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The Penitent of Jenin

Once Israel’s worst enemy, Zakaria Zubeidi forswore violence. He’s now starving in a Palestinian prison.

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Zakaria Zubeidi in Jenin July 31, 2004. (Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images)

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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My heart bleeds cold borsht.

paul delano says:

Sympathy for the Devil. Not just a Stones’ song.

julis123 says:

What a slanted story. How many of these “activists” have returned to terror when it suits them? He himself did it once. Does anyone think that if a 3rd intifada broke out he wouldn’t return to it? Those of us who live in Israel have seen interviews with him in his current “peaceful” phase and he continues to spout the same hateful rhetoric. And gee what a heroic attack on Likud headquarters; a civilian target. Like most of these cowards they are heroes attacking unarmed civilians.

    “Like most of these cowards they are heroes attacking unarmed civilians.”

    Question: How do you think Israel became a Jewish state?

      Beatrix17 says:

      Not like that.

        Yes like that. Here’s one example.

        ‘Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited’ p. 212-13, 217

        “The equivalent of six infantry companies were assembled and, of
        overwhelming importance, as we shall see, two three-inch mortars – stolen from the British in 1946 – were taken out of hiding, along with a plentiful supply of bombs. In the early morning hours of 25 April the IZL struck, attacking the Manshiya quarter at the northern end of Jaffa; the aim was to drive through the quarter’s southern end to the sea, severing it from the town. If all went well, Jaffa itself was then to be attacked. The assault was to be accompanied by a mortar barrage on Manshiya and
        downtown Jaffa. (…)

        “In any case, the objectives of the three-day barrage, in
        which 20 tons of ordnance were delivered, were clear: ‘To prevent constant military traffic in the city, to break the spirit of the enemy troops, [and] to cause chaos among the civilian population in order to create a mass flight’, is how Amihai Paglin, the IZL head of operations, put it in his pre-attack briefing. The mortars were aimed roughly at ‘the port area, the Clock Square, the prison, King George Boulevard and ‘Ajami’.341 Cunningham wrote a few days later: ‘It should be made clear that IZL attack with mortars was indiscriminate and designed to create panic among the civilian inhabitants.’342 And, indeed, most of the casualties were civilians, according to Haganah intelligence.343″

        “The swift collapse of resistance in Jaffa’s rural hinterland and the flight of the villages’ inhabitants was attributed by the IZL and the Haganah in large measure to the IZL assault on Manshiya and the demoralisation and exodus of Jaffa’s inhabitants. In turn, however, the fall of these villages further undermined the morale of the 15,000–25,000 inhabitants still left in the town;375 it was completely cut off and any possibility of Arab military relief had vanished. The rural hinterland that had supplied the town’s food was no more.376″

          Beatrix17 says:

          Benny Morris says, “Israel was
          justified in uprooting the Palestinian ‘fifth column’ once the Arabs
          had attacked the infant state, and that the number executed or
          massacred—some 800, on his reckoning—was ‘peanuts’ compared with,
          say, the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s.”

          Morris understood that
          there was a war going on and saw removing civilians who were loyal to
          the enemy as a natural part of warfare.

          I would hate to be ruled
          by the Nazis, the North Vietnamese, or the North Koreans, all wars
          fought in my lifetime. I don’t know what my relatives did to win
          WW2, bring Korea to a draw, or in the case of Vietnam, lose the
          war,. But even in Vietnam, they intimidated the enemy sufficiently
          that they chose to stay over there.. I’m glad I’m still free, and
          I’m sure Israel is glad to be free, too.

          I did ask my father, who
          spent two years in the front lines in France and Germany during WW2
          about his experiences, and he said “whatever they did to us, we did
          to them.” I saw what the Germans did to my father and his
          friends, and so I never asked any more question

          “Morris understood that there was a war going on and saw removing civilians who were loyal to the enemy as a natural part of warfare.”

          Morris has selective amnesia when it comes to his own writing. He also said this on p. 60 of the same book (Birth Revisited), “transfer was inevitable and inbuilt into Zionism – because it sought to
          transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish
          state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab
          population; and because this aim automatically produced resistance among
          the Arabs which, in turn, persuaded the Yishuv’s leaders that a hostile
          Arab majority or large minority could not remain in place if a Jewish
          state was to arise or safely endure.”

          After writing something like that, he should not be able to get away with claiming the Yishuv leaders had no intention of doing exactly what they did during 1948-50 and then, oops, war made it necessary.

          Beatrix17 says:

          Morris outgrew his
          childish lefty beliefs when he saw Arafat (and Abbas) turn down
          generous peace offers from Israeli leaders. As for Israel being
          Arabic, Palestine was the name the Romans gave Israel. When the UN
          established a nation on this land for the Palestinian Jews, they also
          established one for the Palestinian Arabs who instead of building a
          nation as the Jews did, chose to go to war against the Jews who by
          then were calling themselves Israeli.

          Of course I sympathize
          with all people who suffer as the result of war, but the best way to
          avoid this is to refrain from attacking other nations. The Arabs
          haven’t learned this, yet. They’re lucky, When America was attacked
          by the Japanese, we eventually responded with two atomic bombs that
          made the victims look like something that wasn’t human. The Arabs
          who turned down Israel’s peace offers don’t look like they’re having
          much fun, eithe

          “Morris outgrew his childish lefty beliefs when he saw Arafat (and Abbas) turn down generous peace offers from Israeli leaders.”

          If I could laugh at political comments, this would have me rolling on the floor. ‘Birth Revisited’ was released in 2003. Morris’s political beliefs have not significantly changed at any point. It was only at the beginning of the 2000’s that he explicitly began saying Ben-Gurion should not have left any Palestinians remaining after 1948; however, he has always been hostile to any use of his work for anti-zionism.

          Also, the fact that Zionism aimed at removing the Arabs from Palestine before there was any violent conflict is not a ‘childish lefty belief’ and just to rub it in, that assertion is a childish (and dumb) belief in itself. There’s a paper-trail of evidence, including remarks by Herzl, Weizmann and Arthur Ruppin.

          “Weizman, like Ruppin, indulged in doublespeak. Already in 1913 Weizman wrote to his beloved Vera:
          “There is alarming news from Syria about the Arab national movement. With the weakening of the central authority in Constantinople, the periphery of Asia Minor is beginning to organize, though in a very primitive manner. They consider Palestine their own and have embarked on an intensive propaganda campaign in their semi-national, semi-Christian, and ‘semi-anti-Semitic’ (an expression that can hardly apply to the Arabs) pressure against the selling of land to ‘Zionists,’ the enemies of Turkey and the usurpers of Palestine. We shall soon face a serious enemy and it won’t be enough to pay just money for
          the land.”268″ [Bloom 369]

          And here’s a smoking gun quote from Ruppin where he talks about removing Arabs before there was any major violence (Tel Hai, Hebron and so forth) from Palestinians:

          Although he anticipated some cultural problems, Ruppin remained optimistic during the whole of his “blind spot” phase: “It is highly
          probable that the two [Jews and Arabs] would live happily and amicably together even if the Jews were to come in great numbers” (Ruppin 1914, 292). Nevertheless, the
          “happy and amicable” relations he anticipated did not necessarily exclude the implementation of a large scale transfer of the Arab population, whether voluntary or forced. In his “blind spot” phase, Ruppin believed that the transfer was a reasonable
          solution. In May 1914, to note one example, 255 he submitted his plan for the transfer of Arabs from Palestine to Syria. In a letter to Dr. Victor Jacobson256 he wrote: “We are considering a parallel Arab colonization. Thus, we are planning to buy land in the regions of Homs,257 Aleppo etc. which we will sell under easy terms to those Palestinian fellahin who have been harmed by our land purchases.”258 Ruppin to Jacobson, [12 May 1914],
          pp.1-2, (CZA L2/34ii); extract reprinted in: (Alsberg 1955/6, 206-07).
          [Bloom 363]

          Beatrix17 says:

          I’m telling you what Morris
          said himself. Go argue with him. Everything changed after the
          Holocaust, so I don’t care what Weizman said in 1912. Israel has
          almost 2 million Arabs living in Israel with Israeli rights and
          citizenship. Palestine doesn’t have a single Jew. In fact, Jews in
          any country in the Middle East except Israel are almost non-existent.
          Don’t tell me how terrible the Jews have been to the Arabs.

          The Palestinians could
          have peace and a homeland any time they wanted, but Abbas is a
          propagandist and as long as he has an audience like you to listen to
          him, he’ll never agree to peace. Peace means he has to lead a nation
          and he doesn’t have the slightest idea how to do that.

          Go argue with him… Don’t tell me… Sorry, am I busting your little bubble where Jews are always good guys and Arabs are always bad?

          ” Everything changed after the Holocaust, so I don’t care what Weizman said in 1912.”

          Oh yeah, who cares what a major historical figure said at any point? Burning my copy of the Federalist Papers… NOW. Seriously, what are you saying here? Jews are not morally responsible for anything they do even though we’d consider the same action immoral if done by anyone else?

          Beatrix17 says:

          Of course I don’t think
          all Jews good, all Arabs bad. Nothing I’ve said indicated that.
          I’ve just said that Morris changed his mind and that as history
          changes, so do outcomes.

          There’s a big difference
          in fulfilling an idea and in having a major unexpected upheaval. Our
          founders had an idea that they carried through to fruition. They
          knew they’d have to cease being a colony in order to do that, and
          that’s what they did. They didn’t know every detail, but the big
          picture didn’t change.

          Europe’s Jews thought
          they’d be European. WW2, and the Holocaust showed them they needed
          to have different goals. It has nothing to do with superiority, it
          has to do with being a grown up, facing reality, and having the
          flexibility to make changes in your goals.

          Palestine has to do that,
          too. Both Jews and Pals are Semitic, there;s nothing about
          superiority there. But Israel has had some good leaders; the
          Palestinians have had two, Arafat and Assad, neither of whom have
          been able to lead.

          Arab propaganda ascribes
          Christian attributes to Israelis—Jews are Nazis, Jews believe in
          apartheid—all the shortcomings of Christian led nations. Israelis
          have shortcomings but their history isn’t the same as Christian
          history. They’re making their own history, that you’re trying to see
          through out of date eyes.

          Pam Green says:

          Beatrix, here’s a very good piece on Morris, with good links to other material.

          Beatrix17 says:

          Thank you for telling me about this historical site.. The information was illuminating (and accurate) and I’ve signed up to receive more of their postings. I wonder why an Israeli university has Morris teaching their young people?

          Pam Green says:

          He hasn’t posted anything new in a long time. I think he has a book coming out soon. As for why Israel would have Morris teaching there, I have similar questions about, for instance, why Israel would allow a rabid anti-Semite to excavate Ashkelon for over 20 years and why an Israeli prof from Jerusalem University is supporting academic anti-Semitism. And I’m sure there are other such cases.

CygnusA81 says:

How ironic. Where is his precious ‘Human Rights’ activists now?

CygnusA81 says:

I just want to add, where is Tali Fahima????? Is she to busy hooking up with another terrorist now?

Typical heartless responses from ultra-nationalists. The “other” is never seen as a human being capable of redemption. On Yom Kippur we read the Book of Jonah. There God shows mercy for the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire that destroyed the Kingdom of Israel. Learn something from it!

The real question is why on earth Israel is so stupid, always letting mass murderers out after a couple years or in some trade. There are times when the most civilized people of all time are just too civilized for their own good. I do not lack empathy for this man’s repentance, but that is up to God if he exists to judge. For mere mortals, he long ago gave up his right to life. As for human rights activists, they do not care for humans, they only care to hate Jews or Americans. They do not ever march for Syrians or victims of Iraqi torture or Palestinians denied rights by Lebanon or for Palestinians rotting in their own prisons.

PhillipNagle says:

Considering the crimes he committed after his release from Israeli prison, he makes an excellent case for capital punishment for terrorist. That way you never have to exchange them or release them.

Marcelo says:

May he rot in hell for deliberately killing so many innocent people.

Laughing Torrent says:

So, those of you who want to see Zubeidi dead, after he made teshuvah- you want that he not make art with kids, not stand up against incompetence, corruption and contempt for democracy, not stand up for a better world? Yes, he did terrible things, and yes, terrible things have been done to him. Ironic that the forces opposed to functional peace and compromise in Israel and among Palestinians both want to see him gone. Here is information about the Freedom Theater [It is routinely slammed as being both anti-Israel AND anti-Palestinian [!]].

genelevit says:

I wonder when Leil Liebovitz will find the time to write an article about relatives of those whom he killed? What are they doing, how are they coping with their losses; what could they say on this Yom Kipur? Did they forgive him? I guess, for the liberal writer the sufferings of the criminal are more important than the sufferings of his victims.

I read article like this, I find it very hard to control my medieval instinct of justice and wish unkind and swift punishment for his acts this man has done. For the totality of his deeds leads naught to any redemption put a continuation of senseless violence.

Not often you read such inspired crap.

Beatrix17 says:

Very interesting article. The subject is a man of
violence who seems to have transcended evil. And the author seems to
be a scholar, who somehow understands him. Very moving on many

    Natan79 says:

    The author Liel Leibovitz is no scholar. He has a phony PhD on video games and has made a career out of being an apologist for anti-Semites. I know him from Columbia. He is a truly despicable man, for whom being enamored with a Jew-hating terrorist is the standard state of being.

      Beatrix17 says:

      That is a shocking assessment of someone working for a Jewish magazine and who seems to be religious.. If someone agrees or disagrees, I’d like to hear.

      mouskatel says:

      Sorry you had to know him in person. I wish he’d work out his anti-Israel issues with a therapist rather than subject Tablet readers to them week after week. His “Aribter” columns are no better.

friends, apparently there’s a midrash about a wicked king named Manasha. He repents at last, but the angels are so enraged by this injustice that they lock the gates of heaven. But God just drills a hole under the Throne of Glory, hears the confession and lets him in. “I’m in the forgiveness business,” He says. It’s a pain to forgive, but it looks like we have to. shabbat shalom. shana tova.

Some crimes should never be forgiven. I am referring here not just to Zubeidi’s deliberate murder of innocents but also the author’s pathetic fawning over him.

Israel is the only country in the world where you can murder Jews, get out of prison courtesy of a treaty, move to Tel Aviv and then complain its not multicultural enough.


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The Penitent of Jenin

Once Israel’s worst enemy, Zakaria Zubeidi forswore violence. He’s now starving in a Palestinian prison.

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