Middle East Monitor / September 21, 2021
Zakaria Zubeidi is one of the six Palestinian prisoners who, on 6 September, tunnelled their way out of Gilboa, a notorious, high-security Israeli prison. He was recaptured a few days later. The large bruises on his face told a harrowing story of a daring escape and a violent arrest. However, his story neither begins nor ends 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 after the fighting. Despite my repeated attempts, the Israeli army prevented me from reaching Jenin, which was kept under siege by the army for months following the most violent episode of the whole Second Palestinian Uprising (2000-2005).
I could not speak to Zakaria Zubeidi directly. Unlike his brother, Taha, he survived the 2002 massacre and subsequently rose through the ranks of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah movement, to become its leader. He thus topped the list of Israel’s most wanted Palestinians.
Most communication was with his sister, Kauthar, who told us in detail about the events that preceded that fateful military siege. She 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 Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad movement in Jenin at the time; and of Zakaria, who was now on a mission to avenge his mother, brother, best friends, and neighbours.
“Taha was killed by a sniper. After he was killed, [the Israelis] fired shells at him, which completely burned his body. This was in the Damaj neighbourhood,” Kauthar told us. “The Shebab [young men] gathered together 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 wanted to emulate. Her death was particularly shocking.
“She was hit with two bullets in the heart,” explained Kauthar. “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, who had planned to be married the week after he was killed. Zakaria was also feeling betrayed by his Fatah “brothers” who continued to collaborate openly 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 [to Jenin] to do theatre,” said Zakaria in an interview with the Times magazine. This was a reference to the “Arna’s House” theatre, 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, afterward, 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 theatre, only Zakaria survived. The rest joined various armed groups to fight the Israeli occupation and were all killed.
Zakaria Zubeidi was born in 1976 under Israeli occupation, so has 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 “army” was established to protect Palestinians and secure their freedom. Disillusioned, he left the PA less than a year later.
He only committed himself 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 Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, around the time that his mother, Samira, and his brother, Taha, were killed.
The first uprising in 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 marginalised, including Fatah’s popular leader, Marwan Barghouti, who was arrested in April 2002 and is still in an Israeli prison. 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. He wanted to carry on with the struggle as if PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership was ready to risk it all for the sake of Palestine while remaining committed to the Fatah movement, in the hope that, perhaps, someday it would reclaim the mantle of Palestinian resistance.
The trajectory of Zakaria Zubeidi’s life has been 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 of the treacherous Palestinian leadership. He surrendered his gun several times, only to retrieve it with the same determination as before.
Although Zakaria is now back in prison, his story and his war are unfinished. Scores of young fighters are now roaming the streets of the Jenin refugee camp, vowing to carry on with the armed struggle. Zakaria Zubeidi is thus not just an individual, but also a reflection of a whole generation of Palestinians in the West Bank who have to choose between a painful, but real, struggle for freedom, and political compromises. The latter, in Zakaria’s own words, “have achieved nothing”.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of the Palestine Chronicle; his latest is ‘These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons’ (Clarity Press)