Dozens of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have been wounded in confrontations with Israeli soldiers while protesting in solidarity with six Palestinian men who managed to escape a high-security Israeli prison earlier this week.
Relatives of Palestinian prisoners have been arrested as Israel launched a massive manhunt to capture the six men who tunnelled out of the Gilboa jail on Monday.
Israeli forces fired tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and live ammunition at crowds who were taking part in rallies on Wednesday evening across various cities in the West Bank, wounding at least 100 people, the Palestine Red Crescent said.
Hundreds demonstrated in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron – as well as surrounding towns and villages – in support of the six escapees and Palestinian detainees who have been subjected to punitive measures in Israeli prison facilities after the escape, according to the Palestinian Prisoner Society.
The men – five of whom are members of the Islamic Jihad, and one of the Fatah group – were either serving multiple life sentences or were being held without charge, which is illegal under international law.
At the rallies, people chanted “freedom” while waving Palestinian flags.
“We came out in solidarity with our prisoners in the occupier’s jails,” said Jihad Abu Adi, 25, as protesters nearby set tyres ablaze. “It’s the least we could do for our heroic prisoners.”
According to the Palestine Red Crescent, three other Palestinians were injured in occupied East Jerusalem as well, after Israeli forces fired rubber-coated bullets and sound bombs at a sit-in near Damascus Gate.
The protests come as Israel has brought reinforcements into the occupied West Bank. The Israeli army said in a statement that in order to try to find the men “it has been decided to extend the general closure” of the occupied West Bank.
It said the closure will last until midnight on Friday “subject to a situational assessment”.
Israel has also deployed drones, road checkpoints and an army mission to Jenin, the flashpoint West Bank home town of many of the men who were imprisoned for their roles in the second Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett held consultations with defence and security chiefs on Wednesday, his spokesman said in a statement.
“The events have the potential to impact numerous fronts,” the statement said. “Israel is prepared for any scenario.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said Israeli forces had arrested at least six relatives of the escaped Palestinians.
The Israeli army confirmed that “several arrests were made overnight”, without elaborating.
“Holding someone in order to coerce a relative to do something is a mafia-style tactic,” Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, said in a Twitter post.
Holding someone in order to coerce a relative to do something is a mafia-style tactic. The Israeli govt regularly resorts to unlawful collective punishment to reassert domination & maintain apartheid. Should not surprise anyone that they continue down this path post prison escape https://t.co/L1lpJsVTIX
— Omar Shakir (@OmarSShakir) September 8, 2021
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Amman, Shakir said that almost every facet of the Israeli prison system is “filled with violations of international law”.
Under international humanitarian law, detainees from the occupied territory must be detained in the occupied territory, Shakir said. But Israel holds most Palestinian prisoners “inside Israel proper” – including the six men who escaped.
“We also know that the Israeli government mistreats and tortures detainees,” he said, referring to other violations. According to him, rights groups have recorded more than 1,300 complaints over the last 20 years.
Those who escaped include Zakaria Zubeidi, 46, a former Fatah party leader in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, as well as five Palestinian Islamic Jihad members.
The other detainees have been identified as: Monadel Yacoub Nafe’at, 26, Yaqoub Qassem, Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri, 49, Ayham Nayef Kamamji, 35, and Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah, 46.
‘Tensions’ in Israeli jails
Gilboa prison – which opened in 2004 during the second Intifada – is a high-security site where hundreds of Palestinians are detained among other prisoners.
The prison service said all those held at Gilboa over “security offences” were being relocated in case more tunnels have been dug.
The prisoners’ group reported “tensions” in jails on Wednesday.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from the West Bank, said that the Israeli Prison Service has started taking out measures across its network since the escape.
“In the prison of Ofer, the only Israeli military prison inside the occupied West Bank, we’re seeing … a targeting of Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners,” Fawcett said.
“As a whole, Palestinian prisoners are being denied what they usually have access to in terms of yard time, time in the canteen.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli Prison Service said fires had been lit in a Negev prison and in Ramon jail.
“The situation is now under control, the fires have been extinguished,” a spokeswoman told AFP news agency.
In a statement, the Palestinian Prisoner Society confirmed that Palestinian detainees had set fire to their prison cells in protest of Israel’s abuses and threats against them. The statement said all Palestinian detainees had announced they would confront any punitive measures imposed on them.
The prisoners group also threatened a widespread hunger strike if the situation worsens.
Inside the prisons, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions each have an organised presence and appear to be acting together in the wake of the escape.
The head of the Palestinian Prisoners Society in Bethlehem, Abdullah al-Zaghari, said the measures taken by Israel against Palestinian prisoners are “retaliatory” and amount to “collective punishment”.
There are some 6000 jailed Palestinians, most of whom are political prisoners. At least 500 are under administrative detention, meaning they are being held without charge.
Palestinians view prisoners held by Israel as heroes of their national cause, and have celebrated the prison break. If the escapees are apprehended in the occupied West Bank, many Palestinians are likely to blame the Palestinian Authority, which is already facing a popular backlash after the death of an activist in PA custody in June.