October 7, 2003

Thug or Robin Hood, Mr. Zubeidi Fills Void In West Bank Town

Israel Hunts Him, Palestinians Haven't Been Able to Rein Him In

By Guy Chazan

JENIN, Israeli-Occupied West Bank -- Zakariya Zubeidi was expounding his theory of armed resistance over a cup of sweet, black coffee in Jenin's sprawling Palestinian refugee camp recently, when one of his two cellphones rang. After a brief conversation, he took a last drag on his cigarette, mumbled an apology and abruptly dashed out the door.

Ten minutes later, Israeli tanks, jeeps and armored vehicles trundled down the dusty, potholed streets of this West Bank town. As gunfire crackled, soldiers imposed a curfew and blew up a nearby house belonging to another fugitive local activist. Mr. Zubeidi wasn't the target this time, though he has eluded three past Israeli attempts to catch him.

The 27-year-old regional chief of the Palestinian paramilitary group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Mr. Zubeidi is the poster boy for a new generation of violent young guns who are increasingly taking control of Palestinian streets.

Openly defiant of the old-guard Palestinian leadership around Yasser Arafat, Mr. Zubeidi and others like him are calling the shots in places such as Jenin, a town of about 50,000 long known as a hotbed of Palestinian militancy.

Mr. Zubeidi's power illustrates the conundrum dogging the U.S.-backed Road Map initiative designed to put Israelis and Palestinians back on the path to peace and pave the way for a Palestinian state by 2005.

Israel says the Palestinian Authority must break up and disarm militant factions such as the Brigades for the peace plan to work. Until it does, the Israelis say they have no choice but to pursue and contain men such as Mr. Zubeidi themselves.

Palestinians say they can't fight the militants while Israel's occupation continues. The matrix of checkpoints, closures, curfews and military incursions, they say, has cut off West Bank towns from each other, making it impossible for any nationwide Palestinian security force to do its job -- and creating an opening for local strongmen.

The blockade is "destroying the fabric of society, our institutions and systems of authority," says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator. "Local men are taking matters into their own hands. We're seeing a regression to tribalism, especially among the young."

That is vividly clear in Jenin, a town plagued by lawlessness and poverty. With 15,000 refugees jostling for space in crowded slums near the center, Jenin is seen by Israel as a breeding ground for suicide bombers. It was a 29-year-old female lawyer from Jenin, Hanadi Jaradat, who blew up a Haifa restaurant Saturday, killing 19 people.

The town is still recovering from last year's devastating refugee-camp battle that left 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers dead. But the longest-lasting damage has been to Jenin's few institutions of civil authority. Years of such clashes have reduced police stations, courts and prisons to rubble. That has left a vacuum of power Mr. Zubeidi has stepped in to fill.

With a silver Smith & Wesson glinting in his belt and a face speckled with black burn marks from a grenade explosion, Mr. Zubeidi oozes a menacing charm. Tall and slim, he sees himself as a Robin Hood fighting to protect his people. "It would be a catastrophe if we didn't exist," he says.

Mr. Zubeidi burst onto the scene last July, when Jenin was rocked by the abduction of its governor, Heydar Irsheid. Accused by Mr. Zubeidi and his group of embezzling aid money and collaborating with Israel, Mr. Irsheid was dragged from his home by Al Aqsa Brigade members, led barefoot through the streets of the city and beaten with rifle butts in front of dozens of onlookers. Mr. Zubeidi says he orchestrated the incident. "When there's no law and order, it's only natural for someone to step in," he says.

To Israel's military, which has closely followed the rise of Mr. Zubeidi, he is little more than a hoodlum. "He's a car thief, a punk and a street gangster," said one security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Mr. Zubeidi rose to prominence only after the Israeli military captured bigger fish in Jenin last year, the official said. The Israelis insist they'll get him yet. "I give him a few more weeks," the official added.

Col. Bilal Abu Zaid, Jenin's chief of police, says his force is no match for Mr. Zubeidi's Brigades. His headquarters and the town's jail were destroyed in Israeli military actions. Stopped for hours at Israeli checkpoints, his officers often don't make it to the scene of the crime. They risk being arrested or shot by Israeli troops if they appear on the streets in uniform or armed. "Earlier this month, the Israelis imposed a curfew, and we were stuck here for the whole day with no food," says Abu Zaid. "We had to ask the Red Cross to bring us water."

Israel denies that it's making it impossible for the Palestinian police to do their job of restraining hardliners. "It's true their forces in the West Bank have been somewhat degraded by Israeli military action, but their problem isn't capability," says Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "It's political will."

With the police enfeebled, many Jenin residents welcome protection from armed factions such as the Brigades. Troublemakers or suspected collaborators are beaten up, often publicly. Violent criminals get disarmed and imprisoned, usually in private homes. Crime victims routinely ask the Brigades to help recover stolen property, or find and punish wrongdoers. "There'd be chaos without them," says Mahmud Ahmad Ali, owner of a photo studio in the refugee camp. "They're more in control than the Palestinian Authority ever was."

But the justice they dispense is rough. Those on Mr. Zubeidi's hit list can't defend themselves and get no appeal. "They're untrained and ill-disciplined," complained one local businessman. "And they're no substitute for a real security organization."

Mr. Zubeidi served his first prison term at the age of 14, for throwing stones at an Israeli tank, and has spent seven years in Israeli jails. But he claims he comes from a family devoted to peace. For years, his mother hosted Israeli and Palestinian doves in the family home, he says. She was killed last year by Israeli troops, as was Mr. Zubeidi's brother, Taha. That, he says, only hardened his hatred of Israel. "Why should I support peace?" says Mr. Zubeidi. "My mother did, and look what happened to her."

But this belligerence also put him on a collision course with the Palestinian Authority leadership. While the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are affiliated with Fatah, the mainstream political movement led by Mr. Arafat, Mr. Zubeidi's relations with Fatah are strained. Last June, he refused to join a cease-fire negotiated between former Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and the main militant factions, and condemned them all for caving in to Israeli and American pressure. In July, Mr. Zubeidi announced that Fatah's Jenin branch had been disbanded and merged with the Brigades.

But the climax of his insubordination was the abduction of Gov. Irsheid. The scion of an influential landowning family, Mr. Irsheid was a conduit for aid money earmarked for rebuilding the refugee camp. From the start, there were concerns over how he allocated the funds. Norway, a major donor, ended up freezing its aid program and demanding a full investigation into how its money was spent. With rumors of corruption swirling, and the Palestinian Authority refusing to discipline the wayward governor, Zakariya Zubeidi took the law into his own hands.

"For two years, Irsheid committed crimes against the Palestinian people, and for two years nothing was done about him," said Mr. Zubeidi. "Our patience snapped."

Mr. Irsheid, who now lives in Jordan, has denied any improprieties. He was abducted, he said, because he had tried to rein in the Al Aqsa Brigades and other violent groups. Israeli security officials who have investigated the incident agree.

Even some of Mr. Zubeidi's fans were rattled by the treatment of Mr. Irsheid. "The Al Aqsa Brigades solve our problems," said Mahmud Ahmad Ali, the photo-studio owner. "But of course it would be best if we had a real state, with real police."

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