Zakaria Zubeidi: Orator, fighter, activist

Zakaria Zubeidi: Orator, fighter, activist
Zubeidi is a face most identify with the Second Intifada, as the al-Aqsa Brigades took on Israel. Now in jail, the former fighter is considering his next moves to defeat the occupation.
7 min read
07 January, 2015
Zubeidi was one of the leading figures in al-Aqsa Brigades [AFP]

Zakaria Zubeidi was wounded seven times and survived six assassination attempts during the nine years Israeli forces hunted down the al-Aqsa Brigades commander.

During the height of the Second Intifada, Palestinians around the world huddled around television sets and radios to listen to the al-Aqsa Brigades spokesman - holed up in Jenin refugee camp - make statements in Arabic and Hebrew, a language he learned in jail and as a labourer in Haifa.

Call to arms

Over the next few years, Israel gunned down or arrested the majority of the brigades' leadership, but Zubeidi, in his Jenin hideaway, evaded capture.

Zubeidi did eventually end up back behind bars, even if it was a Palestinian detention centre in Ramallah, rather than an Israeli prison.

He had paid a heavy price for his involvement in the armed movement. His mother and brother were both killed by Israeli troops and his house in Jenin was destroyed three times.

Although the former militant is now waiting for the peace process to play its course, he remains unrelenting in his opposition to a two state solution.

"Al-Aqsa Brigade is not finished, but the reality ended it. Al-Aqsa Brigade can return to the armed struggle overnight," he says.

"Whoever is waiting for the two state solution is fantasising," Zubeidi told al-Arabyfrom his prison cell.

Even behind bars Zubeidi has devoted himself to the struggle against the Israeli occupation. A vacant bed in his cell acts as a library for the dozens of books he has collected on political science, psychology and sociology. 

Zubeidi recently embarked on a sociology course with Jerusalem Open University and, at 39, is preparing for life after his nine-year prison stretch comes to an end.

War on the streets

His ascendency to one of the leading positions in al-Aqsa Brigades began with his experiences as an activist on the streets.

He had been shot and incarcerated several times for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers before the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, after former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited the Haram al-Sharif, where al-Aqsa Mosque stands.

The visit fed into a growing sense of militancy among Palestinians, who rejected the Palestinian political leadership and formed their own cells, or took individual actions to fight the occupation.

The brigades are born

Al-Aqsa Brigades was formed in the first three months of the uprising, then named the Armed Militias of Fatah (AMF) with the rank and file made up of Fatah youth, who, like Zubeidi, had spent time in Israeli jails.

Although Zubeidi says that the brigade contained elements of the security forces, it was not started, led or dominated by the Palestinian leadership.

"There was nobody designated as the founder of the brigades," he says.

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The group made three statements under the AMF name, but changed to al-Aqsa Brigades to disassociate themselves with Fatah, who were tied to the agreements of the Oslo Accords.

"We wanted to choose a name that would absolve the Fatah movement - and the name 'al-Aqsa Brigades' was selected."

     We wanted to choose a name that would absolve the Fatah movement - and the name 'al-Aqsa Brigades' was selected.
- Zakeria Zubeidi

Actions began in Bethlehem but soon spread to the Palestinian cities of Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarem and Ramallah.

Under the name of the Jerusalem mosque, militants launched a string of attacks inside and outside the Israeli borders, killing scores of Israelis. They adapted tactics from groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, such as suicide bombings.

Collapsing under corruption

Zakaria says that, despite being an integral part of the armed struggle, al-Aqsa Brigades fell victim to corruption. "The homes which were closed to the members of the resistance got bigger and bigger, while the houses which hosted them were small and became poorer," he says.

In an effort to rein in the militants, a number of incentives were offered by the Palestinian authorities. This started with the offer of full time work for former fighters, while others were granted public transport passes for free. Finally, fighters were given $16,000 in exchange for their weapons.

"Granting public transport plate numbers came so nobody would think of the struggle. The aim was to change the phenomenon of the resistance, as was manifested in al-Aqsa Brigades," he says.

"Individuals and leaders of the Palestinian Authority started campaigns to hit the resistance. It was long term action that targeted the psychology of society to make people lose confidence in the struggle and resistance."

Zubeidi (2nd from right) was one of the brigades' leading figures [AFP]

Leading the campaign against al-Aqsa Brigades was the Attariq newspaper, issued by the Peace Alliance, headed by the secretary-general of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Abed Rabbo.

"There was a report in Attariq about how to end the security chaos, accusing the armed men of the brigades in particular," he says.

There had been elements who had been using the name of the al-Aqsa Brigade to bully and intimidate shopkeepers and citizens for bribes and payoffs.

"It is regrettable that new elements joined the armed struggle who were not related to the brigades. The first were planted by Israel and the others by Palestinian leaders who had no interest in the armed struggle and wanted to see the failure of the struggle, as al-Aqsa Brigades represented," he says.

He says those who distorted al-Aqsa Brigades were good at "firing in the air" but not much else. Although they carried guns, they posed little threat to the Israeli army and instead turned them on their own citizens for kickbacks.

"The group distorted the image of al-Aqsa Brigades and used Fatah as an umbrella, because there were leaders who supported them. Some of them were still collecting salaries from the security agencies, while other Fatah leaders acted to stop money from Hezbollah reaching the brigade," he says.

The death of Arafat

The former militant commander says that the day Arafat died, the political dynamics in Palestine changed dramatically. In 2004, Zubeidi remembers a prominent Fatah figure turning up with $27,000 for al-Aqsa Brigades after going to Lebanon to tell Hezbollah that the party would continue to support the brigades.

Zubeidi ridiculed the man and his financial offer.

"If you want to continue supporting the brigades financially, why did you come from Jerusalem to Ramallah, through the Jalama military checkpoint with yellow Israeli registration plates? How did the occupation allow you to pass through all of those checkpoints to Jenin while carrying this amount of money?"

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Al-Aqsa Brigades wound down in 2005, when leaders offered their support for then presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

"The statement of the brigades was that we support Abu Mazen [Abbas] in his electoral campaign, and thus supported his programme which turned away from military action. In practice, this meant that we had ceased the military resistance," he says.

Abbas started his electoral campaign in Jenin refugee camp, and met with leaders of al-Aqsa Brigades. The presidential candidate confirmed to the brigade commanders that the next stage he had planned for Palestine did not include military action against Israel.

"Despite my differences with Abu Mazen on the position of the struggle, I cannot disagree with his clarity and honesty," he says.

Temporary amnesty

Abbas organised an amnesty for members of the armed movement in 2006 and 2007, although the pardon did not extend to all members of al-Aqsa Brigades. Several of its senior figures were either previously or subsequently assassinated by Israeli forces, including the group's Nablus leader, Ahmed Sanakra, in 2008.

"This was a partial pardon," he says. "There were 300 of al-Aqsa Brigades' fugitives included in the pardon but there were fugitives who were not included and the occupation assassinated them. There were also those who the pardon included but who were arrested later," he says.

Zubeidi, too, passed through a convoluted pardon process - but ended up in prison. After a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the militant leader was arrested several times in 2012. The interrogators repeatedly asked him where he kept his gun, and where he stored al-Aqsa Brigades weapons in Jenin.

Later, the PA accused him of opening fire on the governor of Jenin, causing the official to die from a heart attack. He was also accused of assassinating a commander from the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front in 2012. In both cases he was acquitted, but he remains in jail for violating the Israeli ceasefire.

Before his most recent jailing, he attended the sixth Fatah conference in Bethlehem where he told Abbas in front of a packed crowd that he was "delusional, delusional, delusional" for believing in a two-state solution.

During his journey to Bethlehem, the first time he had left Jenin in a decade, he could see the illegal Israeli settlements, sprawling towns of cement, spread out across the land - suffocating and strangling the ancient Palestinian urban centres. The settlements, and the wall which snakes through the occupied territories, annexing Palestinian farmland on their behalf, have entrenched and consolidated Israel's presence in the West Bank.

Zubeidi isn't the only one who doesn't believe in a two state solution.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.