As I am writing these words, Zakaria is being tortured. In one picture from his arrest, his face is swollen. The Israeli Prison Service announced his transfer from jail to a hospital in Haifa for medical care, then reversed the decision. His lawyer reports that he suffered two fractures in the ribs and one in the jaw. The chasm between the relative safety of my life in Michigan and the brutality he is facing undergirds everything I am about to write. How to not be extractive? The dissonance is overwhelming.
I am approached by a dark figure. I recognize him immediately, of course. His sleeveless shirt accentuates long muscles of manual labor, probably construction. He is limping slightly and his face is marked, remnants of a mishandled explosive; I think I read that somewhere. Still, he’s handsome. Thin, high cheekbones and large eyes. He seems to have crawled out of a film.
He greets me formally, in quiet conspiracy, in Arabic.
This is a story of two images. The first is of evasion (un)captured: the photo from the dawn of escape, September 6, 2021, when six Palestinian political prisoners crawled out of a thirty-two-yard tunnel to freedom. Sunrise on the horizon, a dirt road on the freer side of prison walls, soldiers milling about, a couple of officials talking haplessly into their phones, and—center—a kneeling man staring ponderously into a shoulder-wide gaping hole in the ground. The helplessness of the jailer.
I love this photo because its protagonists are so evidently absent. They remind us of their existence by being so invisible, by vanishing.
The most notorious of the escapees is Zakaria Zubeidi, considered a legend of the Second Intifada, co-founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, subject in the incredible documentary Arna’s Children, and an eloquent writer. Zubeidi submitted a draft of a master’s thesis in Contemporary Arabic Studies at Birzeit University entitled, in Arabic: الصياد والتنين: المطاردة في التجربة الوطنية الفلسطينية من 1905-2018 (The Dragon and the Hunter: Manhunt in the Palestinian National Experience 1905-2018). Sections of the draft leaked online, and Birzeit published a statement calling for intellectual integrity and discretion until Zubeidi had a chance to defend his dissertation and decide whether and how to publish it.1 Someone posted it on Twitter, then deleted it within the hour, but I was quick enough to give it a peek, feeling alternately as if I was in on a conspiracy or an academic spy. I will respect Birzeit’s request to wait until further notice before reading in full, though my quick glance at the table of contents revealed a decidedly internationalist framework drawing from anticolonial struggles around the world. And the title alone evokes dragon philosopher George Jackson and the Black radical tradition.2 Here is an astonishing example of theory as liberatory practice, recalling bell hooks:
Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.3
What better example than a rebel and a theorist—categorized by the state as a terrorist—who studies the history of chase and evasion to then situate himself and his own very literal liberatory practice at the forefront of the field, where a theoretical topography meets a material landscape.
In the first photo, in its profoundly present absence, to exhume a phrase from Mahmoud Darwish’s self-elegy, we see what Deleuze and Guattari would call a line of flight stretching throughout Palestine and the world, a vector for a nomadic war machine, an assemblage allowing for the creation of new flows and a discursive smooth space wherein all Palestinian factions and identity-constructs (Gazans, West Bank Palestinians, East Jerusalemites, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and refugees) unite with a common hope. Gazan YouTuber Khaled Waleed, whose videos are regularly interrupted by the frequent power outages in the besieged Strip, is interrupted this time by those on the streets celebrating Zubeidi’s escape.4 Memes circulate cropping Zubeidi into Hollywoodian prison breaks. Prisoner support committees distribute baklava to passersby.5 While in prison the escapees were absent; with their escape they became present-absent, an extralegal counter to the disenfranchised present absentee of Israeli law.6 Darwish writes, “Paradise was born from the hell of absence.”
I come to this side of town for free parking. Early AM, locals drive to work, and I edge into a deserted spot with my aunt’s Lemon Lime. I hang a mesbaha from the rearview for safety. Then I jog back home in the tracksuit I got for cheap by Damascus Gate. I pass. Until I open my mouth, that is.
Knowing this, I’m not afraid, though my heart is racing. If I say nothing, I’ll be fine.
This level of unity, not seen during the assault on Gaza last summer (2021) or at the time of the massacre of the protesters in the Great March of Return (2018-19), alarmed Israeli officials and neutralized their ability to coordinate with the Palestinian Authority, an arm of the Israeli occupation that is instrumental to the quelling of revolt within the West Bank.8 Humiliated and enraged by this image of liberation, the Sovereign cannot let the joie de vivre persist. Hence, the second picture:
Published by the Israeli Police, it shows four masked men in T-shirts and military helmets with night-vision gear and assault rifles standing around two kneeling, blindfolded figures with their hands tied behind their backs. The captured escapees appear vulnerable, docile, and—importantly—out of focus. Zakaria is wearing jeans and a sleeveless. The armed men are from the army’s reservist “trackers” unit (“gashashim”) whose foot-soldiers are Bedouin Arabs, Palestinian citizens of Israel. The two prisoners were tracked down after “Israeli Arabs,” a.k.a. Palestinian citizens of Israel, allegedly reported their whereabouts to the police. The two escapees, according to Zionist media, had asked the Israeli Arabs/Palestinian citizens for food and a ride to Jenin refugee camp on the other side of the Apartheid Wall (the prisoners, through their lawyers, will later deny this report, saying they spoke to no one so as to avoid implicating people). Two Palestinians escaping an Israeli-made hell, snitched on by Palestinians, captured by Palestinians, to be returned to the Israeli-made hell. Steve Salaita writes: “The occupier is damn near useless without the cowardice and mendacity of a few native informants. The dregs of Palestinian society represent the apogee of Zionism.”
Hebrew media immediately exploded with articles commending “the loyalty of Israel’s Arabs.” The liberal Zionist newspaper Haaretz proclaimed that the new government is indeed “a government of change,” as illustrated by the Minister of Internal Affairs’ tweet thanking Israeli Arabs for supporting the manhunt. The right-wing, Adelson-funded Yisrael Hayom tabled its usual form of anti-Arab incitement to assert that the manhunt proved “the great majority of Israeli Arabs are law-abiding loyal citizens.”11 The voices of those rare Palestinian citizens who stated publicly that they would have collaborated with the police were amplified.12
“Can we take your car?” he asks, almost inaudibly. I notice another figure standing nervously by a stone stairway. “I’ll have someone bring it back in a week.”
A car zooms by, ignoring the speedbumps, and he turns to face the wall.
With the arrest of Zakaria, the smooth space that was created by his line of flight was, to use Deluezian terms, reterritorialized. The identitarian divides among Palestinians were discursively reaffirmed. The invocation of an almost mythical Palestinian underground, capable and unpredictable, faced the reality of a fragmented colonized populace that reminds the world of its existence in periodic outbursts of near-spontaneous revolt. “There is no object, no subject, no contradiction. . . . But there are events. I never act; I am always slightly surprised by what I do.”13
There is instant, unambiguous resolve. I feel the keys heavy in the breast pocket of my tracksuit. I unzip it, extract them, say nothing. Fiddling awkwardly—shouldn’t have cut my fingernails so close to the skin—I remove the car key from its ring. I look in the eye of the dragon, turn the other way and start walking. I drop the key on the pavement.
“That which acts through me is also surprised by what I do, by the chance to mutate, to change, . . . to bifurcate.”
Overwhelmed by his heat, I don’t look back.
1 “الصياد والتنين.. جامعة بيرزيت توضّح بشأن رسالة ماجستير الزبيدي,” وكـالـة مـعـا الاخـبـارية, accessed September 28, 2021, https://www.maannews.net/news/2049525.html.
2 Joy James, “George Jackson: Dragon Philosopher and Revolutionary Abolitionist,” AAIHS (blog), August 21, 2018, https://www.aaihs.org/george-jackson-dragon-philosopher-and-revolutionary-abolitionist/.
3bell hooks, “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 4 (1991): 2.
4 Khaled Waleed, كيف هرب الاسرى من سجن جلبوع ؟ ( هروب 6 اسرى فلسطينيين ), 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM4wiLpW8dE.
5 Global News, Palestinians Celebrate as 6 Militants Escape Israel’s High-Security Prison, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n-0uIDR0L-s.
6 “Present Absentees in Israel,” Palestinian Journeys, accessed October 3, 2021, https://www.paljourneys.org/en/timeline/highlight/14342/present-absentees-israel.
7 Maḥmūd Darwīsh, In the Presence of Absence, translated by Sinan Antoon, Archipelago Books, 2011.
8 “בריחת האסירים משבשת את תוכניות ישראל והפלסטינים, ומאיימת להצית את השטח,” הארץ, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.haaretz.co.il/news/politics/.premium-1.10196226.
9 Steve Salaita, “Architectures of Delusion,” Steve Salaita (blog), September 10, 2021, https://stevesalaita.com/architectures-of-delusion/.
10 “ציוץ אחד של עמר בר-לב הוכיח: זאת אכן ממשלת שינוי,” הארץ, accessed September 14, 2021, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/.premium-1.10200593
11 “דעה | המצוד חושף את הפרדוקס שבו נמצאים ערביי ישראל | ישראל היום,” accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.israelhayom.co.il/news/defense/article/4501351/.
12 “הייתי מוסר אותם למשטרה,” הארץ, accessed September 15, 2021, https://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.10208443.
13 Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999, 281.
14 Latour, 281.
Amitai Ben-Abba is a writer and filmmaker. They wrote and produced the award-winning documentary Objector (2019) and published fiction, non-, poetry, and journalism on a variety of platforms, including The Independent, Witness, Haaretz, and CounterPunch. Born and raised in West Jerusalem, Amitai is currently doing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. @amitaibenabba