The Great Palestinian Escape of 2021: Reflections from the U.S. Abolitionist Landscape

Image by Mohammed Sabaaneh.

On September 6, 2021, six Palestinian political prisoners escaped from Gilboa prison, one of the highest security prisons of the Israeli apartheid state.  They escaped through a tunnel that they had been digging for almost a year.  They painstakingly excavated the entrance to the tunnel from the concrete floor underneath the sink in their prison cell.   The plan was accomplished with the most basic implements – spoons, plates and pan handles – while applying the most sophisticated secrecy and coordination to the operation.   The escape represented a major security and intelligence failure for the Israeli state which tries to present itself as invulnerable.

The escape was heralded as a heroic victory across Palestine and was immediately elevated to legendary status as the “Great Escape.”  Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and within the ’48 borders of Israel took to the streets to celebrate the courage and will power of the prisoners.  In Jenin, the home of all six prisoners, huge celebrations broke out in the city’s main square, with a parade, songs and chants of freedom and liberation.  Thousands of social media posts affirmed the bravery and ingenuity of the prisoners. “Give imprisoned Palestinians nothing but a spoon and they will dig their way to freedom.”   “We will dig a new hole everyday, until the rest of the prisoners will be released.”

The utilitarian spoon was uplifted as the “miraculous spoon” and the “spoon of freedom.”  Palestinian artists created graphics featuring the spoon, and in Washington D.C. Palestinian  activists scattered 465 spoons in front of the Israeli embassy — a gesture of solidarity with the 4,650 Palestinians imprisoned by the Zionist Israeli state.

The Great Escape exemplified the leading role that Palestinian prisoners play inspiring the tenacity of the Palestinian liberation movement.   And the response by the Palestinian people was a testament to their unshaking commitment to support their prisoners throughout the 73 years of resistance to Israeli settler colonialism.

The escaped prisoners were only able to take joy in their freedom for a short while.  They were recaptured in less than a couple of weeks.  In a small geographic area, enveloped by the most sophisticated surveillance and military apparatus in the world, occupation has made the Palestinian homeland into a prison with few options for safe refuge. But even after being recaptured, interrogated harshly, and tortured,  Ya’qoub Qadiri, one of the six, proclaimed  “I will try to escape again as there is nothing like freedom.”

Freedom dreams are in the DNA of incarcerated people, in the U.S. as in Palestine.  Recently, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners asked people in women’s prisons to comment on the question, What does freedom mean to you?  We published some of the answers in our Fire Inside  newsletter.  One woman answered: “Prison time is like waking up every morning fighting a dragon with a teaspoon, but you just keep fighting and one day you see the dragon fall.”  Another stated “Freedom is about deliverance and being home with my loved ones.  The thought and feeling of breaking free itself is exhilarating and liberating.”

Historically, there have also been great, liberatory prison escapes in the U.S.  They occurred in the context of the radical anti-colonial prisoner movement of the 1970’s that exposed and challenged the  white supremacist purposes of the prison system.  Ruchell Cinque Magee is the only surviving member of the August 7, 1970 Marin Courthouse rebellion initiated by Jonathan Jackson, George Jackson’s brother.  During the rebellion, Ruchell attempted to liberate himself and other prisoners.  In the aftermath, Magee defended himself against multiple charges by arguing that enslaved prisoners had a right and a duty to try to escape. Today at 82 years old, Magee is the longest-held political prisoner in the United States having served 58 years of imprisonment in California.

Russell Maroon Shoatz, a Black Panther and Black Liberation Army member, escaped from Pennsylvania state prisons twice, in 1977 and 1980, and was recaptured both times. His nickname, “Maroon,” was a reference to the historic communities of escaped slaves in North and South America.  White anti-imperialist Marilyn Buck claimed her freedom when she didn’t return from a prison furlough in 1977 and went underground for the next eight years before being rearrested in 1985. Puerto Rican freedom fighter William Morales escaped from a prison ward at Bellevue Hospital in May 1979. Morales used  a makeshift rope to climb down from a 40 foot‐high window, a particularly impressive feat since he had lost most of both of his hands in an explosion a few months before. Morales was given political asylum in Cuba in 1988.

On November 2, 1979 Black revolutionary Assata Shakur was liberated from Clinton Correctional Facility in New Jersey by members of the Black Liberation Army during a prison visit.  Five years later she was granted political asylum in Cuba where she has lived ever since.  Assata’s great escape has reverberated in the movement for decades, and she has become an inspirational beacon for new generations of Black and other liberation activists.  Her words are often used today to close out political gatherings with an affirmation from her autobiography commonly called the Assata Chant– “It is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

In the decades following these great prison escapes, the U.S. government escalated  a punitive backlash against freedom movements.  Mass criminalization and incarceration of Black and Brown people, anti-terrorist laws targeting Arab and Muslim people, and heightened repression against those who resist have been aimed at preventing the reemergence of radical freedom struggle.  U.S. carceral  weaponry has been developed in close coordination with the Israeli state, working together to obliterate the drive towards liberation on a global scale.

Over the past two decades the developing prison Abolitionist movement has been part of a resurgence of freedom struggle inside the U.S.  Abolitionists inside and outside of prisons are challenging the prison industrial complex through a wide variety of tactics. We demand mass prison closures, defunding of prisons and police, and the redirection of funds and resources towards community needs and self-determined solutions. We organize for the freedom of political prisoners and all incarcerated people by challenging racist and gender-based convictions and by changing the draconian laws that have been established to entrap millions of people.  We support the efforts of incarcerated people to delegitimize the invincibility of the carceral state through hunger strikes, work stoppages, artistic creations and collective solidarity.

As 2021 draws to a close, the Great Palestinian Escape shines a light on the possibility of winning freedom under the most impossible circumstances.  It reverberates with the words of Russell Maroon Shoatz, “history records the stories of multitudes who risked their lives to obtain or regain their freedom. “  Maroon sadly died of terminal cancer on December 17, 2021, having spent just fifty –two days in freedom. He had finally won compassionate release on October 26thafter 49 years in prison.

The Great Palestinian Escape reminds us that the Assata Chant is in fact a call to action that resonates with the struggles of imprisoned and oppressed people around the world.  It is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win.  We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Dedicated to the life, actions and writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz, August 23, 1943-December 17, 2021.

Diana Block was part of the 10th and the 50th Anniversary Venceremos Brigades and worked for many years to win the freedom of the Cuban 5 political prisoners.   She is the author of a memoir, Arm the Spirit – A Woman’s Journey Underground and Back, and a novel, Clandestine Occupations – An Imaginary History.  She is a founding and active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, an abolitionist organization that is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020.