Jail tunnel Israel Palestinians
Israeli authorities launched a manhunt after six Palestinian prisoners escaped from one of the country's most secure jails. The prisoners were later captured. Image Credit: AP

The last two of the six Palestinian militants who had escaped from an Israeli maximum security prison three weeks ago were apprehended by authorities on Sunday, ending a saga that had thoroughly captivated the attention of Israelis and the imagination of Palestinians.

Beyond the hype, given the incident lay what many view as a mystery: why Palestinians perceived the jailbreak as an epic of heroism. And what is it, anyhow, with Palestinians and their obsession — and obsession it clearly is — with political prisoners?

To the outside world, that obsession may be an unfathomable mystery but it is a common phenomenon among people engaged in struggle, who posit, in the collective repertoire of their consciousness, the notion that patriots willing to sacrifice their personal freedoms for the cause are heroes.

Heroes like Nathan Hale, who, uttering his last words before being hanged by the British authorities in 1776 during the American Revolutionary War, declaimed, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”. Like Bobby Sands, who, along with nine other militants serving time behind bars for Troubles-related offences, died in jail in 1981 while on a hunger strike.

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And like Nelson Mandela, who, after serving 27 years incarcerated at the brutal, windswept Robin Island Prison, emerged as a legend who embodied courage and endurance.

Predictably, Palestinians see their own political prisoners as icons of resistance, however much others may regard them as “terrorists”. You see, for Palestinians, who have lived under occupation over the last 54 years, have a whole generation that has grown up like that.

Look at it this way. There are today well over 5,000 prisoners in Israeli jails. Since 1967, when the occupation insinuated itself into Palestinian quotidian life, 200,000 Palestinians, or 20 per cent of the population, have served time in jails for offences ranging from the mundane, like throwing stones at a passing army jeep, to the deadly.

The odyssey of prisoners in prison walls is one woven into the fabric of the Palestinian community’s multiple domains of life, including family life. When you consider in this regard, say, the destabilising and often traumatising effects on a family whose breadwinner is sentenced to years and years of incarceration, you find yourself considering the staggering scale of a major tragedy.

For how does a family like that cope both with the emotionally crushing problem of having its loved one behind bars and the financially devastating challenge of having its primary source of income frozen. It is, as they say in the Palestinian people’s neck of the woods, a way of life. People move on.

It is how it is

Wherever you have occupation, you have resistance — two dialectically opposed forces that advance and retreat from each other like warriors engaged in a deadly sword dance. The one is a necessary function of the other. That is so because there has never been a case in history where a population had, in toto, chosen acquiescence to occupation.

And this is so axiomatic a fact of the human condition that international law has codified that kind of struggle as an inherent right of the occupied. To be exact, it was in the 1949 Geneva Conventions where the term “resistance movements” was explicitly mentioned and defined as a human right.

Palestinians then see their political prisoners as heroes to be accorded a leading positional value in society. No one is more revered. No one is accorded more gratitude from the community. And no one has a national day designated to honour them each year on April 17, when rallies are held in cities across the occupied territories to commemorate Prisoners Day.

And what role, you ask, has the Palestinian Authority played in attempts to free these prisoners, or even show that it cared about their fate?

Truth be told, apart from the fact that it has its own prisons in which it incarcerates its own political prisoners — the Palestinian Authority has little authority in Palestine.

Its dandies, however, can be seen everywhere strutting around the occupied territories like latter-day condottieri out of work, as if to demonstrate to the world how a society can be made inert by the inaction, apathy and downright negligence of its own leaders.

Meanwhile, it’s true that the six Palestinian prison escapees who tunnelled their way out of a maximum security jail in Israel three weeks ago did not regain their freedom, but the incident did succeed in highlighting the plight of the prisoners to the world.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile