The Mellowed Militant (Extract)

Reformed Jenin gunman Zakaria Zubeidi could be an important factor in the Palestinian Authority's efforts to impose law and order in the West Bank

03zubthm (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Zakaria Zubeidi's guests wait patiently for the swashbuckling gunman in his uncle's parlor in the Jenin refugee camp. Friends and relations swear they hadn't heard from him in three days and that his cellphone has been shut for hours. Is Zubeidi on the run from the Israelis again after violating the terms of an amnesty program for militants hammered out between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority (PA)? Perhaps he fears being arrested by the PA after comparing their leaders to prostitutes in an interview with the Hebrew press? "If he comes out, Israel will assassinate him," says Mohammad Shalabi, a Zubeidi loyalist in the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, the terror arm of the Fatah political movement, while waiting in the salon. "If Zakaria is arrested by the PA, a big intifada will start in Jenin." Indeed, as the official Palestinian security forces deployed approximately 500 para-military troops to beef up security in Jenin early in May, Zubeidi, 31, a local folk hero, was poised to play a key role as supporter or spoiler. Zubeidi's implicit support could provide important backing for the PA's tentative efforts to impose order on the chaos reigning in this northern West Bank town and demonstrate to Israel and the United States that it is serious about security. On the other hand, by challenging the police deployment and allowing his gunmen to continue to operate as a law unto themselves, the al-Aqsa leader could undermine the PA's credibility in the West Bank, among Israelis, the U.S. and the Palestinians themselves. After more than an hour, just a moment before his guests are about to give up on him, the soft-spoken Zubeidi suddenly appears. His explanation for his tardiness is as cryptic as his vanishing. His angst reflects the militants' dilemma between fighting Israel one moment and then cooperating with the IDF against some of their brethren at a time even when they see little quid pro quo. "I wasn't in hiding, I was escaping my reality," he says, fingering a cigarette on a sofa underneath a poster celebrating the martyrdom of his brother Taha, who was killed in the refugee camp during the IDF's Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. "I've been under a lot of pressure," adds Zubeidi. Such elusiveness was a way of life when the al-Aqsa leader was on the IDF hit list. But 10 months ago, he stopped running and joined a program under which nearly 200 militants, linked to PA President Mahmud Abbas's Fatah party, agreed to lay down their weapons and spend their nights at a Palestinian police station in return for being deleted from the IDF wanted list. The amnesty program has enjoyed mixed success. Weapons collection from the militants has been incomplete and other militants have bolted the nightly lockdowns. Going straight, Zubeidi avers, hasn't been easy. "During the months at the muqata'a [police headquarters], I was more demoralized than the seven years I was a fugitive. I even felt that I was betraying my cause, my morals, and my principles," he explains. "But I said, 'Forget about it.' I am going to comply with the PA for the sake of everybody else. I tried to understand that sometimes institutions like the PA are pressured by the Europeans and the Americans. And I started to say, 'Why not? You should surrender to the PA and to the Americans and the Europeans. Maybe something good will come out of this.'" Zubeidi's visage, speckled by black freckles from the fragments of a mishandled bomb, has become his militant calling card. And yet his boyish face has not aged and indeed seems to have filled out since his days of living on the run. Once considered the unofficial mayor of Jenin at the height of the second intifada, Zubeidi's celebrity extends to Israel as well. He is renowned for eluding the Israeli security forces for years and for his ties to Jewish peace activists like Tali Fahima - who was jailed for visiting him in Jenin and warning him of an impending Israeli arrest. He is also the most media friendly militant. But he is adrift. He has declared the armed uprising against Israel a failure, but is deeply skeptical about Abbas's efforts to reform the PA and deploy security forces to disarm militants like himself. "If the police come and they manage to control the daily Israeli incursions in Jenin, and end the state of chaos, then we will give them their due," he says. "The problem is that they aren't coming to defend the people from the Israeli army." Nablus, the first city in which the PA brought in extra policeman to bolster the rule of law, is at best a limited success. There's been a drop in crime, but the Israelis don't see much anti-terrorism work and the Palestinians complain of continuing Israeli incursions. "Has Nablus been freed of the occupation? That is the deciding factor," asks Zubeidi. "According to American-Israeli standards, the police have succeeded, but not according to Palestinian standards." In March, Zubeidi violated the amnesty program by bolting the overnight detention arrangement. He accused the Palestinian security services of pressing to transfer his comrades to a Jericho jail to comply with Israeli and U.S. demands. "We started feeling that they were only complying with the American and Israeli demands. They are not treating us as their people. We are a burden to them," he says. Since the amnesty deal last year, he began social work studies and then stopped. He is a daily visitor to the Jenin Freedom Theater, a drama workshop for children run by Juliano Mer-Khamis, but can't be part of the drama group until he gets an official pardon from the Israelis. Born in Israel to an Arab father and a Jewish mother, Mer Khamis is an actor, director and political activist. His mother, Arna, came to the refugee camp in the 1990s and set up a children's theater, which practiced on the rooftop of the Zubeidi family home. The theater drew Israeli peace activists who became friends with the then-teenaged Zubeidi. The theater was disbanded when funds dried up and the second intifada broke out, but in recent years Zubeidi and Mer-Khamis started a new theater. Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.