Jenin Refugee Camp, Occupied West Bank – Israeli forces are arresting relatives of Palestinian prisoners on the run after their brazen escape from a high-security prison in Israel.
Addameer, the Palestinian prisoner support and human rights association, said on Wednesday at least seven family members of the escapees were detained by Israeli soldiers throughout the occupied West Bank, though some were held only briefly.
Al Jazeera visited the Jenin refugee camp where most of the prisoners are from, and where Israeli forces believe they are holed up.
As the taxi approached the home of Zakaria Zubeidi, in the rebellious camp in the northern West Bank, his brother Yahya watched suspiciously and appeared tense before ascertaining the press credentials of several journalists who wanted to interview the family.
Zacharia is one of six high-profile Palestinian prisoners evading Israeli authorities after escaping from Israel’s Gilboa Prison in the early hours of Monday.
Jamal Zubeidi, 65, the uncle of Zakaria, said the family expected Israeli soldiers to invade the Jenin refugee camp at any time.
“They will come to our house and probably arrest us and interrogate us as well as damage the contents of the house,” said Jamal, who has been arrested eight times since 1996.
Mother shot dead
Yahya Zubeidi told Al Jazeera the family home had been destroyed twice by Israeli forces and most of the male family members had been arrested and imprisoned in Israel.
Zakaria’s mother was shot dead by Israeli soldiers on one of the occasions they tried to assassinate him, while he suffered a serious arm injury and shrapnel to his face.
Most of the camp was levelled by the Israeli military in 2002 after several suicide bombers originating there targeted Israelis in deadly suicide attacks.
But it is Zakaria’s escape and his history of fighting against the occupation that makes the family a prime target for Israeli retaliation. His status has reached legendary proportions in the camp.
A former member of the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades he, together with the other five escapees from Islamic Jihad, has continued to elude the hundreds of Israeli security forces scouring West Bank villages and towns, while soldiers are concentrated at, and surveillance cameras monitor, entry points into Israel.
The Israeli authorities have stated they want the men – who they say are armed – dead or alive and their escape presents a major security threat as four are serving life sentences and have nothing to lose in any future confrontation.
‘See what happens’
Islamic Jihad activists told Al Jazeera that the men will not go down without a fight.
Zakaria was previously imprisoned for years by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
When Al Jazeera interviewed Zakaria 10 years ago, he had recently been released by the Israelis after reaching a deal to “renounce violence”.
However, when questioned as to whether he would ever take up arms again against the occupation his response was guarded.
“I will see what happens with the peace process and whether we are given our rights and our freedom,” he told Al Jazeera.
He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned by the PA in Betunia, near Ramallah.
In 2019 he was arrested again by the Israelis who said he had been carrying out shooting attacks on Israeli settlement buses.
Meanwhile, the family of another escapee was targeted by Israeli security forces.
The family home of Ayham Kamamji, 35, in the village of Kafr Dan, near Jenin, was raided and ransacked by Israeli soldiers at dawn on Tuesday.
The family said Ayham’s father, Fuad Kamamji, was arrested during the raid and taken to an Israeli military camp where he was being interrogated about his son’s whereabouts.
The brother of two other escapees, brothers Muhammad and Mahmoud Ardah, from Arraba near Jenin, was also detained after their family home was raided on Wednesday morning.
Frustrated by their inability to track down the six escapees, the Israeli authorities have already stopped Islamic Jihad prisoners from associating with each other and taken other punitive measures.
But these moves have failed to impress the organisation’s supporters.
At a press conference in Jenin camp on Tuesday night, a group of Islamic Jihad gunmen warned any retaliatory actions against their fighters would elicit a harsh response.
They also warned the injury or death of the escapees would lead to military retaliation.
Even before the recent developments, a military showdown between Israeli forces and gunmen in the camp had been brewing after two previous clashes left a number of armed Palestinians dead, with the Israeli military warning if the PA could not subdue the camp, it would have to do the job itself.
Noor Saadi, 27, who previously spent two years in an Israeli prison for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers, said the return of the Israeli soldiers was only a matter of time.
“The occupation with all its advanced military equipment is still afraid because it’s fighting for possession of something that does not belong to it.”
Saadi also said the PA would not succeed in taming the camp. “They are occupation agents and have little support from the people in the camp or elsewhere.”
He said the recent prison escape was something many Palestinian prisoners dreamed of while held in Israeli jails.
“It starts as a dream that one will be able to dig a tunnel with a spoon and escape to freedom.
“While most of us don’t achieve this, these guys managed to do it in an Israeli prison where often the security conditions are tougher than in American jails,” he said.
The feeling of elation over the daring escape is widespread not only in Jenin camp and its surroundings, but also in towns and villages all over the occupied West Bank, in Gaza, and in Palestinian communities in Israel.
“The escape is very good news,” said Wissam Jilani from the village of Arrabunah, near Jenin.
“We have been cowed for a long time by the occupation, but we are proving that we are not Israel’s doormat and we won’t just fold,” he told Al Jazeera.