The Palestinian prison break illuminates fissures in the Arab society in Israel

Nazareth from Mt. of Precipice

By: Brigadier General (IDF Reserves) Erez David Maisel

The Israeli security force’s success in apprehending four of the six Palestinian prisoners who broke out of prison last week (6 September) highlights the complexity of many in the Arab society in Israel. Specifically, the tension between their personal accountability and communal responsibilities as Israeli citizens, including their support of Israeli authority and rule of law, and their wider obligation to their Palestinian identity (championed by many in the Arab political elite in Israel).

Secretary-General of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah (13 Sep.), and the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister, Mohammad Ibrahim Shtayyeh (13 Sep.) current remarks regarding this issue (echoing their common wish to mitigate the emerging fissure) emphasizes the sensitivity of it. Specifically, their goal of maintaining the elitist narrative of an All – Palestinian – Arab unity (at the cost of many “downstream”).

This incident is especially insightful when juxtaposed with the events in May 2021, which witnessed extensive internecine violence in Israel between Young Arabs and Jews, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and wariness. Coupled with the rising wave of Arab criminal violence (e.g the latest shooting against the home of the first Moslem Arab deputy Israeli Police commissioner, Jamal Hakrush) and potential change in the Arab political leadership in Israel (with the Islamic Ra’am (United Arab List) party currently supporting the government.

The six escapees included five members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ, an Islamic terror network) and the unusual involvement of Zakariya Sbieda, a member of the Fatah affiliated Al-Aqsa Battalions (a Palestinian armed faction). Sbieda, a local leader in the Palestinian city of Jenin in northern Samaria and a well-known figure in the Israeli media was apparently invited to join in order to assist in coordinating assistance from his home time of Jenin[1]. The six prisoners, after successfully breaching the “Gilboa” prison’s wall via a tunnel they dug, apparently planned to immediately strike out 20 kilometers south, to northern Samaria, an area under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The immediate and effective Israeli response to the successful prison break (which is under investigation), included sealing the Green Line (GL) boundary between Israel and the PA and the deployment of roadblocks, air assets, IDF trackers, and various intelligence capabilities, appears to have disrupted the escapee’s plan and forced them to go to ground in Israel. Hoping to garner assistance from Arabs living in the area east of Afula (approximately 20 kilometers from the GL) while waiting out the expected search for them.

Local assistance from local Arabs appears to have been very limited. Excluding initial assistance from a mosque in the village of Na’ura (East of Afula and approximately 14 Kilometers from the prison) where the six reorganized and split up into three two-man teams. After four days on the run (with the Israeli search dragnet limiting their movement) two exhausted teams were caught by the Israeli Police due to assistance from local Arab Israeli citizens in the vicinity of the diversified city of Nazareth and in the Bedu village of Umm al-Ghanam (east of Nazareth and over 10 kilometers north of Na’ura).

The view south from Mt. Precipice – where escapees were apprehended (Courtesy: EDM).

Contrary to the general Arab Israeli citizen’s response (in what would appear to be a basic abstention from assisting the Palestinian escapees) and the specific assistance to the Israeli authorities in recapturing the criminals, major Arab politicians in the Israeli parliament maintained a customary pro – Palestinian stance. Supporting the Palestinian escapees, playing down their criminal acts of terrorism, and leveraging the opportunity for improving Palestinian prisoners’ quality of penal imprisonment. Prominently, amongst the quotes was a soundbite by member of the Knesset Ayman Odeh, leader of the Hadash and Arab Joint List Alliance party, who expressed support for the prison break and added “If six prisoners managed to break through the narrow and crowded prison, then millions of the Palestinian people can end the occupation — so that the people will be released, and the prisoners will be released”.

MK Odeh’s comments represent, once again, what would appear to be a growing disconnect between the requirements and expectations of many Arab citizens of Israel who support engagement with the Israeli society including the need for rule of law in order to enable a higher standard of living and quality of life for their children and the skills to acquire them.

What appears to be an adamant refusal of many in the current Arab political elite in Israel to embrace this bottom-up demand (while continuing to cater to their personal agendas and aged convictions) is only assisting in strengthening mutual wariness between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

The prison break-out while still, a developing event (two prisoners have not yet been apprehended) sharpens what appears to be an emerging trend amongst many Arabs in Israel – the understanding of the need for a new approach focused on engaging with Israeli society. Especially, a growing requirement for local leadership accountability versus the continuous detrimental fixation of current progressive Arab politicians in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) to linking (subordinating if not totally ignoring) Arab requirements in Israel to the Palestinian issue.

*Featured photo on top of the page: Nazareth from Mt. of Precipice (Courtesy: EDM).

Brigadier General (IDF Reserves) Erez David Maisel has vast experience in strategic planning, international relations, and security diplomacy and is a hands-on practitioner in international conflict prevention and boundary management. A native of northern Israel he is co-founder of the Technion Institute in Haifa’s research center BRDG (Boundary Research and Deconfliction Group).

[1] The five PIJ members were tried for acts of terrorism against Israelis and received life imprisonment while Sbieda’s trial (on charges of terrorism) was set to take place in the future.

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Erez David Maisel BG (IDF Res)

Erez David Maisel BG (IDF Res)

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