AnalysisEx-Palestinian minister: PA walking thin line between sides

Tensions ‘ready to explode’: Palestinian jailbreak sparks fears of escalation

Full-scale violence is still far off, but the sensitive prisoner issue could upset volatile situation, warns Fatah official; further demonstrations expected on Friday

Palestinians attends a rally in solidarity to the escape of the six Palestinian prisoners from the Israeli prison of Gilboa on September 8, 2021, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians attends a rally in solidarity to the escape of the six Palestinian prisoners from the Israeli prison of Gilboa on September 8, 2021, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The escape of six Palestinian security prisoners has stirred Palestinian sentiment across the West Bank and Gaza. The situation is not yet spinning out of control, but serves as a sharp reminder of the powerful resonance the prisoner issue has for Palestinians.

On Wednesday night, several hundred Palestinians demonstrating in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners clashed with Israeli soldiers at “friction points” across the West Bank. In Ramallah, Israeli soldiers came under fire, although none were injured, according to the military.

Around nine Palestinians were injured by Israeli rubber-tipped bullets and one by live fire, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

“We’re still in the initial stages. But there’s potential for the situation to develop — if Israel finds the fugitives and eliminates them, or if it embarks on a big raid in Palestinian Authority areas, that could lead to intense clashes and a corresponding response from Gaza,” said Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former Prisoners’ Affairs minister in the PA.

The Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups have called for further clashes on Friday in solidarity with the six fugitives, as well as other Palestinians in Israeli jail.

The six prisoners fled early on Monday morning in a cinematic escape, a complex operation that apparently also saw several key Israeli security procedures fail to stop them. Five are members of Islamic Jihad, while one, Zakaria Zubeidi, is a former senior commander in Fatah’s armed wing. Zubeidi and four of the five others have been convicted of major terror offenses.

In an attempt to prevent copycat breakouts, Israeli authorities have transferred hundreds of Islamic Jihad prisoners to different prisons across the country. In response, Palestinian prisoners rioted, burning cells and hurling chairs. On Thursday, Israel canceled family visits to security prisoners for the rest of the month, according to the Red Cross.

The flight of the fugitives was received with celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza. For many Palestinians, simply seeing them deal a blow to the despised Israeli security system was enough reason to rejoice.

It also created a wave of public opinion ripe for exploitation by armed Palestinian terror groups in Gaza seeking to raise their profile. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have both threatened Israel retaliation if the escaped prisoners are harmed.

In May, Hamas took advantage of spiraling tensions in Jerusalem to ignite open hostilities with Israel, initiating 11 days of fighting. At the end of the conflict, Hamas saw soaring popularity, with Israel increasingly battered in the international court of public opinion.

Former Israel security officials fear that, like Jerusalem, the prisoner issue is potent enough to lead to another such conflict.

“Every act of revenge on prisoners will bring the opening of the gates of hell against Israel in every place,” Islamic Jihad additionally said on Tuesday.

Illustrative: Members of the Islamic Jihad attend the funeral of 42-year-old Palestinian Mu’in al-Attar, who was killed in an internal explosion at an Islamic Jihad site, in Gaza on September 8, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

“If there’s some kind of armed clash between the escaped prisoners and Israel, and one or more of them dies, there could be rockets, a clash between Israel and Islamic Jihad. Or, perhaps the greater fear: the West Bank could ignite,” said Mukhaimar Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Hamas, Gaza’s terrorist rulers, warned on Thursday that they were willing to “make any sacrifice to defend our heroic prisoners.”

For Palestinians, the fate of those detained by Israel for security offenses is of intense public concern. It is also intimately felt: many Palestinians have family and friends who have passed through Israel’s military court system, for offenses ranging from stone-throwing to incitement to involvement in deadly armed terror.

“If not you, then your neighbor. If your son isn’t in prison now, then maybe he was two years ago. There’s no Palestinian family which has not seen its members pass through Israeli jails,” said Qaddura Fares, a Fatah official who directs the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club.

The Israeli military also regularly enters Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank to conduct arrests. The late-night knock on the door by a search party of Israeli soldiers, leading to a family member’s detention, interrogation and release, is a familiar experience for many Palestinians.

At least four of the six fugitives who escaped before dawn on Monday were convicted of high-level terror offenses. Some had publicly acknowledged the truth of the accusations against them, such as Eham Kamamji, who murdered 18-year-old Israeli Elisha Asheri, from the West Bank settlement of Itamar in 2006.

Zubeidi was notorious during the Second Intifada for masterminding attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians, allegedly including a suicide bombing in the heart of Tel Aviv. He was arrested again in 2019 by Israeli authorities, who charged he had returned to terror.

Zakaria Zubeidi, then leader in the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the West Bank, is carried by supporters during a presidential elections campaign rally in support of Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank town of Jenin, on December 30, 2004. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

But many Palestinians are not bothered by such a rap sheet, as they see violence as a legitimate means of resisting Israel. Surveys conducted by veteran pollster Khalil Shikaki regularly find large proportions of the Palestinian public — most recently around 39 percent — support “armed struggle” as the most effective way to end Israeli military rule.

“We don’t look at them the way you do — as terrorists, or murderers, or killers. We just don’t see them that way. We see them like Charles De Gaulle, when he fought the Nazis, or the Vietnamese who fought French imperialism,” said Fares, referring to two cases of insurgents fighting foreign domination.

‘Ready to explode’

In the West Bank — as evidenced by the scattered clashes that erupted on Wednesday night — the prisoner issue can bring people out into the streets. In 2017, tens of thousands took to the streets in solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinians in Israeli jails.

Palestinian Authority figures have celebrated in support of the escape, and the PA’s official media has taken part in the general enthusiasm for the operation.

“It is the right of prisoners to search for freedom, just as it is our people’s right. We must make every effort to release the prisoners. I salute them, and hope these prisons one day vanish, never to return,” PA premier Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Tuesday.

But the PA must walk a fine line, as Ramallah will pay a high price should the West Bank security situation deteriorate, al-Ajrami said.

“Between supporting that people escape in general, and wanting to avoid losing control of the situation and seeing clashes erupt, the PA is stuck between two diametrically opposed interests. It’s not in an easy situation,” al-Ajrami said.

Palestinians take part in a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, in Gaza City, on April 17, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Ramallah is already beset by a growing crisis of legitimacy. Palestinians see the West Bank leadership as corrupt, ineffectual and increasingly authoritarian. Scattered protests erupted in late June following the death while in the custody of Ramallah’s security forces of prominent social media activist Nizar Banat, a harsh critic of the PA.

A former Israeli security official added that the situation could become even more difficult for Ramallah should its security forces alight upon the fugitives themselves. To turn them in to Israel would be unthinkable in the face of overwhelming public opposition; to withhold them from Israel would be nearly impossible.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians may have diminished since the May escalation, but they still seethe close to the surface, waiting for another opportunity to burst forth, said Fares.

“Things are ready to explode. All the explosive material is present,” he said. “The question, of course, is when the spark will come. And that, we can’t yet say.”

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