The Recent Palestinian Prison Break Brings Back Bad Memories of a Previous One

On Monday, six convicted terrorists escaped from Israel’s Gilboa prison, triggering both public displays of euphoria and outbursts of violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Yaakov Lappin draws some unsettling historical parallels:

In May 1987, six senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) security prisoners escaped from an Israeli prison in the Gaza Strip. In October of that year, a gun battle between Israeli security forces and five of the escaped prisoners erupted in Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood district. The cell’s members were killed, and an Israeli Shin Bet member, Victor Arajwan, was also killed in the firefight. The PIJ to this day considers the incident to be a catalyst for the start of the first intifada.

In Monday’s escape, five out of the six prisoners are PIJ terrorists convicted of taking part in deadly attacks on Israelis, while the sixth, Zakaria Zubeidi, is the former commander of the Fatah-aligned al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin. All six are from the West Bank city of Jenin, which lies just across the Green Line from Gilboa prison.

Lappin cites the opinion of David Hacham, who served as an Arab-affairs adviser to seven Israeli defense ministers, and is deeply concerned about the fallout:

“This is a serious failure on the part of the Israeli prison system. But [the failure] projects onto the entire Israeli defense establishment,” said Hacham.

“This is the reoccurring theme in how Palestinians are describing the event,” he continued. “People I speak with in Ramallah are calling it a ‘heroic Palestinian operation,’ which has exposed Israeli security forces [as weak or incompetent]. Three of the terrorists were designated high-risk escape candidates. Zubeidi was a central figure from the second intifada. The group includes two PIJ members who are brothers. All of these were in a single cell.”

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More about: First intifada, Islamic Jihad, Palestinian terror, Second Intifada


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

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More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship