yearning to be free.

This was the most important message, and all the Palestinian people united in defending them, supporting them and expressing a sense of solidarity and appreciation, while expressing also our yearning to be free.

There are different types of captivity, but as you know, all of Palestine is being held captive by Israel.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

The Israeli media said that the prisons blueprints were left online by the architectural firm that built the prison. They said there were also problems with the plumbing system that were exploited, they even suggested that one of the guards simply fell asleep or was working with the prisoners.

Tel Aviv has given out a host of reasons for the escape, do you think that perhaps they're just coming up with excuses to try and cover their embarrassment?

Yeah this is typical; they're always trying to diminish the treatment of Palestine and the Palestinian people. They are always trying to say something went wrong, or one person is responsible or whatever, but it shows that there is this dedication, there is this total commitment to achieving their freedom, to see their families to, as one person said, five days, Smelling the fresh air of Palestine, of looking at Palestine of eating, some of the truths and so on is equal to a lifetime in prison.

This is the kind of spirit, undefeated spirit, of the Palestinian people and this is something that is not consistent with the Israeli narrative or with the Israeli misrepresentation of the Palestinians. as you know, historically, Israel always labeled all Palestinians as terrorists and so it goes on and on and on.

They never say Palestinian unless they add the term terrorist to it. so the denial of the humanity, the denial of the spirit, the denial of the dedication of the real human nature of the Palestinian people and narrative; this now is not so credible given the fact that reality [the truth] is coming out, that people have a chance to look at what's happening, to address the Palestinians directly to utilize social media and other means, in order to debunk the myths and expose the lies of Israel.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

Hamas announced that there would be no prisoner exchanges in future with the Israelis unless they include the six men from Gilboa, what do you make of that?

That really encouraged Palestinian people because the six deserve to be free, as we believe all Palestinians deserve to be free, that all Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons are being held unlawfully and unjustly.

But in any prisoner exchange certainly there as well as others ... have to be released. So, the fact is they paid the price of their captivity, so to speak, and they showed the world how they can break the walls of that prison, how they can defy the conditions ... So certainly, they should be at the top of the list.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

The Lebanese newspaper, Al Akhbar, reported that an unnamed source had revealed that the Palestinian Authority had agreed to help the Israelis, catch the men in exchange for easing of prison conditions.

Do you think this report is credible and what are your thoughts on it?

I would like to check the source. Frankly speaking, I don't know who told the story ...I don't believe that there's any Palestinian who will betray these people, who have the leadership, are among the people.

And everybody including the government, the presidency, everybody, expressed solidarity with the prisoners, with the liberated prisoners, with those still in prison, and maintain their commitment to them so I don't think that anybody would betray them in any way.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

Could this be an attempt to sow discord, as they had done before, putting fake stories out and so on?

They attempted to say that they were handed over or betrayed by other Palestinians and villages and so on. So, as usual, the source of information should never be Israel.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

Why is it important for people to understand, to acknowledge, that the self liberated men are freedom fighters, they are resistance fighters, not just morally and ethically but indeed legally under international law?

It is important because as I said Israel has been trying to distort and malign the Palestinian struggle as a whole, and the Palestinian people, including individuals and freedom fighters.

Israel has arrested over a million people since 1967 only, Palestinians, and has killed over 75,000 Palestinians. Does that mean Israel has found a nation of terrorists? Does that mean that Israel has a system of justice for people under this occupation and held in captivity? Does it mean that the Israeli military courts and the Israeli laws and occupier's laws, and so on, hand out justice to the Palestinian people?

These are occupiers who are using every possible means, including utter lawlessness and violence against a captive population.

And then they give themselves the right to arrest, to detain, to kill, extrajudicial killings, and so on, and to brand everybody who defies its oppressive occupation as a terrorist.

So, placing things in context, contextualizing the reality of these prisoners ... actually people remain free inside, even though they are held in captivity. So, to try to malign them and to try to justify why they're there and to try once again, I mean the way they were treated when they were caught, it's just horrendous, the way they were beaten, the way they were insulted and abused and so on.

It's horrific, but this is the nature of Israeli occupation and a settler colonial regime that is based on pure, unadulterated racism, Islamophobia, denial of the humanity of the other, using any means of control in order to be able to maintain a stronghold and to stay in the land and resources as well as the narrative and reality and identity of the Palestinian people.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

One of the prisoners, Zakaria Zubeidi, we heard that he's been treated so badly, beaten up so badly by the Israelis that he was sent to the intensive care unit, and there's a media blackout on his health condition.

Do we have any news on how he's doing or is this blackout still in place?

…the story of Zakaria must be told, must be understood in its context and the film that was made on his children talks about a bit of his history, but at the same time, his family and his extended family and community and in the refugee camp in Jenin, as well as all of Palestine.

It encapsulates, this story of Zakaria encapsulates, the most horrific injustice as imposed on the Palestinian people, and must be seen, must be heard, must be read in order to understand the true nature of this settler colonial regime and the apartheid system in Palestine.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

Unity among Palestinians everywhere

What would you like to see going forward from the resistance movement towards the Liberation of Palestine?

… Liberation is a right; we all have the right to live in freedom and dignity on our own land. We have the right to exercise the fullness of our humanity.

In terms of our own struggle, the struggle continues, as you know, in different shapes and forms.

Nonviolent resistance, whether it is the will to stay on the land to me is the most important thing. Being able to remain, to defy, not to succumb, not to be defeated in your spirit, not to abandon your rights, and not to relinquish your urge, your drive to be free, singularly and collectively, this is very important.

And of course, the most important thing is to be able to withstand all these injustices and pressures to stay on the land, and to maintain your spirit and commitment.

this escape was the largest and most successful of the last 20 years in Palestine and therefore the Israelis want to make an example of the six men, but the simple fact of the matter is that these men are not criminals, remember one of them has not even been charged with a crime, let alone, convicted, and he spent two years in jail.

Dr Hanan Ashrawi

In the mainstream media they always insist on using terms like militant or terrorist or whatever else the Israeli government wants to call Palestinians, what is their crime? Resisting a foreign military occupation which has killed their families and taken their land, and then when they escaped from prison, which is a natural human instinct, they are beaten and tortured?

These men are freedom fighters, by definition; everyone has the right under international law to resist a foreign military occupation, including Palestinians. This is spelled out very clearly under international law by the United Nations, the Geneva Convention.

These men, like all Palestinians, have extraordinary resilience and courage not to give up after all that they've been through, and to pull off such an escape.

They not only freed themselves, but they also managed to raise the morale of all and gave hope to millions of Palestinians currently living under occupation.

Whether the Israelis captured one or all six, at the end of the day, what these men did at Gilboa was a victory for the Resistance Front which cannot be taken away regardless of the outcome.

The simple fact is that these men liberated themselves from the cruel imprisonment of the occupier and that is a victory in and of itself.

The fact that this was escape was executed with a rusty spoon makes it all the more incredible. As a matter of fact, people started throwing spoons at the Israeli embassy in Washington in a show of solidarity with them.

And then another show of support, Hamas recently announced that there will be no more prisoner exchanges with Israel, without the six men from Gilboa.

So, in essence, whether the Israelis like it or not, those six men will be free, one way or another.


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