Lunch With a Wanted Man

Zakariya Zebaida, the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the northern West Bank, entered the room of the apartment in the Jenin refugee camp in which the conversation was to take place. This time he arrived alone, without an escort, and his pistol was concealed.

JENIN - Zakariya Zebaida, the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the northern West Bank, entered the room of the apartment in the Jenin refugee camp in which the conversation was to take place. This time he arrived alone, without an escort, and his pistol was concealed. A few days ago, he says, he encountered soldiers from an elite unit who had come to assassinate him, and he managed to escape in the ensuing exchange of fire. The danger is greatest at night, when nearly everyone in the camp is asleep and there is no one to report to him about the Israeli army's movements. So he usually sleeps outdoors. During the day he takes fewer precautions. Four months ago, his first son, Mohammed, was born, and his wife and the baby are living in their new home. Zebaida never sleeps there. His previous home was demolished during the Israel Defense Forces invasion in April 2002. "What's a museum?" he asks with curiosity when told that his portrait can now be seen in an exhibition titled "Control" at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Zebaida represents the grassroots level of the Fatah organization, which is constantly gaining strength within the vacuum that has been created by the paralysis of the Palestinian Authority: militant, determined, violent, embittered young people, who operate autonomously. The great fury they harbor within themselves at the Israeli occupation that has ruined their lives is now compounded by the anger they feel for the PA officials. A few months ago, Zebaida's forces attacked the governor of their city, whom they perceive as corrupt, and his colleagues in Nablus murdered the brother of the mayor there. Zebaida was opposed to the hudna (cease-fire) talks (which broke down in Cairo on the day of our meeting), largely because of the composition of the delegations: those functionaries have no idea what life is like in a refugee camp, so who are they to conduct negotiations in the name of the Palestinians? He has similar complaints about the signatories to the Geneva Accord, though not about the document itself, which he hasn't read.

His people will not commit in advance to any sort of cease-fire. Everything depends upon Israel. If the IDF leaves and the prisoners are released, there will be something to talk about. "If you leave here, who will I shoot at?" he asked in the summer. His fighters, he says, perpetrate attacks only in reaction to Israeli assassinations, such as that of Raad Carmi in Tul Karm, or in response to other IDF killing operations. That's one of the things that differentiates his organization from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which launch attacks mainly in order to scuttle political agreements. He rejects the contention of the Israeli security people that every attack is planned long in advance. No more than two hours are needed, he says. The immediacy is important for him in order to demonstrate the connection between Israeli actions and the response. Hamas reacts too slowly.

He finds the separation fence laughable: Anyone who is ready to sacrifice his life can cross any fence. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are more vulnerable to the Shin Bet security service because their attacks are coordinated from the outside, and the security services can easily monitor their communications. In his brigades, the initiative is local, without faxes or phone calls to Damascus, so it's more difficult to thwart them.

Yasser Arafat is the only authority he is ready to accept. Any agreement Arafat signs will be acceptable to him, too. After Arafat goes, things will be a lot worse, for both the Palestinians and Israel. The chances of a settlement will be negligible and no one will be able to replace the leader. Maybe Marwan Barghouti, who sprang up from the grassroots as he did, but Barghouti is not accepted in the Gaza Strip. Like Barghouti, Zebaida describes himself as being a person of peace in the past, with the prolongation of the occupation being the only thing that led him to embark on his violent path. Zebaida remembers the theater groups that Orna Mar conducted in his home and the Jewish peace activists who met there when he was a boy. So he was bitterly disappointed when none of them took the trouble to offer condolences when Israeli soldiers killed his mother in the window of her home. That was his breaking point. "We gave them everything and we got a bullet in mother's chest. We opened our home to all of you and you demolished it." His brother and several of his cousins have also been killed, and his two other brothers are in prison.

Zebaida is tired of the struggle. He will soon be 30. In June, he told me: "After all, you won't leave me alone even if I stop now." His worldview was shaped during the period in which he lugged sacks of sand on construction jobs in Haifa, observing with growing despair the Jewish kids his age who were enjoying themselves on roller skates. "I never lived like a human being," he says sadly. The first Israeli he ever met was "Captain Assad," who showed up to arrest his father and uncle. His two predecessors as commander of the brigades, Ziad Amar and Ala Sabag, were assassinated by Israel. His face was burned in a "work accident." His days, too, are numbered.

He's worth listening to. He, too, was not born to kill. He, too, would like to spend his time peacefully with his family and raise his boy. The end of the occupation will also be the end of his struggle. What would you do if soldiers killed your mother on the balcony of her house and if the occupation prevented you from enjoying even one day without humiliation and fear?