Cost-of-living protest, Jenin
A Palestinian boy adds a tire to a burning barricade during a protest against the high cost of living in the West Bank town of Jenin, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. Photo by AP
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Daniel Bar-On
Zakaria Zubeidi. Photo by Daniel Bar-On

Jamal Zubeidi says that in the Jenin refugee camp they no longer think about Mohammed, or even God. So no one here got excited about about the controversial film that provoked the recent spate of Muslim riots in the world, or about any other media or online items seen as disrespectful to the Prophet.

Zubeidi (aka Abu Anton), one of the grassroots leaders in the Jenin camp, has not sounded so discouraged for many years. He is convinced that the third intifada is on the way. Its impetus will be above all economic, he says. And it may begin here, in this refugee camp at the northern edge of the West Bank. One day the young people of the camp will march angrily toward the city of Jenin, burning and smashing all the symbols of the hated Palestinian regime. Then the fire will spread southward into the rest of the West Bank, and westward into Israel. Zubeidi says this will be a more violent intifada than its two predecessors.

This past week Zubeidi gave interviews to a number of Arab and other international television stations. The reason was the ongoing detention without trial of his nephew Zakaria, the legendary commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Jenin camp, who has been locked up in a Palestinian prison in Jericho for about five months now. In that time he has launched a number of hunger and thirst strikes and a well-publicized media "death fast."

The arrest of Zakaria Zubeidi, who in recent years has been managing the Freedom Theater in the camp, has become a focus of international interest, and petitions for his release have been drawn up by human rights groups and theater artists all over the world. In Israel, however, little public attention has been paid to the case.

This week it seemed as though he would be released. Every day the Palestinian Authority said "tomorrow." But when we visited the refugee camp on Monday - yet another day on which he was supposed to have been released - Zakaria didn't show up. The last time he was seen here was on Id al-Fitr, the last day of the month of Ramadan, when he was given a four-day furlough, thanks to pressure from the camp residents on the P.A.'s interior minister and its security organizations.

It all began in May, with a round of shots fired in the middle of the night at the home of Jenin's governor, Kadoura Mousa, from a distance of about 400 meters. No one was injured. In the camp they say the governor had heart disease, that he had problems in his family and that a few days earlier PA President Mahmoud Abbas had informed him that his tenure in office had ended. Mousa and his people set out in a nocturnal pursuit of the shooters. About two hours into the chase, the governor died of a heart attack.

This was the signal for the PA to raid the refugee camp, a place where previously the Palestinian police hardly dared set foot. There are firearms in nearly every home in this camp, and the PA had apparently waited for a suitable opportunity to disarm it.

A few days later, a wave of arrests began in the camp; about 70 men were detained and a great deal of weaponry was confiscated. The weapon fired at the governor was ultimately found in Zakaria Zubeidi's home. He denied any connection to the shooting and claimed the rifle had come into his possession only after the shooters had passed it along in the camp in order to get rid of it.

At the beginning of July, Palestinian Legislative Council Member Shami al-Shami, of the Fatah faction, was shot and wounded in his leg.

After a few weeks of investigation, the suspects in both that and the Mousa shooting were identified: Ibrahim Fayyad, 18, who has a criminal past and a problematic family and psychological background, and a wealthy money-changer, Mazen Razawi, who is also the largest arms dealer in the Jenin camp. Sources say that Razawi's armory includes sophisticated Tavor assault rifles, an important product of Israel's weapons industry. The suspicion is that Razawi sent Fayyad on the shooting missions, although there is no clear motive for the crime. Possibly it has to do with the Palestinian security mechanisms' attempt to confiscate the weapons in the camp.

For his part, Zakaria Zubeidi remained in prison in Jericho. The PA was demanding that he be responsible for ensuring that all the weapons in the camp be handed over to it.

In the meantime, earlier this month, in the camp, a senior figure in the PA's Preventive Security force, Hisham al-Ruh, was shot and killed by pistol fire at close range. This happened up the hill at the edge of the refugee camp, late at night and apparently after careful tracking and an ambush. This time, the arrests included five more members of the Zubeidi family, which had already suffered many fatalities and arrests in the two intifadas; they were released very quickly.

A year and a half ago, the Israeli-Palestinian actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered by gunfire at short range in his car at the entrance to the Freedom Theater, which he managed together with Zakaria Zubeidi. After the most recent shooting incidents, the investigation of the Mer-Khamis case was reopened in the PA. At the camp people are now asking how it is possible that the case involving the shooting at the governor's home was solved so quickly, while the person who murdered Mer-Khamis is still apparently walking around freely in the camp.

Zakaria Zubeidi has been under arrest for the past five months without an indictment filed against him. During his interrogation, which went on for two months, he was held in solitary confinement; he was not tortured physically but he complained of cruel treatment. His associates say he is in a bad psychological state. He has lost weight and pictures of him from his short furlough at the camp are evidence of that.

At the beginning of this week, when Zubeidi was brought to the court in Jenin for an extension of his remand, the judges promised that if the PA security mechanisms determine that he does not constitute a danger to security in the area, he would be released. By midweek this had not happened.

During his furlough - during which thousands of locals came to wish him well - Zubeidi did not talk about what has happened to him, and only would say that he would reveal details after he is finally released. When he was arrested, the police covered his head with a sack and handcuffed him. Every time prisoner Zubeidi is taken back and forth from Jericho to Jenin, it is necessary to "coordinate" with Israel, in light of the fact that in the past he had been the No. 1 wanted man in the Jenin camp - even though later, he was granted amnesty by Israel. Now his uncle claims that Zakaria always said he would aim his weapons only at the Israeli occupation.

The last time we met, shortly before his arrest, Zakaria Zubeidi and I went together to the cemetery that holds the remains of the camp's inhabitants who lost their lives in the second intifada. Zubeidi indicated the graves of his relatives, among them his mother, who was shot and killed on the balcony of her home by Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

A few weeks beforehand, we had met at the premiere of "Alice in Wonderland" at the Freedom Theater. Zubeidi proudly drove his car through the alleyways of the camp, inviting children through a loudspeaker to come to the play. On that day Zubeidi and Mer-Khamis looked radiantly happy, as I had never seen them before.

After Mer-Khamis was murdered, Zubeidi promised he would do everything in his power to see that the assassin would be caught within days. His profound mourning for the death of his friend and companion in the struggle and in the theater was palpable.

Most of Zakaria's other friends were killed in the second intifada. The walls of the living room in his uncle Jamal's home, which was partially destroyed during that uprising, are adorned with pictures of the deceased. We visited that home often during the time of the intifada, meeting bands of armed men there.

Jamal Zubeidi is actually Zakaria's adoptive father, since his biological father died when Zakaria was a boy. A few days ago, PA people came to Jamal Zubeidi's home and begged him to ask his nephew to stop his hunger strike, since his life is now in danger. They promised that if he did so, Zakaria would be released from prison quickly. However, a short while before that, Jamal had, in fact, advised Zakaria not to end his strike when he concluded that his nephew had little chance of being freed without stronger pressure on the PA .

Jamal Zubeidi said this week that he has no faith in the Palestinian court system: "The judges are lawyers who worked under the Israeli occupation, which made them into postal clerks. They would bring us, the prisoners, clothes and cigarettes to the prison - that's all they were allowed to do as lawyers under the occupation. Therefore I have no respect for them or trust in them."

He added that if his nephew is not released in the coming days, residents of the Jenin camp will launch a mass protest. And he promised, "Lots of things will happen here. The plans are ready."

Meanwhile, in the handsome stone house at the top of the hill, Zakaria Zubeidi's wife and three children await his release. In the Jenin camp, there is no trace of the improvement of the economic situation in the West Bank. There are hardly any residents who have a permit to work in Israel; to obtain one, it is sometimes necessary to collaborate with the Shin Bet security service. Moreover, the number of inhabitants who manage to sneak into Israel to work is relatively small - a few dozen at most.

Jamal Zubeidi, for example, works at the Jenin municipality, for a salary of NIS 1,800 a month. Of this, NIS 800 is used to cover expenses such as electricity, municipal taxes and telephone bills; he is already NIS 70,000 in debt. At a time when PA salaries are held up because Israel has not transferred the tax payments it has collected in time, or for other reasons, there is hardly anyone in the street and the shops are empty. The entry of Israeli Arabs into the city of Jenin, which has been allowed in recent months, hasn't led to any improvement in life in the camp.

Criminal acts are up markedly in the camp in the recent past; not a month goes by without a murder there, it seems. The latest victim was a boy of 13, who was murdered by a youngster of 18, both of them from poor families. On Monday there was a demonstration in the camp against this murder - just when the Freedom Theater was presenting another premiere: Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker."