When Palestinian Jail Hurts More Than Israeli Incarceration

Although he served some nine years in Israeli jails, Zakaria Zubeidi's belly is full. But he's not blaming Mahmoud Abbas.

He was waiting for us at the entrance to his handsome and well-appointed stone house, atop the hill on which the homes of Jenin refugee camp residents are perched. Skinnier than ever - he lost seven kilograms in hunger strikes - Zakaria Zubeidi, the "cat with nine lives," was finally released on bail after being detained for five months in the Palestinian Authority's Jericho prison without trial. He was indicted on suspicion of taking part in a shooting attack on Jenin Governor Kadura Musa last May.

After dozens of meetings with Zubeidi - a majority of them while he was still No. 1 on Israel's most-wanted list, as commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the camp - we found him more reserved than ever this time. Incarceration by the Palestinians was for him apparently far worse than his nine years in Israeli lockups; being arrested by his Palestinian brethren wounded him emotionally.

His smile remains as shy as before, but something in it is extinguished, including when he says he would never come out against the PA, and certainly not against the man at the top.

"I am certain that Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] did not know what they did to me. The security services misled him," Zubeidi says now of his arrest, which caused quite a stir in the territories and the world, albeit not in Israel.

I accompanied Zubeidi in his hideouts and escapes, during the rough intifada years and in Operation Defensive Shield, during which his camp was destroyed. He often arrived at our encounters frightened and tired, after sleepless nights, accompanied by an anxious, armed-to-the-teeth entourage. We later went together to the cemetery of those killed in the second intifada, where many of his relatives and friends are buried. It was important for him to show me the graves. His mother, too, was killed by Israeli soldiers, as she sat on her porch.

When we meet this week at Zubeidi's new home (the old one in the refugee camp was razed by the Israel Defense Forces years ago ), there is still something enigmatic about him. The Israelis had already granted him partial amnesty as part of the hudna, or temporary truce, struck between Israel and militant Palestinian groups in 2007, although he was not allowed to leave Jenin - and then the Palestinians tossed him in jail. From his porch this week, with his three young children scampering about in the tidy garden, we can see the camp, Nazareth, Umm al-Fahm and Megiddo prison.

Early last May Zubeidi was summoned by Palestinian police, ostensibly to mediate a dispute between neighbors in the camp, something he did from time to time. He'd barely set foot in the station when the Preventive Security men popped out, handcuffed him and threw a sack over his head. They shoved him down the steps and into a security vehicle. Eventually they ended up at a Preventive Security base in Jericho. That trip, like every one involving a departure from his city, was coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces, he says. No one explained why he had been arrested or showed him an arrest warrant.

Zubeidi, formerly a regional director in the PA's Ministry of Prisoners Affairs, says his captors were obligated to inform the minister in charge of their actions, but that didn't happen. In Jericho he was placed in solitary confinement, and within hours, an interrogation began that went on intermittently for about two months. His interrogators, seven in number, told him at the outset that they had permission to treat him as they saw fit, from Mahmoud Abbas.

First they interrogated Zubeidi about the gun that had allegedly been fired several days earlier at the home of Jenin's Governor Musa, who later died of a heart attack while in pursuit of the shooters in the dead of night. Zubeidi says he confessed at once that the gun was in his possession at home, and asked that it be turned over immediately to PA officials.

"It is a 'dirty' gun. I have always objected to the use of weapons against PA people," he told his jailers, explaining that the weapon had been passed around in the camp by people who wanted to get rid of it, until it came to him - but he was not aware that it was the one that had been shot at the governor's home. The investigators accepted his version, which was confirmed by the two suspects in the shooting who had been previously taken into custody.

Then the real reason behind Zubeidi's arrest came to light: His interrogators demanded that he return dozens of weapons that supposedly remained in his possession from the second intifada. Initially they asked for more than 70 guns, but later relented and asked for "however many there are."

Zubeidi claims now that since the hudna took effect, all he has had is a handgun for self-protection and that all other weapons were confiscated by Israel during the intifada, when it killed or arrested his fellow members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

"The weapons went with the shahids," he says, using the term for "martyr."

His interrogators showed Zubeidi photographs: Here he is with his armed comrades at a mass rally toward the end of the second intifada. I was at that rally and I remember the occasion; many of those seen there are no longer among the living. The photos are also saved on his cell phone, and he shows us another, of Osama al-Tubassi, Amjad Husseini, Sheikh Mahmoud and himself, in a group picture with machine guns. Zubeidi is the only one of that group who survived. "I told the interrogators: Since 2007, have you seen me going around with a gun even once? What do you want from me?"

Zubeidi's interrogators accused him of killing his close friend Ala el-Sabagr, who as a child appeared in the late director Juliano Mer-Khamis' documentary "Arna's Children," and then went on to command the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and was killed in the intifada; of murdering his friend Mer last year, at the entrance to the Freedom Theater the two men ran together in Jenin; and even of collaboration in the assassination of Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in 2008.

Zubeidi says that such accusations were used by his interrogators to break him mentally. They also abused him physically, he says; for three days and nights consecutively he was made to stand with his hands tied to a post behind him. Zubeidi, who had been wounded several times in the intifada, nearly collapsed from the pain. Other detainees, he says, were forced to stand like that for eight days. He went on hunger strikes - 28 of them, each lasting for several days, including a "thirst strike" that lasted for six. He also abstained from talking during certain periods of time. All of this was intended to pressure the authorities to either release him or put him on trial - just as administrative detainees in Israeli prisons demand.

This is another story straight out of the Israeli occupation's playbook. Only after he had been in jail for two months was Zubeidi allowed a phone call to his wife; also, he got to meet with his lawyer only in court - until he too was arrested. Every 15 days, Zubeidi was brought before a criminal court judge to have his remand extended, but when the 45-day period during which an indictment is supposed to be filed, according to Palestinian law, came to an end - he was brought before a Palestinian military tribunal and again his remand was extended.

One time, the authorities allowed Zubeidi to talk on the phone with his uncle Jamal, who urged him to continue his hunger strike; another time Jamal advised him to stop. Zubeidi did as he was told by the uncle he reveres. When another uncle died, in Jordan, the prison authorities did not allow Zubeidi to call his family for two weeks. Nobody knew what was happening to the prisoner during the first two months in jail, aside from the fact that he was being held by the PA.

Zubeidi: "I don't want to compare Israel and Palestine. There it is occupation. There it's an enemy, here it is a brother. There you have no problem with the Israelis who interrogate you, but here there is a problem, a mental problem. It hurts a lot more. I never believed we'd come to this. In Israel I never thought about a hunger strike. There I know that I am at war. I told them: The matter of the gun that shot the governor you could have wrapped up by phone. If you had called and told me this gun shot the governor, I would have handed it over immediately."

So why did they arrest you?

"Walla, Gideon, I honestly don't know. I think that Abu Mazen didn't know. The security services told him things that were incorrect. That is exactly what happened to me in the intifada, when all sorts of people spoke in my name and did all kinds of bad things in the name of the brigades. Abu Mazen knew I was under arrest, but thought that it was all by the book. He didn't know I was being held in solitary confinement, in isolation, bound for three days and three nights."

Zubeidi pulls up another picture on his cellphone: In it he is seen carrying Abbas on his shoulders during his visit to the city, after he was appointed president. Zubeidi showed the picture to his interrogators, but he says that they refused to look at it. "I will never come out against the [Palestinian] Authority. Nor did I take part in interrogations of collaborators. I will fight only against the occupation. I say: The entire Palestinian problem is the occupation. Abu Mazen is my leader, that's how democracy is, even if here and there mistakes are made."

Since Zubeidi was released, early Tuesday morning, a constant stream of people have been making the pilgrimage to his home. The vehicle that brought him into the Jenin refugee camp was accompanied by a convoy of about 100 honking cars. In this camp those released from Palestinian prison are now received as even greater heroes than those who get out of Israeli prison.

After his release, Zubeidi's first act was to the bereaved parents of the deputy leader of the Preventive Security Forces in Jenin, Hisham al-Rakh, who was murdered while Zubeidi was in prison. Only after that did he drive up to his own home. The children woke up and were surprised to see their father at home.

Like his uncle, Jamal, Zakaria says he is also convinced that another intifada is unavoidable, mainly because of the debilitating economic situation in the territories. But he says that he will join it only if it is aimed against the Israeli occupation.

Meanwhile he says he will go back to running the Freedom Theater, where a new production that he hasn't seen is already being staged: Harold Pinter's "The Caretaker."

On the mantelpiece in the Zubeidis' living room is a plaque from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which reads: "God preferred those who sacrifice their money to those who sit around, because the revolution is a factory for manufacturing men ... because the revolutionaries will never die. God created them for his glory and granted them the strength to meet challenges. The noose is the symbol of Palestinian pride." It is dedicated to the "honored brother, commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Zakaria Zubeidi, 2008."

Alex Levac