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July/August 2003 • Vol 3, No. 7 •

Wanted Man

By Gideon Levy

Zakariya Zebeida, commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the northern West Bank, speaks bitterly about the “betrayal” of the Israeli peace camp and thinks that Abu Mazen “doesn’t even control his own pants”

He doesn’t look quite like how you’d imagine the most wanted man in Jenin, the commander of the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in the northern West Bank, to look. Not with his youthful build and smiling expression. Only the sooty marks on Zakariya Zebeida’s face—the result of a bomb that blew up as he was preparing it about a year ago—and the silvery pistol in its holster fit the image of a wanted man. He left his M-16 elsewhere, so as not to frighten his guests too much, even though he usually doesn’t make a move without it. He says that when it comes to his personal security, he doesn’t trust anyone—only himself.

When we went down into the alleyway, after a few hours of conversation, his friends were waiting with the assault rifle and he offered to have his picture taken with it. “These are Jews?” his friends said, stunned. Maybe he’ll hide the weapon sometime, he said, but he’ll never hand it over—not to Mohammed Dahlan or anyone else. He lives by two mottoes: “Be killed rather than surrender,” which was drummed into him by his predecessor, Ziad Amr, shortly before he was killed by the IDF, and “Don’t think twice. The third time, you’re caught,” which he learned years ago from Jewish prisoner Yaakov Amsalem, when they were both in Shata prison.

He wasn’t always like this. The late peace activist Orna Mer—mother of the actor Juliano Mer—founded a theater group that met at his parents’ home in the Jenin refugee camp. In the mid-’90s, Israeli peace activists used to come to this house. The disappointment and anger he feels toward the Israeli peaceniks are incomparably greater than his anger at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He mentions this over and over. Sharon is a military man and so he doesn’t expect anything different from him. Not so with the Israeli peace camp. Not one of them called him after his mother was killed by an IDF sniper’s bullet over a year ago, while she was standing by the window of her home, and no one came when his brother was killed a few hours later. The house was also demolished—and no one came.

Zebeida is extremely bitter. Freedom fighter or terrorist, he carries with him painful memories from the days when he moved sacks of sand on building sites in Haifa as his Jewish peers went skating by. “I worked with Muntasar (his friend and today his deputy) and we would lug the heavy sacks on our shoulders ... Jewish kids our age were going around with girls, and we were carrying sand up to the fifth floor of that building instead of going to school. I never lived like a human being.”

The Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades may reach peace with Israel, he says, but he won’t personally. He won’t forgive the killing of his mother and brother and the razing of his house. Abu Mazen is not his leader. Yasser Arafat is the only leader.

Zebeida is 29, his wife is expecting their first child and he does not plan to lay down his weapons when the baby is born. “You won’t let me, even if I stop now,” he says. It’s quite likely he has blood on his hands, but he isn’t willing to talk about it. He says he is not afraid. It’s all up to God. He says he used to be a crack sniper, but when the explosives blew up in his face, it damaged his eyes. Another injury left him with one leg shorter than the other.

When IDF troops entered the camp in the major incursion last April, Zebeida was the one who spoke to the soldiers in Hebrew over a loudspeaker, from inside the houses of the camp. He says he warned them not to come in. He hid in the camp throughout all the fighting and was not caught. The soldiers passed from house to house and he escaped from room to room. His eyes light up recalling the fighting: “That was a real war, a terrific war.”

He moved up in the Al Aqsa Brigades hierarchy following the killings of his predecessors, Ziad Amr and Ala Sabag. He paid NIS 13,000 out of his own pocket for his pistol—a Smith & Wesson made in Springfield, Massachusetts. “If you leave us alone, we’ll sell the gun and buy a car,” he quips. His Hebrew, picked up in prison and on construction jobs, is pretty good. He says that if the IDF withdraws from Palestinian cities and releases Palestinian prisoners, there will be quiet. But he will not forgive.

We met in a house in the Jenin refugee camp. His younger brother Daoud had arrived earlier. He has several tattoos and his arms are covered with scars. Daoud is a retired auto thief who spent years in Israeli jails for criminal offenses. Their father died when they were young. Now Daoud works at patching tires in the camp, and is not involved in his brother’s struggle. Shortly before we arrived, Daoud accidentally ran down a neighbor in a stolen car and the neighbor was rushed to the hospital with a head injury. At first they thought he was dead. His big brother Zakariya hurried to the hospital to resolve things with the neighbor’s family. Daoud did not get worked up about the incident. When Zakariya arrived, he scolded his younger brother for his lack of caution.

They were nine children in the family. One, Taha, was killed in April of last year and another, Yihya, was sentenced to 16 years in prison for his terrorist activity. Their cousin, Nidal Abu-Shaduf, blew himself up in July 2001 at the Binyamina train station and killed two Israelis. Zebeida is accompanied by his deputy and childhood friend, Muntasar Jalyoun, who is also armed, and was injured in the face and legs by IDF shrapnel during Operation Defensive Shield.

“You took our house and our mother and you killed our brother,” Zebeida says angrily as soon as he sits down. “We gave you everything and what did we get in return? A bullet in my mother’s chest. We opened our home—and you demolished it. Every week, 20-30 Israelis would come to do theater there. We fed them. And afterward, not one of them picked up the phone.”

The first Israeli he ever met was “Captain Assad.” “I was a little boy and he came to take my uncle and my father.” He attended the UNRWA school for nine years, where he was a good student. “I was one of the top students in the class,” he said, until he was wounded for the first time. He took a bullet in the leg after he threw rocks at soldiers. He spent six months in the hospital and underwent four operations on his leg. He never returned to school. At age 15, he was arrested for the first time, for throwing rocks. This was during the first Intifada; he was sentenced to six months in prison. When he got out, he moved on to throwing Molotov cocktails. That got him four and a half years in jail.

The Oslo accords led to his release and exile to Jericho, from where he surreptitiously made his way back to Jenin. With a fake Israeli ID card issued in the name of Jul Darawshe, he lived in Israel for two years and worked as a contractor for home renovations. “I worked from Majdal Shams to Eilat. I was a real businessman.” He was eventually apprehended in Afula and after a brief incarceration, returned to Jenin.

When his path to work in Israel was blocked, he turned to auto theft. In 1997, he was caught with a stolen car, but did not confess to the many other auto thefts he’d committed, and was given a fifteen-month sentence. He served the time, was released and returned to the camp. He became a truck driver in Jenin, transporting flour and olive oil. When the present intifada erupted, he was fired from his job. “You’re not afraid to come here? You’re not afraid that we’ll kill you?” Jalyoun suddenly interjects. “After all, you kill our journalists—and you call us terrorists.”

Zebeida started taking part in the war effort. “I started making bombs.” He has been on Israel’s wanted list for two years. Does he live in fear? “I don’t live in fear. If someone were afraid that something will happen to him, he wouldn’t get into this in the first place.”

What would cause you to stop the terror attacks?

“In the Al Aqsa Brigades, we said: If you leave us in peace and give us our state and release all the prisoners, without any differentiations, and give us a state to live in like human beings and return the refugees ...”

All the refugees?

“All of the refugees. Certainly. I have five uncles whom I’ve never seen. All of these conditions for peace are in terms of the Al Aqsa Brigades. But for me personally, it won’t happen. Because we worked together and nothing came out of it. If there is peace, it will only be peace between the peoples, without Arafat, without Abu Mazen, without Sharon—only between the two peoples. Rabin made peace and you called him a traitor. Arafat made peace and the Hamas called him a traitor. Abu Mazen wants peace and they say he’s a traitor.

“Abu Mazen has nothing. The people have to be behind someone who is making peace. The only one of the Palestinians who can make peace is Abu Amar (Arafat). Abu Amar controls all the people—Hamas, the Jihad, the Fatah, everyone. And Abu Mazen doesn’t even control his own pants.”

Is there a difference between terror attacks in the territories and attacks in Israel?

“In the beginning, we decided to carry out attacks only in the West Bank, against settlers and soldiers. But the technology of the times changed everything. The Israeli gets on a helicopter, flies from Tel Aviv to Jenin and fires a rocket. Right? We don’t have any rockets or helicopters or tanks. Right? We have a different technology. A person, like a rocket, comes out of the camp and goes to Israel.

“Your technology is more accurate than ours. One time it falls in a bus, another time on the road, another time in a cafe. Why? Because we’re being killed every day and we have to respond. They’re killing us from inside tanks and they’re killing us with Apache helicopters. Do we have the weapons to take down the Apache? Do we have anti-tank weapons? The F-16 is the world’s top fighter jet and the Apache is the best helicopter, and we have nothing. We have M-16s and Kalashnikovs. So we’re defending ourselves with what we have. And we’re not the ones starting it. After they kill us, we kill. There was a cease-fire and you killed Raed Karmi, and there were other cases like that and now you just tried to kill Rantisi. Who’s to blame for the civilians that have been killed in Israel? The Israeli government that kills our civilians every day.”

Do you have any red lines when it comes to killing people?

“I’m not a murderous person and I don’t like killing. But what happened in my house and what I saw in the camp brought me to these things. I was one of the best students in the school and I never thought that I’d want to kill anyone or to be a criminal. But the Israelis dragged me into these things. I have a lot of friends in Israel, very many friends….”

And if they got hurt?

“That’s not my problem and it’s not Hamas’ problem. It’s your government’s problem.”

Are you capable of committing a suicide bombing?

“This is something that the person doesn’t decide. It happens once, suddenly, to the person. Up to now, it hasn’t happened to me. But every morning I think that I’m about to be killed. Here’s the plane in the sky, here’s the pilotless drone that’s filming me. I could become a shaheed at any moment. And I’m not afraid. I have