Zakaria Zubeidi is one of six Palestinian prisoners who, on September 6, tunneled their way out of Gilboa, a notorious, high-security Israeli prison. Zubeidi was recaptured a few days later. The large bruises on Zubeidi’s face told a harrowing story, that of a daring escape and of a violent arrest. However, the story does not begin, nor end, there.
Twenty years ago, following what has been etched in the collective Palestinian memory as the ‘Jenin Massacre’, I was introduced to the Zubeidi family in the Jenin refugee camp, which was almost entirely erased by the Israeli army during and following the Jenin battle.
Despite my repeated attempts, the Israeli army prevented me from reaching Jenin, which was kept under total Israeli military siege for months following the most violent episode of the entirety of the Second Palestinian Uprising (2000-2005).
I could not speak to Zakaria directly. Unlike his brother, Taha, Zakaria survived the massacre and subsequently rose in the ranks of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement, to become its leader, thus topping the list of Israel’s most wanted Palestinians.
Most of our communication was with his sister, Kauthar, who told us in detail about the events that preceded the fateful military siege of April. Kauthar was only 20 years old at the time. Despite her grief, she spoke proudly about her mother, who was killed by an Israeli sniper only weeks before the invasion of the camp and about her brother, Taha, the leader of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad in Jenin at the time; and of Zakaria, who was now on a mission to avenge his mother, brother, best friends and neighbors.
“Taha was killed by a sniper. After he was killed, they fired shells at him, which completely burned his body. This was in the Damaj neighborhood,” Kauthar told us, adding, “The Shebab gathered what remained of him and put him in a house. Since that day, the house has been known as ‘The Home of the Hero’.”
Kauthar also told me about her mother, Samira, 51, “who spent her life going from one prison to another” to visit her husband and her sons. Samira was loved and respected by all the fighters in the camp. Her children were the heroes that all the youngsters attempted to emulate. Her death was particularly shocking.
“She was hit with two bullets in the heart,” Kauthar said. “Once she turned around, she was hit in the back. Blood poured out of her nose and mouth. I did not know what else to do but to scream.”
Zakaria immediately went underground. The young fighter was feeling aggrieved at what had befallen his beloved Jenin, family, mother and brother – the latter’s wedding was scheduled one week from the day he was killed. He was also feeling betrayed by his Fatah ‘brothers’ who continued to openly collaborate with Israel, despite the mounting tragedies in the occupied West Bank, and by the Israeli left that abandoned the Zubeidi family despite promises of solidarity and camaraderie.
“Every week, 20-30 Israelis would come there to do theatre,” Zakaria said in an interview with ‘The Time’ magazine, with reference to the ‘Arna’s House’ theater, which involved Zakaria and other Jenin youngsters, and was established by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli woman who was married to a Palestinian. “We opened our home and you demolished it … We fed them. And, afterwards, not one of them picked up the phone. That is when we saw the real face of the left in Israel.”
Of the five children who participated in the ‘Arna’s House’ theatre, only Zakaria survived. The rest had joined various armed groups to fight the Israeli occupation and were all killed.
Zakaria was born in 1976 under Israeli occupation, therefore never experienced life as a free man. At 13, he was shot by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones. At 14, he was arrested for the first time. At 17, he joined the Palestinian Authority security forces, believing, like many Palestinians at the time, that the PA’s ‘army’ was established to protect Palestinians and to secure their freedom. Disillusioned, he left the PA less than a year later.
Zakaria only committed to armed struggle in 2001, as a way of achieving freedom for his people, months after the start of the Second Intifada. One of his childhood friends was one of the first to be killed by Israeli soldiers. In 2002, Zakaria joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, around the time that his mother, Samira, and his brother, Taha, were killed.
2002, in particular, was a decisive year for the Fatah movement, which was practically, but unofficially, divided into two groups: one that believed that armed struggle should remain a strategy for liberation, and another that advocated political dialogue and a peace process. Many members of the first group were killed, arrested or marginalized, including Fatah’s popular leader, Marwan Barghouti, who was arrested in April 2002. Members of the second group grew rich and corrupt. Their ‘peace process’ failed to deliver the coveted freedom and they refused to consider other strategies, fearing the loss of their privileges.
Zakaria, like thousands of Fatah members and fighters, was caught up in this ongoing dilemma, wanting to carry on with the struggle as if PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ leadership was ready to risk it all for the sake of Palestine, while remaining committed to the Fatah party, hoping that, perhaps, someday the movement would reclaim the mantle of Palestinian resistance.
The trajectory of Zakaria’s life, so far, is a testament to this confusion. He was not only imprisoned by the Israelis, but also by the PA. Sometimes, he spoke highly of Abbas only to, later, disown all the treachery of the Palestinian leadership. He surrendered his weapon several times, only to retrieve it with the same determination as before.
Though Zakaria is now back in prison, his story remains unfinished. Scores of young fighters are now roaming the streets of the Jenin refugee camp, vowing to carry on with armed struggle. Namely, Zakaria Zubeidi is not just a single person but a whole generation of Palestinians in the West Bank who are caught up in an impossible dilemma, having to choose between a painful, but real, struggle for freedom and political compromises, which, in Zakaria’s own words, “have achieved nothing”.