Earlier this week, six Palestinian prisoners escaped from Gilboa, a maximum-security prison in Israel. The escape was highly-publicized, and provoked a range of responses from different local, regional, and international sources and bodies. These ranged from official statements reflecting on the resilience of Palestinian prisoners or the possible threats posed by the outbreak, to witty comments and memes about the escape. The jailbreak questions the efficacy of modern carceral institutions in containing nationalist struggles, and shows how popular culture in Palestine rises to embrace symbols of resistance.
A highlight of the attention on the escape has been on the almost irony of the ability of the six men to escape from a maximum-security prison, despite all the measures and efforts that are poured into closely monitoring and controlling behavior inside such facilities. The six escaped Gilboa after digging a tunnel that connects the toilet of their cell to passages formed during the jail’s construction. While it is not yet proven by the Israeli authorities, some articles reported that the escapees used a rusty spoon to dig the tunnel. However, the way by which the men escaped is not clear and the Israeli officials do not want to provide or are not aware of the details of what happened. Regardless of the details, the men were at least able to use some tools to create an underground route that allowed “them to evade 40 prison guards, three watchtowers, two walls, two barbed-wire fences and a pack of sniffer dogs.” Uselessly recognized by surveillance cameras later after midnight, the men tunneled out of a widely-photographed, nondescript hole that led them to a farm outside the prison.
Given the ambivalent and dramatic sequence of the escape, many Western and Arab news agencies described the incident as a “Hollywood-escape.” While the six men’s plan is truly similar to scenarios of many American movies and series, escaping Gilboa should be narrated via an indigeneity that is able to capture the long years of struggle against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Prominent activist and writer Mohammed El-Kurd stated that breaking Gilboa “signifies that the seemingly impenetrable Zionist colonial regime is in fact penetrable.” He added that despite of the Israeli surveillance machine that are “sharp indeed…the Palestinian skin is thicker.” El-Kurd, and his family, have been targeted and periodically detained for campaigning against the forced evictions of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem through their social media channels. Hence, his statement indicates that the six men’s struggle to get outside of Gilboa should not be separated from the ongoing upheaval that has been taking place in Gaza and the West Bank, with its most recent surge in May of this year. Despite of the different circumstances that led to the detention of El-Kurd and the six men and regardless of the span of periods they spent in jail, an indigenous Palestinian identity seem to bring old and young activists in the face of a settler colonial power.
With respect to the indigeneity of Gilboa’s break as well, ex-Egyptian political prisoner Abdel Rahman El-Gendy highlighted that the escape has to be read via Arabic and Palestinian songs that refuse to wait for the recognition of the international community. For decades, Palestinians have had to play the card of the victim to be recognized as full citizens of an independent nation-state as per the dominant global political system. In this regard, anthropologist Audra Simpson invites thinking about “the notion of ‘refusal’ to be an alternative to recognition politics in settler colonial society.” While Simpson’s work is more concerned with indigenous communities in North America and Australia, the latter groups’ refusal to consent with the settlers’ recognition of their citizenship speak to how Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank are still resilient against the ‘settling’ of the Israeli colonial project. They support and glorify the recent escape not for its drama-fodder as a “Hollywood-style” jailbreak but because it presents a belittling of a supposedly stable modern nation.
Like the stone-throwing that featured the Palestinian Second Intifada (2000-2005), pictures of Palestinians holding spoons started to be posted and shared by activists in and outside the MENA region after the news was released of the outbreak. The fact that one of the escapees, Zakaria Zubeidi, participated in the Intifada illustrates that escaping Gilboa is a thumbnail of a continuous struggle. As coined by Ilan Pappe, “Palestinians living in the biggest prison on earth,” the jailbreak presents an episode in the indigenous population’s consistent attempts to return back home and without waiting for a permission or recognition. It also represents that even in the most securitized, militarized panopticons, the “all-seeing eye” has blind spots within which resilience and commitment to freedom can find escape.