MIDDLE EAST POLICY COUNCIL WASHINGTON
Medlir Mema, PhD – Fellow, Middle East Policy Council – 9/9/21
Israel’s manhunt following the escape of six Palestinians from a high-security Israeli prison has revealed the inhumane conditions under which thousands of Palestinians have languished for years.
Palestinian officials and representatives of militant organizations have warned Israel against taking drastic measures against its prison population or family members of the escapees. However, the possibility of yet another armed conflict between Israel and Gaza is only one manifestation of the violence experienced by the Palestinian population. For those living in Israel, rising criminality in the Arab sector and official neglect of the plight of Palestinians living under the constant threat of violence are recurrent concerns.
The Palestinian website Al Wafa reports that thousands of Palestinians took to the streets earlier this week to protest Israel’s punitive treatment of prisoners, which many consider collective punishment: “Clashes today erupted between Palestinian youths and Israeli occupation forces in several locations of the occupied West Bank as Palestinians continued for the second day in a row to demonstrate and clash with soldiers at contact points in support of the prisoners, according to local sources…. The protests erupted over the last two days after the Israel Prison Services (IPS) took revenge against the more than 4000 Palestinian freedom fighters held in its prisons following the escape on Monday of six prisoners from the heavily fortified Gilboa prison in the north of Israel. The IPS harsh measures drew strong protests from the prisoners as well as Palestinians throughout the occupied territories.”
Israel has signaled that it has no intention of backing down from a policy of restricting family access to the prisoners. Writing for Haaretz News, Jack Khoury and Josh Breiner report that the Israeli government announced recently it had “canceled family visits for Palestinian prisoners until the end of the month after mass riots broke out in jails across the country, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said Thursday, citing the Palestinian Red Cross. Following the escape of six high-security prisoners, five of whom are affiliated with the Islamic Jihad militant group, the Prison Service announced that it would be dispersing inmates who belong to the movement in prisons throughout the country, a step that is to continue on Thursday. About 300 of them have been moved so far.”
According to a report by Khaled Abu Toameh written for the Jerusalem Post, such measures are unlikely to sit well with Palestinian leaders who see the escapees as “heroic fugitives’” and consider Israel’s reaction to the escape draconian: “The Palestinian Authority and several Palestinian factions on Wednesday warned Israel against punishing Palestinian security prisoners in the aftermath of the escape of six inmates from Gilboa Prison. They also warned Israel against harming the fugitives or their family members. Shortly after the jailbreak, the Israel Prison Service began transferring hundreds of inmates to other prisons…. Leaders of PIJ prisoners announced on Wednesday that all inmates will go on a hunger strike next week to protest Israel’s ‘repressive measures’…. The PA said it holds the Israeli government fully responsible for the lives of the six fugitives and the ‘suffering of their families and relatives.’”
Elio Levy, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, notes that, given the volatility of the current situation, there is a likelihood that, should the violence escalate further, it could turn into a “hot” conflict between Israel and militants in the Gaza strip: “The [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] PIJ has launched one such message, which Israel should not take lightly, threatening to ‘respond any way we deem fit’ if sanctions persist. Twenty-twenty hindsight teaches us that the threats of the PIJ’s military wing should not be dismissed. Much like Hamas, they have a diverse set of capabilities, especially in the Gaza Strip. But unlike Hamas, which governs Gaza, the PIJ has no scruples to carry out its threats. And this is how this affair, which began in a tunnel outside Gilboa Prison, can end on a rocket launch pad near Gaza’s Beit Hanoun…. If the escapees die in an encounter, it could both shake the West Bank’s already fragile stability and lead the PIJ in the Gaza Strip to make good on its aforementioned threats.”
The debate over the fate of the 6 escapees and the escalating rhetoric and violence, have turned attention to the conditions of the Palestinian population within Israel, leading Yossi Mekelberg to conclude in an Arab News op-ed, “Violence against Palestinians in Israel [is] a stain on society…. There are many facets to the fragile coexistence of Jews and Palestinians living in Israel. Despite sharing the same land for 73 years, they are living through entirely different experiences. In all cases, it is the Palestinian community that fails to enjoy the same quality of life and standard of living as its Jewish neighbors. One particular and worrying discrepancy is in their exposure to violent crime, which has become rampant…. Racism and fear are interwoven and eclipse not only what is morally right, but also what serves the country best. Palestinian youths living in Israel, given the opportunity and despite being disadvantaged, are completing academic studies in increasing numbers, and in disciplines such as medicine and engineering.”
The recent murder of four Israeli Arabs has led to calls for more investment in policing and social services in the Arab sector, both of which have been sorely lacking. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Eli Senyor accuses Israel’s police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, of “completely lost control over the rampant crime wave ravaging the Arab sector. The fact that four Israeli Arabs lost their lives over the past weekend is something that is now considered a ‘norm’, which is nothing short of a tragedy. Despite all the promises by Israeli officials, criminals in the Arab sector continue to act unabated…. For years the Israel Police has promised Israeli Arabs it will help them. A new station here, a few more officers there, but everything only gets worse day by day. This charade will probably keep going in the coming days, with flashy photos of SWAT teams descending on the Arab cities to make arrests and confiscate some weapons. The public has lost all faith in those sworn to protect it and it seems now that even those in police’s high ranks do not believe themselves either.”
Medlir Mema, PhD, editor