Connect to share and comment

Israel's enemy within: Palestinian militants gird for battle

Part 3: Tensions rise between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

Zakaria Zubeidi, a Palestinian militant who has been shot 11 times by the Israelis, in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, where in 2002 he directed a brutal nine-day fight against the Israeli army, during which 23 soldiers and up to 56 Palestinians, including some civilians, died. (© Gillian Laub)

JENIN, West Bank — If you drive north from the Kfar Tapuach settlement up Route 60, the main, Israeli-built and heavily fortified artery of the West Bank, you eventually reach the Palestinian town of Jenin.

It was here, in April 2002, that Zakaria Zubeidi helped lead the brutal fight against the Israeli army in the storied battle of the Jenin refugee camp.

During eight days, 23 Israeli soldiers and up to 56 Palestinians, including some civilians, died. Zubeidi survived. He escaped capture and spent the next five years on the run and avoiding purported Israeli attempts to assassinate him. In 2007, he and all members of his militia, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, were granted amnesty by the Israeli government and Zubeidi committed himself to working for peace.

But in recent months, Zubeidi, 33, has begun to lose faith. He knows what militant settlers and die-hard followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane want to do to the Palestinians and he has said he has seen the upturn in settler violence that Israel’s leaders have described.

“The next war is with the settlers,” Zubeidi said, sitting in a room at the Freedom Theater in Jenin, an organization that aims to promote reconciliation and non-violence among Palestinian youth. “I feel it will be very soon. I would not give it more than a year.”

Zubeidi’s body bears the mark of his battles with Israel during the second intifada. His face and eyes are permanently marked with the dark blast of an explosive, giving him the look of a amateurishly tattooed Maori warrior. A bomb blew up in his face as he was putting it together. Since the explosion he has found it hard to see during the daytime. He’s been shot 11 times and escaped several Israeli assassination attempts. He has the necessary experience to pose a serious threat to the settlers.

“I am sitting before you accused of 21 operations against settlers,” he said. The Israeli government blames him for numerous shootings and suicide bombings against settlers, soldiers and civilians inside Israel.

Zubeidi has noticed the increase in settler radicalism and violence in the past two or three years. “The more you have those radical cells the more you create radical cells on the Palestinian side,” he said. “I look at all the world and how it is fighting Islamic radicalism. Why are they not fighting Jewish radicalism? This is the most dangerous phenomenon in the Middle East — the settlers.”