[This article is part of a bundle of content produced by Jadaliyya’s Palestine Page Editors on Palestinian Prisoners. This bundle engages a range of subjects centering the Palestinian prisoner in the realm of carcerality and colonialism, as well as resistance to them. Click here for a full list of articles and compendia included in this bundle.]
In the early morning hours of 6 September 2021, six Palestinian prisoners escaped the highly secure walls of Gilboa prison through a tunnel they dug under their cell’s bathroom. While Palestinian prisoners’ history is filled with other episodes of prison breaks, this event was uniquely distinct. Gilboa, sitting on a site of a former British military base and constituting part of the occupation’s broader carceral geographies, is one of Israel’s most modern and secure prisons. In fact, prisoners refer to this site as "the safe," for the sense of utter confinement and surveillance that this prison imposes. Although the occupation authorities eventually captured the prisoners, Palestinians and their supporters had celebrated the escape with exuberance.
Israel has historically relied on imprisonment as a tactic for punishing, disciplining, and intimidating the indigenous population and those standing in solidarity with it as part of its settler-colonial regime of dispossession and control. While there are no clear statistics accounting for imprisonment during the early years of Israel’s founding, the State has imprisoned nearly one million Palestinians since its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. One defining feature of Palestinian captivity is that the accused—tried in a legal system that inherently views them as a potential security threat, and thus worthy of punishment —are only released when their sentences are over, or if included as part of the rare occurring prisoners release or exchange deals, with no de facto possibilities for parole or early release (in stark contrast to ways in which the settler-colonial state treats its own Jewish prisoners). Indeed, for the 25 prisoners arrested prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and for the hundreds serving periods ranging from twenty years to life sentences, what would the hope of finally leaving prison be given Israel’s particular treatment of those it designates as ‘security prisoners’?
The prisoners’ escape, however, restored hope that freedom is within reach. Indeed, prior to their escape, four of the escapees had been imprisoned for periods ranging from fifteen to twenty-five years. Their release by the Israeli authorities was never a possibility in sight, and yet, against all odds, they managed to secure freedom with their own hands. Following their re-capture, Hamas promised the six prisoners that they will be placed at the top of its list for any deal that sees the exchange of Palestinian prisoners with the four Israeli citizens, including two soldiers, that it has been holding in the Gaza Strip since 2014.
While the six prisoners had attained their own freedom, albeit for a short while, others are eagerly waiting for the much-anticipated exchange deal between Hamas and the Israeli government. Echoing speculations that a deal might come through, Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s Chief of General Intelligence, addressed Israeli journalists on the sidelines of the recent COP26 climate change summit saying that the exchange deal “should start with the release of elderly Palestinian prisoners and of Palestinian women and teenagers who are in Israeli prisons.” If materialized, the exchange deal would not be the first in Palestinian prisoners’ history, but it certainly will be unique.
In what follows, I provide an overview of the history of prisoner releases highlighting a distinction between those made as part of attempts towards reaching a negotiated agreement between Israel and the PLO (later, the PA), and releases made in exchange for captive Israeli soldiers, dead or alive, held by various factions during distinct moments of Palestinian history. I end with a reflection on the hope inspired by the six prisoners who broke ‘the safe’ open, and by the possibility of an exchange deal that sees the liberation of prisoners.
Futile Negotiations and Prisoner Releases
On 13 September 1993, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel signed the Declaration of Principles (or the Oslo I agreement, also known as the Oslo Accords). At the time of signing, Israel held 12,337 Palestinians captive. "Oslo I" did not directly address the Palestinian prisoners’ issue, but statements made by Israeli government officials indicated that a mass release of prisoners would follow the signing of the agreement. Numerous conditions, however, were placed, including specifying that Palestinians arrested following the signing of the accords, i.e., 13 September 1993, would not be eligible for release as part of the first round of agreements. They also included the stipulation that no Palestinian prisoners were to be released if the incoming Palestinian Authority does not declare amnesty for Palestinian collaborators with Israel and that the release of prisoners is to be connected to progress made on issues related to the fate of missing Israeli soldiers. As part of the futile peace process, numerous other agreements were signed between the PLO and Israel, and all similarly listed different conditions regarding the fate and potential release of Palestinian prisoners.
One example of such agreements and their relation to the release of prisoners is the Gaza-Jericho agreement of 1994. The agreement included a clause on "confidence-building measures" directly addressing the Palestinian prisoners’ issue. The clause noted that upon the signing of the agreement, Israel was to turn over about 5,000 Palestinian prisoners to the newly created PA, and that both sides will continue negotiating the release of further prisoners after the signing of the agreement. Israel, however, had subsequently made endorsing support for the peace process a condition for the release of prisoners. Of the nearly 12,000 prisoners held at that time, Israel only released 4,450 prisoners by late July 1994. Five hundred and fifty of them were released into the custody of the PA, and thus confined solely to Jericho. Many other prisoners refused to sign a pledge drafted by Israel as a condition for their release. The pledge, which read as follows, is indicative of the unilateral and imposed pacification attempts of any Palestinian resistance that accompanied the commencement of the peace process:
I, the undersigned [name of prisoner]
Pledge to avoid any terror or violent acts. I also declare that I am fully aware that signing this pledge is part of the condition of my release from prison. I also know that my release has been executed as part of the peace process between Israel and the PLO which seeks to implement the Declaration of Principles that was signed on 13 September 1993, which I fully support.
While the potential release of prisoners as part of agreements between both sides was constantly touted, Palestinian prisoners were in fact treated as a bargaining chip by the Israeli authorities to exert pressure for more concessions by the Palestinians. Indeed, as Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association notes, releasing prisoners as part of negotiated agreements had “failed to address the flaws inherent to the peace process regarding the prisoners’ issue, and, rather than addressing the fundamental flaws in the legal system, Israel yet again made prisoner releases a media event and a public relations opportunity.” Israel never fully adhered to subsequent agreements to release prisoners. For instance, the fourth round of releases of pre-Oslo prisoners, promised to re-initiate talks between the PA and Israel in 2014, was never fulfilled. This left 26 Palestinians arrested before the signing of the Oslo Accords imprisoned in Israeli jails at that time.
As Israel continues to relentlessly rely on imprisonment as a tool to control Palestinians and crush dissent, and with no possibilities for a political solution in sight, Palestinians turn to prisoner exchanges in hope that their loved ones will be freed one day. Indeed, examining the history of prisoner exchanges is useful for both contextualizing the current optimism felt for the potential mass release of prisoners, and for underlying the sense of hope inspired by the recent prison escape.
Prisoner Exchanges in Context
The exchange of prisoners between Palestinian political factions, Arab governments, and Israel dates to 1949. Shortly following the Zionist militias' invasion and expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, the Egyptian government exchanged 156 captive Israeli soldiers for 1,098 Egyptian soldiers held by Israel in February 1949. Subsequent agreements saw the release of Arab soldiers in exchange for Israelis held by Arab armies. The first exchange deal between a political faction of the PLO and the occupation took place in 1968 following the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) hijacking of an El-Al airplane (flight 426) on its way to Tel Aviv from Rome. The plane was forced to land in Algiers, and thirty-seven Palestinian prisoners with lengthy prison sentences were released in exchange for the airplane and its Israeli passengers.
Abdul-Nasser Farawna, a former prisoner and researcher who specialized in prisoners’ affairs, notes that thirty-nine prisoner exchange deals were carried out since 1949. As part of these exchanges, over 30,000 prisoners were released in addition to hundreds of captive bodies held in Israel’s cemeteries of numbers or stored in freezers at Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine. Some of the most notable exchanges include:
- November 23, 1983: The release of six Israeli soldiers held by Fateh in Lebanon in exchange for 4,700 Lebanese and Palestinians held in Ansar Camp in Southern Lebanon, thus, effectively emptying the prison. An additional 100 prisoners were also released from prisons in the occupied territories.
- May 21, 1985: The release of six Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon by the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command (PFLP-GC) in exchange for 1,115 prisoners, including Ahmad Yasin, the former head of Hamas. This deal is more commonly referred to as the Jibril agreement in reference to Ahmad Jibril, the PFLP-GC’s late leader.
- October 1, 2009: The release of 20 female Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a two-minute video of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006 and held in the Gaza Strip.
- 18 October 2011 and 18 December 2011: The Hamas exchange deal through which Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for 1027 prisoners released over two periods.
The Anticipated Deal
Ten years following the ‘Shalit deal’ or as referred to in Arabic, Wafa’ al-Ahrar, the thought of a mass release of prisoners offers hope for the families of the nearly 4,700 prisoners held in Israeli jails. Today, Hamas is holding captive four Israeli citizens, including two soldiers, in the Gaza Strip: Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, both captured during the 2014 war and who Israel claims are dead; as well as Avera Mengistu and Hisahm al-Sayed who crossed into the Gaza Strip in 2014 and 2015 respectively. During the past years, and with more frequency over the past months, local and global media have increasingly covered talks regarding a potential exchange deal.
While details of progress, if any, have not been made public, the issue might be moving fast. In early October 2021, high-ranking Hamas leaders including Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas in Gaza, Saleh al-Arouri, Haniyeh’s deputy, and the head of the external bureau Khaled Mashal visited Cairo and met Egyptian officials including Abbas Kamel, the Chief of General Intelligence. It was also reported that Ismail Haniyeh has recently met with both Fadwa Barghouthi, the wife of Marwan Barghouthi, and Rana Shobaki, daughter of former general and advisor to Yasser Arafat, Fuad Shobaki. Israel has constantly refused to release Barghouthi and Shobaki as part of the ‘Shalit deal’. These meetings, which took place in Egypt, added to speculations that Hamas is pushing for their release in addition to other imprisoned political figures including Ahmad Sa’adat, the Secretary-General of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israeli media reported that Hamas is also insisting on the inclusion of high-ranking prisoners from its party including Abbas al-Sayed, Hassan Salameh, and Abdel Nasser Issa.
Adding to these speculations is the recent visit by the newly appointed head of the Israeli intelligence agency, Ronen Bar, to Egypt. The visit came nearly a month after the Hamas delegation’s visit, and it was reported that the exchange of prisoners was discussed in addition to other topics, including reaching a long term ‘ceasefire,’ and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip destroyed following Israel’s most recent war in May 2021. This meeting followed a number of other meetings held between Israeli and Egyptian government and security officials.
The notable deal that saw the release of 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit in 2011 took years to finally materialize. While the occupation’s forces have consequently rearrested several of the released prisoners, particularly in 2014, Hamas will certainly demand Israel to pay a higher price this time around, either for information on those it holds in the Gaza Strip or for their release. It is also evident that Hamas has learned from the previous deal, and that it will make sure that its demands are met prior to taking any concrete steps, the most relevant of which is the release of Palestinians re-arrested following their release in the 2011 exchange deal.
From Gilboa to the World
Imprisonment is one of the tools the Israeli settler-colonial state uses in attempt to crush resistant Palestinian subjects, and their will for freedom. As Walid Daka writes from captivity, the carceral tools used by Israel are intended not solely to detain and isolate those considered a ‘security threat,’ but are “part of a general, scientifically planned and calculated scheme to remold the Palestinian consciousness.” Daka’s argument is that Israeli prisons and the changes they had witnessed over the years are not simply a tool used to detain and isolate those considered as a ‘threat,’ but that they constitute part of a broader strategy aiming to instill fear, dissuade Palestinians from resisting the occupation, and from developing their revolutionary consciousness. In this sense, Israel’s multifaceted tools of violence intend not only to inflict pain and harm, but to teach Palestinians that resisting the occupation is a costly endeavor that might involve detention, demolition of property, revoking of travel, and work permits, and travel bans.
However, the Unity Intifada of 2021, along with September’s prison escape, had shattered illusions that Israel’s project might ever succeed, and that the Palestinian Authority’s project of futile peace might ever bring justice. These recent events have shown that the Palestinian will to resist and to invent creative means of subverting violent Israeli laws and policies—perhaps best epitomized by the prison escape—cannot be crushed by the image of an unbreakable prison or an all-too powerful state.
Palestinians constantly deploy a wide array of practices to counter Israel’s infliction of violence and torture within and outside prisons. The prison escape and the May 2021 widescale mobilization are two instances symbolizing the logic of confrontation that contests Israel’s attempts at shaping the Palestinian subject and forcing it into submission. The potential exchange deal is guided by a similar logic of confrontation inspiring hope that prisoners, particularly those with lengthy sentences, would finally be liberated.
Until we welcome all prisoners of freedom home, in Palestine and beyond.
 A study documenting Israel’s early prisons and carceral policies (1948-1949) was published by the Institute of Palestine Studies (in Arabic). See, Mustafa Kabha and Wadi’ Awawda, Asra Bila Hirab. (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2013).
 I am referring to the Israel Prison Service’s policies with regards to Palestinian prisoners whom it labels as ‘security prisoners.’ This also relates to the conduct of military courts and Israel’s military laws that prescribe punishment against Palestinians already viewed as a threat to be contained. For more on this, see, Abeer Baker, “The Definition of Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Prisons: ‘Security Prisoners’—Security Semantics for Camouflaging Political Practice,” Adalah’s Review 5 (2009): 65—78; Walid Daka, “Security Prisoners or Political Prisoners,” Adalah’s Newsletter 24 (2006): 1—4; and Lisa Hajjar, Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (California: University of California Press, 2005).
 For more information, see, Abeer Baker “The Definition of Palestinian Prisoners in Israeli Prisons: ‘Security Prisoners’—Security Semantics for Camouflaging Political Practice,” Adalah’s Review 5 (2009): 65—78.
 Kieran McEvoy, “Prisoner Release and Conflict Resolution: International Lessons for Northern Ireland,” International Criminal Justice Review 8 (1998): 39.
 Walid Daka, “Consciousness Molded or the Re-identification of Torture,” Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel, edited by Abeer Baker and Anat Matar (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 235.