Unfinished war of Zakaria Zubeidi

Zakaria Zubeidi is one of the six Palestinian prisoners who this month tunneled their way out of Gilboa, a notorious high-security Israeli prison. Zubeidi was recaptured a few days later. The large bruises visible on his face told a harrowing story of a daring escape and of a violent arrest. However, the story does not begin or end there.

Nearly 20 years ago, following what has been etched into the collective Palestinian memory as the Jenin massacre, I was introduced to Zubeidi’s family in the Jenin refugee camp, which was almost entirely erased by the Israeli army during and after the 2002 battle. 

Despite my repeated attempts, the Israeli army had 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 Intifada of 2000 to 2005. 

I could not speak to Zakaria directly. Unlike his brother Taha, Zakaria survived the massacre and subsequently rose up the ranks of the 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. 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 weeks before the invasion of the camp, her brother Taha, the leader of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, 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,” Kauthar told us. She added that his remains were put in a house, which has ever since been known as “The Home of the Hero.”

Kauthar also told me about her 51-year-old mother, Samira, “who spent her life going from one prison to another” to visit her husband and 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. “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 and his 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, which had abandoned the Zubeidi family despite promises of solidarity and camaraderie. 

He has surrendered his weapon several times, only to retrieve it with the same determination as before

Ramzy Baroud

“Every week, 20 to 30 Israelis would come there to do theater,” Zakaria said in a 2006 interview, in 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,” he said.

Of the five children who were the core members of the theater group, 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 and has 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 less than a year later. 

Zakaria only committed to armed struggle in 2001, months after the start of the Second Intifada, as a way of achieving freedom for his people. One of his childhood friends was among the first to be killed by Israeli soldiers. In 2002, at about the time his mother and brother were killed, he joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades.

That year was a particularly decisive one 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 former group were killed, arrested or marginalized, including Fatah’s popular leader, Marwan Barghouti, who was arrested in April 2002. Members of the latter 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 other Fatah members and fighters, was caught up in this dilemma, wanting to carry on with the struggle in the hope that, perhaps someday, the movement would reclaim the mantle of Palestinian resistance. 

The trajectory of Zakaria’s life so far is testament to this confusion. He was not only imprisoned by the Israelis, but also by the PA. Sometimes he spoke highly of PA President Mahmoud Abbas, only to later disown all the treachery of the Palestinian leadership. He has 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 the armed struggle. 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 that, in Zakaria’s own words, “have achieved nothing.”

Ramzy Baroud

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