SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
July 11, 2003
By Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Jenin refugee camp, West Bank — Zakariya Zubaideh is head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the most extreme wing of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, in Jenin, the most militant outpost of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
That pedigree -- coupled with his refusal to abide by the 2-week-old cease- fire with Israel -- makes him a wanted man.
The tall, dark and slim 27-year-old speaks in a disarmingly gentle voice with a slight lisp. But even before you notice the silver Smith & Wesson pistol nestling on his hip, you see scars on his face and bloodshot clouds in his eyes, the results of a mortar bomb that blew up in his face two years ago.
"My vision is blurred during the day. I only see clearly at night," said Zubaideh.
Right now, he is seeing red.
Alone among the armed Palestinian groups, Zubaideh and his men refuse to accept the cease-fire, or hudna, hammered out by the commanders of Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"This hudna doesn't concern me or any other party," Zubaideh said defiantly.
"Until now, no one has consulted with us, and we haven't received instructions to stop the fighting from the leadership. They made this agreement on their own. They didn't consult with anyone."
He pours scorn on the Palestinian leaders in their "air-conditioned rooms" on the cosmopolitan boulevards of Ramallah and says his intifada will never end without a total Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.
Here in Jenin, an isolated town surrounded by Israeli troops at the northern tip of the West Bank, Zubaideh is king and his exploits the stuff of legend.
He was 13 when he was first shot -- in the knee, while throwing stones during the first intifada. He soon graduated to Molotov cocktails, which earned him four years in an Israeli jail.
Released under the Oslo peace accords, Zubaideh was exiled to Jericho but returned to Jenin using faked identity papers. He became a building laborer inside Israel but was eventually caught and returned to Jenin. Deprived of work, he turned to stealing cars for a few years, ending up with another jail sentence, this one for 15 months. He was released just before the start of the second intifada in October 2000.
In April 2002, Zubaideh helped lead armed Palestinian opposition to the Israeli invasion of the Jenin refugee camp, the most bloody confrontation of what Israel called Operation Defensive Shield, launched in response to the killing of 30 people at a Passover Seder ceremony.
In separate battles, Israeli soldiers fatally shot in the head Zubaideh's mother, Samira, while she was looking out her window; his brother, Taha, was also killed. The family home was destroyed. Zubaideh says he survived 16 days under the rubble.
Now he is aware that his own days may be numbered. Israeli troops have been after him for months. Last week, Palestinian security forces issued an arrest warrant after his men shot and killed a Bulgarian laborer driving past the nearby West Bank village of Yabed on June 30, the day after the hudna was declared.
But it appears that Zubaideh has little to fear from the Palestinian Authority. At an interview this week, he was accompanied by Atta Bourneli, the Fatah secretary-general in the Jenin area and a man in direct contact with Arafat, who ordered Zubaideh's arrest.
A few weeks ago, a delegation of Palestinian Cabinet ministers visited the Jenin refugee camp to speak to the residents. Zubaideh told them they were not welcome and sent them packing, according to several sources. They came again, this time to the city of Jenin, and the same thing happened.
Israeli intelligence officials say they are convinced that Zubaideh's refusal to abide by the cease-fire is part of a plan that has been well coordinated with Palestinian leaders, especially Arafat.
"No one asked Zubaideh to stop fighting because they don't want him to," agreed a local Palestinian analyst who insisted on anonymity. "He is their trump card, their deniable bargaining chip in talks with the Americans and the Israelis."
Zubaideh says he doesn't need the central leadership, although he swears undying loyalty to Arafat. He says his Brigades unit receives no money or support from Ramallah or anywhere else, but Western diplomats on the ground say there is money pouring into Jenin from Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
"I tell you, we do not need any help from anyone," Zubaideh said. "We have sold the jewelry of our women to buy weapons. We pay from our private money -- not to mention (what) we have taken from the Israelis.
"Here in the camps we have about 20 weapons which we captured from them. There are also members who go inside the settlements and steal weapons. I started out as a car thief. I know how to get there."
But there is another, unexpected side to Zubaideh -- his past involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peace projects.
A decade ago, an Israeli actor set up a theater studio in Zubaideh's own home, where young Palestinians rehearsed plays based on ancient legends replete with contemporary meaning.
"My house was the first to be opened for the Israelis," he said. "Israeli peace activists used to come to us, and we had a joint Palestinian-Israeli theater. Every day, 200 Jews used to come to the camp . . . to sleep, work and act. My brother also had a certificate of journalism from Givat Haviva, a peace center in Israel.
Displaying the perhaps tortured logic of someone who has felt the sting of such a close personal loss, Zubaideh said that he chose his present path "when I became convinced that the Israeli people, not the government, don't want peace."
Noting that it was a Labor Party defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who ordered the Israeli operation in Jenin, he said, "The Labor Party is responsible for the killing of my mother and the massacre in the camp. I accuse the Israeli peace camp of the killings and the destruction."
Now, he says, the only way to achieve peace is to fight for the complete withdrawal of Israel from the occupied lands.
Elsewhere, Palestinians have cautiously welcomed the cease-fire, evidence of their fatigue after nearly three years of fighting and thousands of casualties.
But Zubaideh says the people of Jenin are behind him.
"We have many members in the area," he said. "The entire Palestinian people are the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades."