"I Escaped Israel’s Prisons Three Times" - An Interview with Hamza Younis

September 27, 2021

Long story short, we fought them with our fists. The jailers called for help from the police, but we managed to escape the prison and enter an orchard about 200 meters from the prison. When we got out, they were shooting at us.
Hamza Younis, a Palestinian boxer who escaped Israel's prisons three times. Illustrated by Onur Askin for Politics Today.

Hamza Younis is a boxer and a former Palestinian prisoner who was sentenced to seven life sentences and 350 years imprisonment. Younis managed to escape from Israel’s prisons three times: in 1964, 1967, and 1974. He spoke to Yousef Aljamal of Politics Today about how he managed to escape, challenging his jailers to win his freedom despite all odds, and winning his bets twice – one with his jailer who helped him regain his freedom without realizing it and another with his friend who thought escaping Al-Ramla prison in Israel was impossible.

Q. Could you introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about your life? How you were arrested the first time?

My name is Hamza Younis from the village of A’ara in the occupied Palestinian territories of 1948, whose people had the Israeli citizenship imposed on them. I lived in the village with my family and witnessed the Israeli military rule there. After moving between countries, today, I am settled in Sweden. In 1964, over a security charge, I was taken to Ashkelon prison along with my cousin, Makram Younis, where we stayed for 17 days. The Israeli authorities directed seven major charges against us including operating resistance networks and passing the borders without a permission to give information to the enemy.

We met Hafez Masallha from the village of Daburiyya in prison and he had the same charges against him. Of course, when we learned about the charges directed against us, Israelis refused even to allow a lawyer to defend us, so we decided either to die as martyrs or escape from the prison. The plan was to escape at the beginning of the night before 8:00 p.m., since prison cells would be closed then. We sparked a fight in the heart of the prison cells. The jailers opened the doors, and we pushed the door and clashed with the guards. The clash continued until we exited the prison cells and entered the yard.

As we thought, time was not in our favor, because the prison is large, with guards, watchtowers, and support cars. Long story short, we fought them with our fists. The jailers called for help from the police, but we managed to escape the prison and enter an orchard about 200 meters from the prison. When we got out, they were shooting at us. We entered the orange orchard and headed to Gaza. This was on April 17, 1964, and we stayed in Gaza until 1967.

Q. Did you go to Gaza on foot after you escaped the prison for the first time in 1964?

Yes, we went running because we were being chased. We resorted to walking on uninhabited terrain because we knew that the Israeli army, border guards, dogs, and cars will chase us. So, we chose to walk on rough roads near the sea so that we have a way out through the sea if they find us. My cousin, Makram, and I had crossed Lake Tiberias swimming before and I was able to swim well as I worked as a lifeguard at the municipality of Natanya. We arrived at Gaza after running for four hours.

Q. How long did you stay in Gaza before you were captured again? Tell us more about your experience in Gaza. How were you captured in 1967?

I stayed in Gaza until the 1967 Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the neighboring Arab countries. I was injured during the aggression while defending Gaza, and they could arrest me. While I was in prison, my leg’s condition was so severe that I couldn’t even stand on it. When they brought me to investigation, the guards said that if I was moved to the hospital in a normal car, I may not make it because the wound was open, and I needed surgery. Two guards were responsible for me at the English Hospital, but when they saw that I was unable to move on the second floor and that I was peeing in my bed and moving in a wheelchair, they neglected watching me. So, on June 26, 1967, with the help of my friends, I escaped from the hospital.

I fled the hospital and went to the orchards of Northern Gaza. Of course, I was chased, so I hid inside orange trees, I dug holes and covered myself with leaves and grass to be able to breathe and to blur the vision of forces that were chasing me. At night, with the help of the people of Gaza food and medicine would arrive. I started training myself to be able to walk again until I was able to walk for 10 to 12 meters and eventually, I fled to Jordan.

Q. How did you manage to reach Jordan?

Around August 6, 1967, using a Palestinian ID and claiming to be a student and that I needed to go back to my studies, I got out of the West Bank in a car. I arrived in Jordan where I had relatives who took me to a hospital for treatment. Then, I went to Egypt and worked there for a while until I recovered from my wounds. I returned to Jordan and then Lebanon, and joined the Fatah fighters.

Hundreds of Palestinians gather to protest against Israeli violations of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in Hebron, West Bank on September 08, 2021. Photo by Mamoun Wazwaz. Anadolu Agency.

Q. Can you tell us about the conversations between you and your jailers. Were they telling you that you wouldn’t be able to escape the Israeli prisons? Was there any conversation about this issue?

There were things that happened, for example, they interrogated me, and I want to tell you about this irony. I mentioned it in my book, Al-Ramla Prison Escape [available exclusively in Arabic]. When I was arrested in 1967 for the second time, I tried to resist, of course, so I fell to the ground. One of the Druze soldiers said that I could kill one of them, and asked the nurse not to provide medical care for me.

The nurse refused, and said, “I am a nurse, and this is a wounded person” and started treating me while I was lying in front of the soldiers. The Druze solider said, “I will kill you. But the commander of the unit asked the solider how would you get rid of a wounded person, who is also a prisoner? You are crazy!”

Q. Were you in good shape when you crossed the borders out of the West Bank?

No, of course not – I was hardly able to walk. I would walk up to 50-60 meters at most. I asked people about the distance from the post to the bridge. They told me that it is 100 meters because the length of the bridge [connecting the West Bank with Jordan] was this. I was in contact with my family and my father and mother came and brought a Jordanian ID to me. I got my hair shaved and changed my clothes and got in the car, and even went to my village before I left. This is no secret anymore because it has been forty years and most people I met with are dead now. I stayed in the village for almost an hour and then they took me to the West Bank, and I took a taxi to the bridge.

Q. Did you plan your escape from prison alone in 1964? Did you study the place to devise a detailed escape route, or did you consult other people before you escaped? What about before at Ashkelon prison?

Me, a cousin of mine, and my partner in the charge, Makram Younis, were arrested. We planned the escape together. Hafez Masalha joined us, and we decided to plan an escape together.

Q. What about planning your second escape from the English Hospital in 1967?

At the English Hospital in Gaza in 1967, it was patient visiting time, and the Israeli occupation of Gaza was recent, so we had a curfew, which was lifted for two hours. During this time, the hospital was receiving thousands of people, as the number of people who died in the hospital every day was about 20-30.

I was in a 10-bed room at the hospital where 30 patients were receiving treatment. I remember that the first time I got there, I lied on the floor. The doctor came and asked me how I was. I said everyone is passing over my head! I told him I knew the size of the shoes of all the hospital workers! He ordered me a bed and they brought nurses from Lebanon. May God reward them for providing treatment for us – they were named Suhaila Bahsous and Nihaya Bahsous. They were training to become nurses in Lebanon.

Q. Did you take advantage of the fact that there were many people visiting the hospital to escape?

At that moment, when my plan was conceived, I started to move in a wheelchair with three wheels and the guards didn’t pay much attention to me because there were many soldiers at the hospital and there was extensive monitoring of people. My condition was too bad to be able to escape. Only female nurses took care of me and would speak to us. I asked some of my friends to come and visit me like Ziad Al-Shobaki, Saleh Al-Ghoul, Kayed Al-Ghoul, Rushdi Al-Khalidi, and Shukri Al-Khalidi.

My friends helped me. I was not able to walk, and Saleh said he knew the doorman in a subsection of the hospital. He told the doorman that there is someone whose mother is sick and that she is an old woman, and he needs to visit her, but he can’t climb the stairs and he needs to use the door of the subsection. I escaped and they took me to Al-Shati Refugee Camp.

My friends brought me some soup. I remember this because I was hungry then. I wanted to eat while in the refugee camp, but one of the neighbors said, “I swear by God, there is a man named Hamza Younis, a fighter who escaped from the hospital and came to Al-Shati camp.” I heard him saying this and told my friends that I am leaving. I went near Jabaliya to the north of Gaza, and it was very dark there. I stayed all day long watching the trees or in graveyards, and at night I sat with friends who brought me food and medicine until I was able to walk and made the trip to Jordan.

I was sick. I went to Egypt and got treatment there and worked as a broadcaster and a translator for a while. Then, I went back to Jordan and came back with the Fatah movement to Lebanon.

Q. When you were arrested in Gaza, at the hospital, how did they know that you were the person who had escaped from prison in 1964? The first thing you told them was that you are a Palestinian from Egypt. How did they know your identity?

The truth is, our colleague who fled with us in 1964, Hafez Masallha, was captured again inside Israel two weeks before the 1967 war. He confessed to the Israelis that he knew me. Furthermore, I was a member of the Palestinian boxing team in Gaza, and many of my colleagues and friends visited me at the hospital, so the Israelis suspected it was me. They also arrested someone I know who confessed about my situation.

Q. What happened the last time you were arrested in 1972?

It was at the beginning of 1972 when I was arrested for the third time by Israel. Me and a group of four young men carried out a naval attack against Israel, and we were arrested at sea. I confessed this time who I was because I said, sooner or later, they will find out my identity. During the interrogation, they asked me about the people I knew.

Q. Did they ask you about your two previous escapes from Israeli prisons?

Yes, they did. It was a very hard experience because they tortured me by pouring hot water on me and left me naked at the Sarafand military prison to the extent I would shake non-stop. They were not humans. The toughest part about the torture was that I had to keep the secret of having seen about 200 members of my extended family before I left for Jordan from the West Bank in 1967. I was worried that if I confessed, I would harm my entire extended family, my loved ones, those closest to me.

The moment we were exposed in 1972 and the Israeli navy surrounded us, I threw myself in the sea, because I thought if I did so, they would shoot me, and I would die and save my other friends and myself the pain of confessing to meeting 200 of my relatives in 1967. I thought to myself and decided what to confess, but I made sure to deny that I have never been to my village or seen my family.

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Q. What happened to you after detention and how many years were you sentenced to?

This was the first time I was sentenced, because in the past, I would escape from Israelis before they were able to sentence me. They sentenced me to seven life sentences and 350 years in prison. If you have the will, this sentence does not mean anything. When I was sentenced to all these long years in prison, Israeli journalists present at the court told me that I will die before seeing sunlight.

I told them, I am not responsible for the sentence given to me by the judge, but I am responsible for what I say. I will stay in prison only for two years, and I will leave afterwards. Israeli newspapers wrote on the front pages that Hamza Younis is dreaming, he was sentenced to seven life sentences and 350 years in prison, but he is claiming that he will leave prison after two years.

My prison inmates, we were 16 people in each still, would watch me awake at midnight. They would tell me that you will never be able to leave this prison, don’t even think about it. “We were here before you and we are stronger than you. No one was able to escape this prison before.” I told them, there is no perfect power on earth, only God is perfect. Eventually, I told them that if I stay more than two years, I will buy them a pocket of cigarettes a day. I met them afterwards outside prison.

Q. Tell us how you planned your third escape. Logic and reason negate that a prisoner would be able to escape from a high-security prison like you did. What is the secret and story behind your third escape from Al-Ramla prison in 1974?

Samir Darwish and Muhammad Qassim were with me. We cut the window of the cell of Samir Darwish. We needed a saw to cut through 17 pillars of steel. We knew that we needed to get saws into the prison cell. There was a greedy jailer in the prison whose foot size we knew was 44. We staged a bet and made sure the jailer wins it. It was cloudy and I said that it is not going to rain in a few hours.

My friends said, “No, it will rain.” So did this greedy jailer, who thought that he was right, because my friends agreed with him. He thought he won the bet. I agreed to give him a pair of shoes as a gift if he wins. I asked him if he wanted to get it in prison or sent to his house. I sent it to his house upon his request, but I asked some of friends outside to smuggle thin and sharp saws under the protective foot coverings.

People gather in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross building to stage a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails in Ramallah, West Bank on August 17, 2021. Photo by Issam Rimawi. Anadolu Agency.

After a couple of weeks, the greedy jailer came to the prison, and he told me that I kept my word, and these are the shoes I got my friends to send him. I asked Omar Al-Silawi from Acre to make coffee, and to spill it on purpose on the jailer’s shoes. My friend came with the coffee and acted as if he spilled it on his shoes by mistake. We started screaming at him and apologized to the jailer. We took his shoes to clean them inside the cell. We gave him slippers and a chair as an alternative for a few minutes. We managed to get the saws out as planned and gave him his shoes back.

This way, we had the needed saws. We cut through 17 pillars of steel. Muhammad Qassim and I were able to get out. Our third friend was not able to run as the plot was exposed. But we were able to escape, and we made sure to avoid Israeli military checkpoints and all main roads. We also wore women’s clothes at some point to make it harder for the Israeli army to find us. After three weeks of walking, we made it to Lebanon, and we held a press conference celebrating our release.

What happened to the prison director?

The prison director, as I was told by my friends who I met later, got very angry and shot in the air in the middle of the prison. He said, “What did I do to Hamza Younis that he destroyed my career?”

How did you react to the news of six Palestinian prisoners tunneling their way out of an Israeli prison on September 6, 2021?

I felt proud of them. Although I am still worried because they have not won their freedom completely since Israel is still looking for them and they have not reached a safe haven yet. I pray that they succeed in doing so. I feel happier than when I won my own freedom. What they did, was not an easy thing. I remember that I was not able to sleep for one whole week when I escaped from prison, despite being in a safe area at night, and how much we needed to sleep.

Yousef M. Aljamal is a researcher in Middle Eastern Studies and the author and translator of a number of books. He is a co-author of A Shared Struggle: Stories of Palestinian and Irish Hunger Strikers published by An Fhuiseog (July 2021).