Beita, Occupied West Bank – Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are gathering for a day of rage on Friday in support of the six Palestinian prisoners, who escaped from an Israeli prison, heeding the call of Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups.
They are also protesting against the punitive measures that the Israeli jail authorities have imposed on imprisoned members of the Islamic Jihad, another group active in the Gaza Strip, in the wake of a brazen escape from one of the country’s most secure prisons.
Several relatives of the escaped prisoners have been arrested, including three people on Friday morning, as part of an Israeli manhunt to capture them. The six men tunnelled out of the high-security Gilboa jail on Monday, triggering celebration and solidarity protests in the Palestinian territories.
Israeli forces were on their second-highest level of alert on Friday, below declaring a state of emergency, prepared for protests in the occupied Palestinian territories and possible riots within Israeli jails.
More than 100 Palestinian protesters moved towards the valley below the illegal Israeli settlement of Evyatar which is constructed on agricultural land expropriated from the villagers. On the hill above, groups of Israeli soldiers monitored youths who burned tyres and threw stones.
Periodically, drones flew over the young men, dropping tear gas on them, while others buzzed close above taking pictures.
Later on Friday, the Red Crescent reported more than 30 injuries in Beita and Beit Dajan near Nablus. An ambulance was also hit by Israeli soldiers.
‘What can we do?’
Abdallah Abu Rahme, an activist from Bilin in the West Bank travelled to Beita in the north, to take part in the protests.
“It is our duty as Palestinians and activists to support the escaped prisoners,” Abu Rahme told Al Jazeera. “It is very good news that they escaped and we all support them.”
Muhammad Khabeisa, who has lost agricultural land to the settlement of Evyatar, told Al Jazeera his whole village backed the escaped prisoners.
“The prisoners in Palestinian jails are longing for freedom. They want to live their lives. They are not ordinary criminals, but patriots fighting for freedom,” he said.
He added: “The Israelis have put Palestinians in prison with the occupation of their land. When the Palestinians take up arms, the world calls us terrorists and when we lay down our arms and resist peacefully, the Israelis kill us.”
“And even when we don’t protest peacefully, they take our land. What can we do?” Khabeisa said.
The Israeli high-handed measures, which various rights groups say amounts to collective punishment, have already led to the burning of cells and riots within the prisons in the last few days.
At least 100 people were wounded on Wednesday evening after the Israeli forces fired live ammunition and used tear gas at solidarity rallies in several cities in the West Bank.
Frustrated at their ability to track down the escaped prisoners and fearing more such attempts, the Israel Prison Services (IPS) broke up groups of Islamic Jihad prisoners and forcibly removed them from their cells, transferring them to other prisons.
Angry prisoners responded by setting fire to prison cells in several Israeli jails which prompted the IPS to send in the notorious Masada prison unit, known for its brutality, to quell the riots and shift individual prisoners to other jails.
Israeli military reinforcements have been sent to supplement more than 1,000 security force members who are searching for the escapees in the northern West Bank and monitoring checkpoints.
Surveillance drones and members of the undercover Israeli agents have reportedly been deployed in night operation, as the Israeli authorities said they wanted the escapees – whom they see as a big security threat – “dead or alive”.
Warning from Islamic Jihad
At a news conference in the Jenin refugee camp on Tuesday night, where one of the escapees – Zacharia Zubeidi – comes from, armed and masked Islamic Jihad gunmen warned that if any harm befell the escapees or any punitive measures were levelled against other prisoners there would be a harsh military response.
Palestinians are already angry at the deteriorating health conditions of at least six Palestinian hunger strikers in Israeli jails, who have refused food and water for weeks to protest against their administrative detention, or detention without trial – considered illegal under international law.
They have also raised concerns against the punitive measures the Palestinian prisoners are now experiencing, including solitary confinement, forced transfer to other prisons, poor quality food and beatings.
Over the last few days, at least four shooting attacks by Palestinian gunmen on Israeli forces in the northern West Bank have been reported as well as the throwing of an explosive device.
As well as riots in jails and solidarity protests in the West Bank, the Israeli authorities fear violent response from Gaza, where the Palestinian resistance movement has threatened a military response if the escapees are harmed or killed.
Israeli intelligence believes Palestinians within Israel could also rise up again as they did during the war on Gaza in May.
Three Palestinians from Noura in Israel have been arrested by Israeli police for allegedly helping the escapees.