‘I saved Yasser Arafat’s picture before I burned down his Authority’s office.’ Palestinian militant Zakaria Zubeidi has led a daring jailbreak, only to be captured again. I met him under the shadow of imminent Israeli missile attack.

12 September 2021 By Paul Martin
Zakaria Zubeidi greeting a supporter in 2012. Credit: Alex Levac and David B. Green

We sat on a balcony that overlooked the city of Jenin, soon after Zakaria Zumbeid had attacked and ransacked the office of the Governor of Jenin, his home town. The Governor was from the Palestinian Authority, which paid him and his men their salaries — though Zubeidi felt they were being underpaid and disrespected.

“!Whhen we captured the Governor;s office yesterday, I showed full respect to our real boss, our Symbol, Yasser Arafat. His big pictiure was behind the Governor’s chair, so I made sure we took it out of the building, before we bured the building down,” he told me proudly.

After a filmed interview I declined Zubeidi’s offer of sipping coffee together with his heavily armed men in this northern West Bank town. Not that I minded the Palestinian hospitality, or the opportunity to hear some more about his exploits. It was just that Israel had threatened to eliminate him and there we were on an open balcony as aircraft and drones were circling. Not a sensible place to longer longer.

As we made our hasty exit I was still worried. What if, a few minutes later, the Israelis sent a missile or two onto that balcony and killed him? Would not all the Palestinian militants I had met and interviewed think it was me who had tipped off the Israeli? Would that be the end of me if I were still in the West Bank, or at least the end of my reporting career inside the Intifada?

Fortunately for me, Zubeidi remained very much alive, though he was later arrested several times by the Israelis and by the Palestinian Authotity.

This week he and five others made a very daring jail break, digging a tunnel out of a toilet block and a second tunnnel that got them out of a high-securitiy jail in northern Israel. There was huge jubilation in the palestinian Authority areas.

However Zubeidi was recaptured on Saturday morning.

He has been a Scarlet Impernel figure for more than two decades. He has swing between advocating peaceful reconciliation with Israel and working in a Palestinian community theatre, and his extensive experience as a militant involved in terror attacks against Israel, particularly during the second intifada two decades ago.

His boyish good looks, his readiness on accasions to speak with journalists, including myself, and repeated escapes from death have only added to his enigmatic mystique.

Zakaria Mohammed Abdelrahman Zubeidi was born in 1976, and for his entire life, when not in prison or on the run., his home has been in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank. He is one of the eight children of Mohammed and Samira Zubeidi. The father was a teacher turned foundry worker who was arrested by the Israelis for membership in Fatah, the Palestinian liberation movement led by Yasser Arafat. Mohammed died when Zakaria was 17.

Zakaria attended an UNRWA school in the camp, and had his first run-in with Israeli forces at age 13, when he was shot in the leg by soldiers while throwing stones during the first intifada (1987-1991), leaving him with a permanent limp. Before that, however, he became involved in the theater program that Arna Mer-Khamis established in the Jenin camp.

Arna Mer was an Israeli Jew – a communist and human-rights activist – married to Saliba Khamis, an Arab Israeli and a leader of Israel’s Communist Party. She took part in a variety of educational and human-rights projects in the West Bank, and during the first intifada organized a theater workshop in the refugee camp intended to bring together Israeli and Palestinian youth. Zakaria and his older brother Daoud were among the group’s core members, and their mother offered part of the family home to serve as a rehearsal space.- Advertisment –

Zakaria’s first arrest came when he was 14, again for stone throwing, and this time it led to a six-month sentence in an Israeli prison. Upon his release, he did not return to school. Within less than a year came his next arrest, this time for trying to throw a Molotov cocktail. He later told an interviewer that he learned to assemble the weapon in prison, although in this case, he set his sleeve on fire when he reached back to toss the bottle.

He began a cycle of arrests and increasingly longer imprisonments – his next one was for four and a half years – and with each incarceration his identity as a militant and leader seems to have grown. He also learned Hebrew during his time inside, allowing him to serve as a prisoner representative.

Zakaria Zubeidi helps carry the body of a commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in the Jenin refugee camp in 2007.
Zubeidi with the body of one of his comrades killed in the intifada against Israel.

Zubeidi’s release coincided with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, after which he volunteered for the Palestinian police force. But he quit after a year, later complaining that he was put off by the corruption and nepotism in the service.

Zubeidi spent the remainder of the 1990s working, both in Israel and Jenin, sometimes legally and other times without a permit. When he didn’t have a job, he stole cars, which led to his arrest by Palestinian authorities. In September 2000, with the start of the second intifada, Zubeidi lost his legitimate job as a truck driver and was drawn into militant activities, including learning how to build bombs.

In March 2002, Zubeidi’s mother was killed when an Israeli army sniper shot her while she was standing inside a friend’s home during an operation in the Jenin camp. A short time later, one of his brothers, Taha, was also shot and killed by soldiers. The following month, after a Hamas suicide bombing at a Netanya hotel during a Passover seder killed 29 Israelis, the army launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. One of the main targets was the Jenin camp, which Israel had identified as the origin of a number of terror attacks.

Among the hundreds of homes in the camp demolished by Israeli bulldozers was that of the Zubeidi family. It was in the wake of these dramatic losses that Zubeidi joined and then emerged as a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, in the Jenin camp.- Advertisment –

Some years later, Zubeidi complained to a journalist about how hurt he was not to have heard from any of his Israeli friends after the deaths of his mother and brother. “We opened our home and [Israel] demolished it,” he said. “Every week, 20-30 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.”

By the end of the intifada, Zubeidi was on the short list of Israel’s most-wanted terrorists. Israeli authorities consider him directly responsible for an attack on a Likud party office in Beit She’an in 2002 in which six Israelis were killed, as well as one suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in 2004. In 2003, a bomb he was preparing exploded prematurely, scarring his face, but despite that and an apparent four attempts by Israel to assassinate him, Zubeidi continually outwitted death. He also became the effective political boss of the Jenin camp.

During the period when he was in Israel’s crosshairs, Zubeidi gained an unlikely ally in Tali Fahima, an Israeli Jew in her late 20s, a legal secretary who offered him translation assistance but also came to Jenin to serve as a “human shield” to prevent the Israeli army from attacking Zubeidi. Fahima was eventually arrested and tried on charges related to contact with an enemy, and served time in prison. The Israeli media speculated that she and Zubeidi had a romantic relationship, something they both denied. (Zubeidi is married and the father of two children.)

Zubeidi (right) with thetre director Mer Khamis.

Reaching out

By the end of the intifada, Zubeidi acknowledged to a number of interviewers his belief that the armed struggle had been a failure and only worsened the Palestinians’ situation. He also expressed an interest in working with Israeli peace activists.

This led to a meeting in 2007 between him and Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of Arna, and their reestablishing of a theater company in Jenin, which they called the Freedom Theater. Juliano made a documentary about the group in which Zubeidi features. Around the same time, amid renewed negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (after the split between Fatah and Hamas, which took control of Gaza), Zubeidi was one of thousands of Palestinian militants who received amnesty from prosecution by Israel.

In the Hollywood version of this story, maybe Zubeidi would have developed into one of the founders of a Palestinian state, following a peace accord with Israel, or perhaps a theater director. Instead, he has spent a decade and a half in and out of Israeli and Palestinian prisons, his fate affected as much by political conditions in both Israel and the West Bank as by his own swings between peaceful activity and militancy, optimism and despondency. He also managed to work on a master’s degree in cultural studies at Birzeit University, writing a thesis based on his own life that he called “The Dragon and the Hunter.”

In 2019, Zubeidi was arrested by the Shin Bet security service and indicted on suspicions of carrying out shooting attacks on two Israeli buses filled with civilians in the West Bank. To those charges were added several more serious ones dating back to the second intifada, as the amnesty he received in 2007 was rescinded. His trial began in 2019, but at the time of his prison break Monday – together with five Palestinian prisoners from Islamic Jihad – it was still ongoing. He was captured by Israeli forces on Saturday morning.