The Untold Story of Zakaria Zubeidi

15 October, 2021
“Al Hissan” — the horse devot­ed to Jenin by Ger­man artist Thomas Kilp­per, built from scrap met­al fol­low­ing the 2002 Bat­tle of Jenin.

 

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.” 

 

Ramzy Baroud

 

Zakaria Zubei­di is one of six Pales­tin­ian pris­on­ers who, on Sep­tem­ber 6, 2021, 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. 

Police offi­cers and prison guards inspect the scene of the dar­ing escape out­side Gilboa, a high-secu­ri­ty prison in north­ern Israel, Mon., Sept. 6, 2021. Israeli forces launched a mas­sive man­hunt to recap­ture the escaped pris­on­ers (pho­to: Sebas­t­ian Scheiner/AP).

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. (See full tes­ti­mo­ny below.) 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 towards his body, and com­plete­ly burned it. This was in the Damaj neigh­bor­hood. The she­bab gath­ered what remained of him and put him in a house. Since that day, that house has been known as ‘The house 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 kids.” 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 didn’t know what to do but scream.”

Zakaria Zubei­di, then-leader in the Al Aqsa Mar­tyrs Brigade in the West Bank, car­ried by sup­port­ers dur­ing a cam­paign ral­ly in sup­port of Mah­moud Abbas, in Jenin, Decem­ber 30, 2004. (Nass­er Nasser/AP)

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.”

Zubei­di in front of Jen­in’s Free­dom The­atre, the sub­ject of the doc­u­men­tary “Arna’s Chil­dren” made by Arna’s son Juliano Mer-Khamis, the the­atre’s direc­tor, who was lat­er assas­si­nat­ed near the the­atre by unknown gunmen.

Of the five chil­dren who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the ‘Arna’s House’ the­atre, Jen­in’s Free­dom 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.” 

Images of the blonde, blue-green eyed teenage activist Ahed Tami­mi have become syn­ony­mous with resis­tance the world over (cour­tesy artist Ahmed Abu Al Adas, 2018, ink on can­vas, 69.5 × 99.5 cm).

Love and Death in Jenin

 

The fol­low­ing tes­ti­mo­ny was pro­vid­ed by Kau­thar Zubei­di, Zakaria’s sis­ter, fol­low­ing the Israeli inva­sion which led to the Mas­sacre of Jenin in April 2002. A ver­sion of this tes­ti­mo­ny was used in my book Search­ing Jenin: Eye­wit­ness Accounts of the Isre­ali Inva­sion (Edit­ed by Ramzy Baroud, Pref­ace by Noam Chom­sky. Cune Press: 2003). At the time, Kau­thar was 20 years old.

When the Israelis invad­ed, we remained in our house, but lat­er sought shel­ter in my father-in-law’s house, since we felt it was safer. But then my in-law’s house, too, came under fire. The resis­tance in Jenin was fierce, even though the she­bab were fight­ing with sim­ple weapons. 

Even­tu­al­ly, we moved to a third house, but this time there were no oth­er pos­si­ble escapes. The house was attacked and we couldn’t run out. There were near­ly thir­ty peo­ple in the house, old and young. We all scram­bled to take cov­er in the bathroom. 

The young fight­ers out­side had plen­ty of faith but they had lit­tle food and water. So we used to risk our lives to sneak some food out for them. They would say, “Don’t do that again, you don’t want to get killed.” But we kept doing it anyway. 

When we were trapped in the bath­room, once the shelling would cease for a moment, we used to try to lis­ten to see if the Jenin fight­ers were still there. We used to feel a great sense of relief once we heard them talk­ing out­side. It meant that they were still alive, and fighting. 

My broth­er Taha was with the resis­tance. Those who were with him said Taha was the head of the resis­tance in his (Al-Aqsa Brigades) group. He was always so wor­ried about the safe­ty of the peo­ple. My sister’s fiancé went to that area once dur­ing the inva­sion. Taha told him to go back, say­ing, “Are you going to make my sis­ter a wid­ow before you are even married?”

Lat­er we learned that Taha was killed by a sniper. After he was killed, they fired shells towards his body, and com­plete­ly burned it. This was in the Damaj neigh­bor­hood. The she­bab gath­ered what remained of him and put him in a house. Since that day, that house has been known as “The house of the hero.” Then we brought his remains, and buried him near our house tem­porar­i­ly before we took him to the Mar­tyrs’ Grave­yard. For some rea­son I did not expect that Taha would be killed. He was our protector. 

My moth­er was a great woman. She was fifty-one years old when she was mar­tyred. She spent her life going from one prison to anoth­er to vis­it her kids. My father, God bless his souls, was also a resis­tance fight­er, as were all my broth­ers. My moth­er was a woman who was loved by every­one. Yes, she was fifty-one, but we felt like she was from our gen­er­a­tion. She treat­ed us with respect and under­stood each one of us sep­a­rate­ly. She was very much respect­ed by all of the fighters. 

When my moth­er was mar­tyred, we were out­side of our house. We were told that the Israelis would destroy our house at any moment. She was very ner­vous about the safe­ty of her sons. She kept mov­ing from one win­dow to the oth­er. Just before we real­ized the dan­ger, snipers opened fire. She was hit with two bul­lets in the heart. Once she turned around, she was hit in the back. We did not real­ize that she was wound­ed because she ran for a distance. 

Once she fell to the ground, we assumed that she just faint­ed from shock. But then blood poured out of her nose and mouth. I didn’t know what to do but scream. I had a strange feel­ing, my moth­er was look­ing at me, and I was try­ing to under­stand what she could pos­si­bly want to say in her last moment of life. Our neigh­bor lady looked at her and said, “Just pro­claim, ‘There is no God but Allah’.” Then she died.

Once the resis­tance fight­ers knew that she had been killed, they came to the house in four cars. Taha refused to come, he was in the Damaj neigh­bor­hood. He said, “I will not come to see my moth­er until I avenge her.” He was able to strike an Israeli tank, then he came to say goodbye. 

My rela­tion­ship with my broth­ers is very strong because of my mom. We are all good friends. I still see my broth­er Taha in my dreams. In my dreams, he opens the door and then he comes and starts jok­ing with me. Then he goes and I start cry­ing, ask­ing him to come back.

 

[In Jenin, the Zubei­di home is con­sid­ered a main pil­lar of resis­tance. Taha was killed dur­ing the inva­sion. He was to be mar­ried a week after he was shot dead by a sniper. He was a leader in Al-Quds Brigade, the mil­i­tary wing of the Islam­ic Jihad move­ment. His broth­er Yahya was arrest­ed dur­ing the inva­sion. Lat­er, Zakaria became the leader of the resis­tance in Jenin. Their moth­er Sami­ra was killed in an ear­li­er Israeli inva­sion of the camp.]

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