The Penitent of Jenin
Once Israel’s worst enemy, Zakaria Zubeidi forswore violence. He’s now starving in a Palestinian prison.
This is a story of repentance.
It begins late in the afternoon of Nov. 28, 2002, with a white Mazda lumbering down the main street of Beit Shean, a sleepy town in the north of Israel. It was the day of the Likud party primaries, and Beit Shean was a Likud kind of town. Traffic was dense. When the car finally reached the dead center of town—right in between the Likud offices and the central bus station—it stopped, and two men dressed in IDF uniforms tumbled out and started running. One made his way into the station, pulled the safety off a hand grenade, and tossed it into the crowd, shooting at the survivors with his semiautomatic. The other stopped right outside the Likud headquarters, produced an AK-47, and opened fire on the people lined up to vote. It took nearly 10 minutes for passersby—some of them security personnel, others soldiers on leave—to find cover, draw their weapons, take aim, and shoot both terrorists dead. By that point, six Israelis had lost their lives, and dozens of others were wounded.
That night in Jenin, the man who had masterminded the attack was in a celebratory mood. While most of his peers stomped around the refugee camp where they lived and idly vowed to take vengeance on the Israelis, Zakaria Zubeidi had planned and orchestrated a brazen and successful military operation behind enemy lines. His men had dressed like Israeli soldiers. They stormed a bastion of Israel’s governing party. Victories didn’t get more symbolic than that, and Zubeidi quickly became a hometown hero.
It was a role he had prepared a lifetime to play: At 13, throwing stones at settlers’ cars at the height of the first Intifada, he was chased down by Israeli soldiers and shot in the leg, leaving him with a bad limp. The injury barely slowed him down, and a year later he was arrested by the IDF and sentenced to six months in prison. As soon as he was released, he filled a glass bottle with gasoline, shoved a rag in it, lit it on fire, and threw it at an army patrol. He was arrested once again and sent to an Israeli jail for nearly five years.
He was released into a world radically different than the one he had known. While Zubeidi was undergoing puberty in prison, the Oslo Accords had been signed, Yasser Arafat returned from Tunis with his men and set up the Palestinian Authority, the Intifada was over, and peace seemed imminent. Zubeidi, 20, his body broken but his spirit strong, took a job as one of Arafat’s junior policemen but didn’t care for it much. He moved to Tel Aviv and worked in construction and later returned home to Jenin and drove a truck. By 2001, he was making good money and had Israeli friends, whom he enjoyed hosting at his mother’s home over piping tea and sweets.
When the second Intifada started, in September that year, his new friends stopped visiting. Zubeidi felt betrayed. This, he felt, was not what coexistence was supposed to be like. He rejoined the resistance, but, before he could figure out a strategy, Israel, responding to a Palestinian suicide bombing in a hotel in Netanya that left 27 dead, launched Operation Defensive Shield, its most aggressive operation in the West Bank in four decades. Jenin, a hotbed of militant groups like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and the Islamic Jihad, was hit hardest. Scores of Palestinians were killed, among them Zubeidi’s brother and his mother, struck by a bullet while looking out her window. Zubeidi joined the Al-Aqsa Brigades. He was out for blood.
Then came the Beit Shean attack, and then others. Zubeidi became the West Bank’s most wanted man. Time after time, the Israelis tried to assassinate him, never with any success. Zubeidi’s legend grew, and with it his audacity. When Arafat called for a ceasefire in 2003, Zubeidi defied him. He walked around Jenin like a sheriff: Whenever he caught a suspected rapist, say, he would shoot him in the leg. Children soon crowded around him—Zubeidi was one part Che Guevara and one part Wyatt Earp, an outlaw who, in the topsy-turvy reality of Jenin, was also the perfect embodiment of the law. Aware of Zubeidi’s leadership status, Israel pardoned him in 2005, as part of a deal with Arafat’s successor Abu Mazen, but a year later again made an attempt on Zubeidi’s life as he was paying a condolence call to the family of a friend who had died. Again, Zubeidi escaped unharmed. Again, he continued to fight.
Slowly, however, he realized it was pointless. That violence yields no results. That bloodlust corrupts. That there were better ways to change hearts and minds than blowing them up in cafés and on street corners. In 2007, when Israel and the PA struck yet another pardon agreement, he laid down his guns. He has not picked them up since.
Instead, Zubeidi turned to the stage, running the Freedom Theatre in Jenin with his friend Juliano Mer Khamis. The two met decades before, when Mer Khamis’ mother, Arna, volunteered to give the children of Jenin drama lessons. Zubeidi, then 12, was one of her star students, and he had never forgotten how acting helped him process his rage, his sense of helplessness, his wounded pride. In 2011, after Mer Khamis was gunned down by an assailant, Zubeidi took over the theater by himself. He was still engaged in politics, issuing frequent and fierce condemnations of what he argued was a hopelessly corrupt Palestinian Authority, but most of his energy went to mounting adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Waiting for Godot.
This is where Zakaria Zubeidi’s story should have ended. It should have been fodder for a sweet magazine piece served warm to readers hungry for something to balance all of the region’s grit and gloom. It should have been the stuff rabbis talk about from their pulpits this time of year, about the promise of teshuva and the power of forgiveness. But the Holy Land doesn’t work that way. Last December, Zubeidi was arrested by Palestinian policemen and informed that he was being taken into custody because Israel, for some reason, had decided to revoke his amnesty. When Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny this claim, it became increasingly clear that the real reason for Zubeidi’s detention was a growing concern in Abu Mazen’s circles that the charismatic and celebrated former militant posed too much of a threat to the regime’s stability, especially given his relentless criticism of the PA.
Zubeidi spent the following few months being arrested and released, with no concrete reason ever offered. In May, gunmen fired a few rounds at the home of Jenin’s governor; terrified, the man died of a heart attack. Zubeidi was arrested again a few days later. There was no proof of his having anything to do with the attack. In a bitter twist of irony, the PA is keeping Zubeidi under administrative arrest, a punitive measure that is a holdover from the days of the British mandate and that allows the government to detain a suspect for months on end without ever bringing him before a judge. It is the same instrument Israeli security forces frequently use against Palestinian suspects—incurring the wrath of a good number of observers. The PA, which many Israeli officials repeatedly argue is too weak and discombobulated to curb its extremists, showed great resolve and utter competence in arresting its moderate political critic, Zubeidi. He remains in jail; according to allegations his brother recently made to Human Rights Watch, he is being kept in solitary confinement and is routinely tortured.
Once upon a time, maybe, Zakaria Zubeidi would have opted to fight back. He’d been in and out of jail before and is no stranger to abuse. But he had meant what he said when he swore that he was no longer a fighting man. In prison, he began refusing food, then liquids. Doctors now give him days to live. When he was finally brought before a judge, earlier this week, he took off his shirt to show the courtroom the many scars he had earned in years of struggle. “I’ve been a freedom fighter all my life,” he said, sounding frail. “Can you see the wounds from the bullets that I took fighting for freedom against the Israeli occupation? I will not let you now be the ones to take my freedom away from me. You will see me again at my funeral.” And that’s all he said: Not only would he not eat or drink, but he vowed not to speak as well.
As Zubeidi fades away, we should contemplate not only his life, but also his likely form of death. There are many reasons for self-starvation, from Judaism’s purging of sins and commemoration of communal disasters to Islam’s attempt at taqwa, or a heightened awareness of God. But Zubeidi’s slow and deliberate demise has nothing to do with these strategies. It is not an attempt at transcendence but an abandonment of hope. It is to life what white is to color, a pale and terrifying hue that, as Melville so aptly put it when describing his famous whale, “strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.” The most terrifying thing about the short and brutish life of Zakaria Zubeidi is the possibility that he may soon perish, having tried to repent and having been, at every step, denied.
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