Overview September 2021 | The Life of a Freedom Fighter
In the month of September 2021 Staat van Beleg documented 1,577 human rights violations and 153 reports. This month we write about the Palestinian freedom fighter Zakaria Zubeidi.
On September 6, six Palestinian prisoners escaped the Gilboa Prison in northern Israel through a tunnel that they had dug. Within two weeks all the six prisoners were captured by Israeli forces. The escape and personal stories of the prisoners were widely covered by the media. Finally we could catch a glimpse of the faces that were hidden behind Israeli bars for so long. People wanted to know who they were and how they ended up in prison. Their escape also put the faith of Palestinian prisoners in the spotlights. We saw protests with calls for the release of Palestinian prisoners inside and outside Occupied Palestine.
One of the prisoners is Zakaria Zubeidi who was caught five days after his escape near the Israeli village of Kfar Tavor. We will share Zubeidi’s life story, a story that resembles the lives of many Palestinian political prisoners.
Who is Zakaria Zubeidi?
Zakaria Muhammad ‘Abdelrahman Zubeidi (born in 1976) is the former Jenin chief of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a Palestinian militant coalition responsible for multiple settler shootings and suicide bombings against Israeli targets.
He is considered a “symbol of the Intifada”, and was on Israel’s most-wanted list for several years, as he was behind an attack in 2002 that killed 6 people in Beit She’an. He handed over his weapons to the Palestinian National Authority as part of an Israeli amnesty in 2007, when he renounced militancy and committed himself to cultural resistance through theater. On 28 December 2011, Israel rescinded Zubeidi’s pardon, and he was re-arrested based on charges made against him by the Palestinian Authority in possible violation of his clemency deal.
Zakaria was born in 1976 into the family of Mohammed and Samira Zubeidi, one of eight children. In a rare interview with a British reporter, Zakaria recalled his father, an English teacher, was prevented from teaching by the Israelis after he was arrested in the late 1960s for being a member of Fatah. He worked instead as a labourer in an Israeli iron foundry, did some private teaching on the side, and became a peace activist. The first Israeli Zubeidi had ever met was the soldier who came to take his father away, leaving the mother to raise their children alone.
A rare photo of Zakaria Zubeidi with his family near the rubble of their house that was demolished by the occupation in the Jenin camp in 1989. (Photo: Facebook)
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the First Intifada, Israeli human rights activist Arna Mer-Khamis opened a children’s theater in Jenin, “Arna’s House”, to encourage understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Dozens of Israeli volunteers ran the events, and Samira, believing that peace was possible, offered the top floor of the family house for rehearsals. Zubeidi, then aged 12, his older brother Daoud, and four other boys around the same age formed the core of the troupe.
Zubeidi attended the UNRWA school in Jenin Refugee Camp, and by all accounts was a good student. In 1989, at age 13, he was shot in the leg when he threw stones at Israeli soldiers. He was hospitalised for six months and underwent four operations, but was left permanently affected, with one leg shorter than the other and a noticeable limp. At age 14, he was arrested for the first time (again for throwing stones) and jailed for six months. At that time he had become the representative before the prison governor for the other child prisoners. On his release, he dropped out of high school after one year. A year later, he was re-arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails and imprisoned for 4 and a half years. In prison, he learned Hebrew, and became politically active, joining Fatah.
On his release following the 1993 Oslo Accords, he joined the Palestinian Authority’s Palestinian Security Forces. He became a sergeant, but left, disillusioned, after a year, complaining: “There were colleagues whom I had taught to read who were promoted to senior positions because of nepotism and corruption.”
He went to work illegally in Israel, and for two years earned a good living as a contractor for home renovations in Tel Aviv and Haifa. He was eventually arrested in Afula and, after being briefly imprisoned for working without a permit, deported back to Jenin. With his permit to work in Israel blocked, Zubeidi reportedly resorted to auto theft. In 1997, he was caught with a stolen car, and was given a fifteen-month sentence. After serving his time, he returned to the camp in Jenin. He became a truck driver, transporting flour and olive oil, but in September 2000 lost his job when the West Bank was sealed off due to the Second Intifada.
Leader of the Al-Aqsa Brigades
Battle of Jenin
Zubeidi himself traces his entry into armed militancy back to late 2001 when, after the killing of a close friend, he learned how to make bombs. On 3 March 2002, one month before the main assault on the refugee camp, his mother was killed during an Israeli raid into Jenin. She had taken refuge in a neighbor’s home and was shot by an IDF sniper who targeted her as she stood near a window. She subsequently bled to death. Zubeidi’s brother Taha was also killed by soldiers shortly afterward. A month later, a suicide bomber from Jenin killed 29 Israelis. The Israeli Army then launched a full-scale offensive in the Jenin refugee camp, demolishing hundreds of homes, leaving 2,000 homeless. Ten days of fighting ensued in which 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers died.
Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and other militants march along the streets of Jenin, Saturday April 2, 2005 during a rally to mark the 3rd anniversary of the assault by the Israeli army in Jenin. (Photo: Mohammed Ballas - AP)
Aside from grieving for lost family members and friends, Zubeidi was greatly embittered by the fact that none of the Israelis who had accepted his mother’s hospitality, and whom he had thought were his friends, tried to contact him. In a 2006 interview he stated angrily, “You took our house and our mother and you killed our brother. We gave you everything and what did we get in return? A bullet in my mother’s chest. We opened our home and you demolished it. Every week, 20 to 30 Israelis would come there to do theater. We fed them. And afterward, not one of them picked up the phone. That is when we saw the real face of the left in Israel.”
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades may reach peace with Israel, he said, but personally he would not. He found himself unable to forgive the killing of his mother and brother and the razing of his house.
Losing hope in the Israeli peace camp, he joined the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, an armed wing of Fatah andbecame a leader of the group. The al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades claimed responsibility for a November 2002 attack in Bet She’an in which 6 civilians were murdered, and Israel named Zubeidi as the prime suspect who planned the attack. This and other attacks he was involved in made him one of Israel’s most wanted men in the West Bank.
Arna’s son, Israeli actor Juliano Mer-Khamis, did return to Jenin in 2002 and looked for the boys who had been in the theater group. Zubeidi had turned to armed resistance, Daoud was sentenced to 16 years in prison for militant activities, and the other four were dead. In 2004, Mer-Khamis completed a documentary film about the group, Arna’s Children. Zubeidi’s face was slightly disfigured by fragments of shrapnel from a bomb that he mishandled in 2003.
Juliano Mer Khamis is seen at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp (Photo credit: Issam Rimawi / FLASH90)
In 2010 Israel’s former education minister Shulamit Aloni worked in the Jenin refugee camp for a year, helping his beloved friend Juliano Mer Khamis in the theater until the day of his murder. After Juliano’s assassination he continued to work with his beloved students in Ramallah for another two years, making a film and staging “Waiting for Godot”. He had lost touch with Zakaria but when he saw the picture of Zakaria on his knees, hands tied, with his eyes blindfolded, it paralyzed him and filled him with such deep sadness that he could hardly breathe. Here he shares three memories of Zakaria from the camp, dedicated to all political prisoners longing for freedom.
Power-broker of Jenin
He took responsibility for a bombing in Tel Aviv that killed one woman and injured more than 30 in June 2004. During this period, he was considered the primary power-broker and most powerful man in Jenin. Zubeidi was de facto in charge of law and order in the city. He viewed the PA security forces as having little presence other than “disturbing traffic.” Although he developed a friendly relationship with the former Palestinian president and Fatah head, Yasser Arafat, recalling him saying “‘Zakaria, buddy, I love you, we’re marching to Jerusalem!'”, Zubeidi also stated “I don’t take orders from anyone. I’m not good at following.” At the time, he was enthusiastic about the intifada, dismissing the view of Palestinians who wanted to end it and warned the new generation of Palestinians would “fight better”.
Israel tried to assassinate him four times. In one such attempt in 2004, an Israeli police unit killed five other brigade members, including a 14-year-old boy, in a jeep carrying Zubeidi. On November 15, following Arafat’s death, Israeli forces launched an incursion in Jenin to kill him, but he evaded them; in the raid, nine Palestinians were killed, including four civilians and his deputy, “Alaa”. The raid uncovered an arms cache. Prior to these incidents, another attempt on his life had been made by a Palestinian; Zubeidi had his hands broken as a punishment.
Zubeidi was at the center of controversy in 2004 when Tali Fahima, an Israeli legal secretary, was imprisoned due to her contacts with him. She was accused of preventing his arrest by the IDF by translating a document for him. Both of them denied allegations that they had a romantic relationship. He stated that year, “The intifada is in its death throes. These are the final stages…. Not only was the intifada a failure, but we are a total failure. We achieved nothing in 50 years of struggle; we’ve achieved only our survival.”
Elections and renewed conflict with Israel
During the Palestinian presidential elections in 2004, Zubeidi initially endorsed Marwan Bargouti, but shortly after Barghouti was imprisoned, he decided to support Mahmoud Abbas, who went on to win the election. The two were in contact with each other and Zubeidi, despite being considered a loose cannon and dangerously outspoken, appreciated Abbas’ “subdued no-nonsense style.” In December 2004, Israeli sources criticized Abbas for meeting Zubeidi. Despite his readiness to accept Abbas’ election to the presidency, Zubeidi still stated that he did not trust the latter in regard to the fundamental Palestinian claims concerning the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. According to Zubeidi, Arafat was the only figure who could have fulfilled those aspirations, claiming this was “why he was poisoned… why Israel killed him.”
In September 2005 he declared that his group’s cease-fire was at an end after Samer Saadi and two other militants were killed by Israeli forces in Jenin. On July 6, 2006, the IDF attempted to capture Zubeidi at a funeral, but he escaped after an exchange of gunfire.
On July 15, 2007, the Office of the Israeli Prime Minister announced that Israel would include Zubeidi in an amnesty offered to militants of Fatah’s al-Aqsa-Brigades. As of 2008, he was hired by Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was later murdered) as director of the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp.
Zakaria Zubeidi (center) outside the Freedom Theater in Jenin (Photo: Jenny Nyman)
In an interview on April 4, 2008, he stated that he still had not received a full pardon from Israel, and blamed the PA for “lying” to him. He continued to sleep at the PA’s Jenin headquarters and receive a salary of 1,050 NIS almost half of what he received earlier (2000 NIS). Asked why he had stopped fighting even when he had not received a full pardon, Zubeidi replied “because of the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Look, it’s perfectly clear to me that we won’t be able to defeat Israel. My aim was for us, by means of the resistance, to get a message out to the world. Back in Abu ‘Ammar’s day, we had a plan, there was a strategy, and we would carry his orders… now there’s no one capable of using our actions to bring about… achievements.” Zubeidi criticized the PA leadership, saying “they are whores. Our leadership is garbage.” Faced with the question of whether or not he admitted defeat he claimed “Even [late Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser admitted his defeat, so why not me?”
Prior to Fatah’s Sixth Conference in August 2009, Zubeidi called on fellow Fatah members to adopt a program of resistance in case peace negotiations with Israel failed and a Third Intifada broke out. Although he was accredited as one of 2,000 Fatah delegates to the conference in Bethlehem, Zubeidi was momentarily denied entry to the meeting hall. al-Aqsa Brigade members in Nablus and Jenin, as well as those outside of the Palestinian territories, protested the rebuff, describing it as “stabbing the resistance in the back.” Fatah officials eventually gave him permission to attend on August 5, 2009. The PA was also asked by brigade members to ensure Zubeidi’s safety from Bethlehem back to Jenin. A number of right-wing Israeli Knesset members submitted a petition to the Israeli military court on August 6 calling for Zubeidi’s arrest, despite the fact that he had been amnestied, because his “hands have Israeli blood [on them].” In the speech he delivered at the conference, Zubeidi suggested the Fatah-ruled West Bank reunite with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip through force, if necessary. He criticized the “old leadership,” condemning them for failing the Palestinian people, stating that “during 18 years of negotiations [under Fatah], no hope has been created.” Zubeidi suggested that a younger generation of Palestinians should lead Fatah.
Cancelling of amnesty
On 29 December 2011, Israel rescinded Zubeidi’s pardon and Zubeidi stated to Ma’an News Agency that he had not violated any of the conditions of his amnesty. He was advised by PA security officials to turn himself in to Palestinian custody lest he be arrested by Israel’s security forces. A week before Zubeidi was notified about the cancellation of his amnesty, his brother had been arrested by the PA.
Zubeidi was then kept in detention without charge by the Palestinian Authority from May to October 2012. In Zubeidi undertook to study for a master’s degree from Birzeit University, where he was supervised by Abdel Rahim Al-Sheikh, Professor of Cultural Studies, with a thesis entitled The Dragon and the Hunter, that focused on the Palestinian experience of being pursued from 1968 to 2018 and was helped in collecting materials by his friend Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist, who provided him with documents from Haaretz’s archives.
On 27 February 2019, before he could complete his dissertation, Zubeidi was arrested again, on suspicion of having engaged in terrorist activities, and in May he was charged before an Israeli military court with carrying out at least two shooting attacks on civilian buses in the West Bank.
- At the end of August there were 4650 Palestinian prisoners held in 23 Israeli prisons, and detention and interrogation centers, including 200 minors and 40 women.
- 544 of them are serving one or more life sentences with one of them, Abdullah Barghouti sentenced to a record 67 life terms.
- Around 520 Palestinians are held in administrative detention without charge or trial.
- Since the start of Israeli occupation in June 1967 226 prisoners died while they were in detention, including 75 who died as a result of “pre-meditated murder”, 73 died during torture, 7 were shot directly and killed, and 71 who died due to medical negligence.
- The bodies of 7 Palestinians who died while imprisoned are still held by Israeli occupation. It has not turned over the bodies to their families for burial, one of them died in 1980, another in 2018, three in 2019, and two in 2020.