On October 7, Gaza broke out of prison

What the images of the Gaza border fence coming down meant for Palestinians.

Palestinians break into the Israeli side of Israel-Gaza border fence after gunmen infiltrated areas of southern Israel
A bulldozer breaks the Israeli-built fence around Gaza on October 7, 2023 [Reuters/Mohammed Fayq Abu Mostafa]

In the early morning hours of Saturday, October 7, Palestinians across the West Bank woke up to the sound of explosions.

No one really knew what was happening until reports started trickling in that fighters from Gaza had taken control of Beit Hanoun crossing – the only one through which Gaza residents may reach the rest of historic Palestine on the extremely rare occasions the occupier allows them to.

Soon information appeared on social media that the wall that Israel had erected around the Gaza Strip to keep its 2.3 million people permanently imprisoned had been breached.

And then came the images and footage of the broken wall. In one video, showing a bulldozer bringing down the wall, a Palestinian man can be heard chanting in exhilaration: “Yes, go! Allahu Akbar [God is the Greatest]! Hit it, guys! Rest in peace, wall!”

It was unbelievable. It felt surreal. We wondered how it was possible that the people of Gaza had broken out of their prison.

Few in the world would understand our feelings in that moment. Perhaps political prisoners might.

The vast majority of the Palestinian population remaining in historic Palestine has been born in prison and only knows prison. Gaza is completely sealed off from the rest of the world by Israel’s apartheid wall and subjected to a debilitating siege, in which its neighbour Egypt happily partakes.

In the occupied West Bank, all entry and exit points of every Palestinian village, town, and city are controlled by the Israeli occupation forces; Palestinians – unlike the Israeli settlers stealing their land – have no freedom of movement.

Our imprisonment also features prison labour. With the Israeli occupation suffocating the Palestinian economy and the resulting high unemployment rate, Palestinians are forced to seek work from their prison wardens. The Israeli authorities, of course, strictly control this process, issuing Palestinians “work permits” and often arbitrarily revoking them.

As in a real prison, we are also subjected to round-the-clock surveillance through cameras in public places, drones, the tapping of phones and telecommunications, a network of infiltrators and spies, etc.

And of course, just like prisoners, we are “punished” for “misbehaving”. In Gaza, punishment means indiscriminate bombardment of densely populated areas that always results in the mass killing of civilians.

In the West Bank, we are subjected to “search-and-arrest raids” on a nightly basis, where occupiers invade our homes, brutalise our loved ones in front of terrified children and take them away (sometimes the children themselves) to detain them indefinitely without charge. Shooting dead Palestinian civilians in those raids is, of course, a regular occurrence.

In this context, seeing those images and videos of the prison wall torn down in Gaza is liberating. Their symbolic power cannot be overstated.

We felt the same exhilaration back in 2021 when we heard the news that six Palestinian political prisoners had broken out of Israeli prison. They had dug a tunnel out of jail using spoons, pieces of metal, and loads of patience.

That prison break became an emblem of Palestinian perseverance. Palestinians cheered on the prisoners as they evaded their prison wardens for days. We celebrated their simple acts of savouring freedom – eating a prickly pear for the first time in 20 years, hugging a cow, walking in the hills of Nazareth. We breathed freedom with them, as if we were also free.

The liberating feeling of breaking out of prison has also come from our brave imprisoned hunger strikers. In 2011, Khader Adnan, who had been detained by the Israelis on and off without a charge for a decade, started a hunger strike against yet another unjust detention. He was joined by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Despite threats and mistreatment, he persevered until enough pressure built up and Israel was forced to release him. We also celebrated Adnan’s freedom as if it were our own.

These brief moments of rupture in our reality of imprisonment are at once terrifying and exhilarating. Of course, they are always short-lived – brief instances of Palestinian triumph before the unbearable weight of Israeli military domination comes back crushing us.

The initial euphoria of seeing the apartheid wall come down in Gaza was quickly overtaken by the terrifying realisation of what would come next.

We knew war broke out the moment Palestinians in Gaza broke out of their Israeli prison. My conversations with peers and friends, my group chats, phone calls – all were dominated by the same dark premonition: “They are going to kill us all.”

We know, from direct experience, what Israel’s policy of revenge means. We also know that no matter what savagery its army commits, the West would “stand by” it and point to “Palestinian crimes”.

Israel had waged five wars on Gaza, each time mass killing Palestinian civilians as Western leaders justified the slaughter with the familiar mantra “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

And of course, that is exactly what is happening now. Israel is carpet bombing Gaza. It has imposed a full blockade on Gaza, with no water, electricity, food or medicine entering the Strip. Telecommunications infrastructure has been bombarded, effectively cutting off Palestinians in Gaza from the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the West Bank has been completely blocked; checkpoints closed all across, effectively paralysing the whole territory. Israeli soldiers are shooting Palestinians and encouraging settlers to do so as well.

And yet, the West is “standing by” its ally, Israel, and its “right to defend itself” from the people it brutally occupies and oppresses. Western nations are lapping up Israeli propaganda, that it is fighting “Islamic terrorism”, that “Hamas is ISIS”, that Palestinians are “sub-human”, that they are “beheading babies”. All pretences of morality, logic and truth have been dropped in order to justify the mass killing of Palestinians.

In the past seven days, the Israeli army has killed more than 2,200 Palestinians in Gaza, including 600 children. Its soldiers have murdered at least 53 Palestinians in the West Bank. Since the start of the year, 250 others have been killed, making it the most lethal year since the United Nations began documenting fatalities in 2004-2005.

All of this we expected. All of this still is painful and horrifying. All of this will go down into Palestinian history as yet another episode of resistance by the Palestinians and mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing by Israel.

However, unlike other moments in Palestinian history, something is different this time. Not only did Palestinians manage to break free from their prison in Gaza – albeit for a short while – but also for the first time, they dealt a blow that will have a far-reaching impact.

The Palestinians have struck Israel where it has struck Palestinians for more than 75 years: lives and land. The Israeli arrogance and sense of security that it can oppress, kill and steal land with impunity have been shattered.

We’ve been held hostage by Israel for decades. We’ve been prisoners in our land for generations. But this October, the wimpy kid finally got his punch and the bully is now shaken.

As our oppressors are out killing indiscriminately in blind rage, an uncomfortable feeling is creeping in among them that the prison they are holding us in is starting to crumble.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.