Zacharia Zubeidi: The marked man

Zacharia Zubeidi, head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade in Jenin, has survived four assassination attempts by Israeli forces. He tells Donald Macintyre he is fighting for his sons' future
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A tendency to fidget is the nearest Zacharia Zubeidi gets to betraying the nervousness of a man who can reasonably expect to be gunned down any day now.

A tendency to fidget is the nearest Zacharia Zubeidi gets to betraying the nervousness of a man who can reasonably expect to be gunned down any day now.

He fiddles repeatedly with his pack of L&M cigarettes, with his orange plastic lighter, with his sleek little Samsung cellphone, and, when he finally pulls it out from behind his belt, the silvery Smith & Wesson pistol with which he fired from a second-floor window at the Israeli troops who came for him in pouring rain at 3am back in February. He took three bullets in his left arm before escaping through the alleys of the Jenin refugee camp and hiding in a chicken coop until 9 o'clock.

Here on a warm sunny morning in the heart of the camp, where "every home has a weapon", he feels relatively safe. True, the intermediary who has arranged the interview gets up to peer through the half-closed shutters each time he hears a vehicle on the dirt road outside. But if the army comes looking for him, Zubeidi insists, "they will have difficulty getting out".

At night, and despite rotating where he sleeps, "I am a different person. I have weapons, guards, my finger on the trigger all night." His face, partly blackened by scorch marks left by a bomb which blew up when he was preparing it 16 months ago, cracks into a grin as he adds, "I sleep with one eye closed and the other open."

For the 28-year-old Zubeidi is the Jenin head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed Palestinian faction linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah, and one of the highest-profile armed militants in the West Bank. He rose to local prominence in the battle that came after Israeli tanks rolled into the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002, and which left 52 Palestinians - including one of his five brothers - and 23 Israeli soldiers dead.

He declines to discuss how many Israeli deaths he has been personally responsible for since then, or the details of the many operations the faction has conducted from Jenin against civilians, soldiers and settlers. But last month he boasted that "hundreds of Palestinians" had come to him offering themselves as suicide bombers to avenge the killing of Palestinian militants.

Zubeidi, 6ft 1in tall and notably thin, became suddenly famous when in July 2003 he kidnapped the then governor of Jenin, Heydar Irsheid, whom he accused of corruption and collaboration with the Israelis, releasing him only when he was personally ordered to do so by the one man to whom he professes allegiance in the Palestinian leadership, Yasser Arafat.

While on the subject of the PLO chairman, what about his periodic condemnations of murders carried out by Palestinian militants? "It's a tactic," says Zubeidi. About this at least, he and the Israelis, who hold Arafat's Fatah directly responsible for financing the Brigades, appear to agree.

Officially an employee of the Jenin municipality, Zubeidi cheerfully admits that he does nothing for them in return for his £100-a-month salary. Instead he has moved to fill a power vacuum left by the conflict's steady degrading of the civic infrastructure in Jenin. During the interview, one call on his mobile is from two hauliers arguing about who has the right to deliver goods from the main Jenin checkpoint and seeking his arbitration. He tells them to come and make their cases in front of him. Another is from a woman trying to get a job as a teacher, and on whose behalf he promises to contact the Palestinian Authority (PA). Is she qualified? "She has a brother who is paralysed. If she doesn't get her job her family will be destroyed. That is her only qualification."

Does the PA listen to you in such circumstances? "Sometimes." And if it doesn't? "I speak to them again." Do you use threats? "No." Similarly, he acts as an unofficial police chief in an increasingly lawless city, hunting down thieves and petty criminals. What do you do when you find them? "We recruit them into the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. This gives them dignity, a salary." So he is the unofficial sheriff of Jenin as well as a leading fighter against Israel? "Yes, the Israelis have appointed me to this job by making me the most wanted man in Jenin."

So how many members of the al-Aqsa brigades are there in Jenin? "Everyone who gives us a cup of tea is a member of the brigades. Everyone who opens their house to us, too. Everyone who calls us on our phones to tell us the army is coming. There are thousands like this."

He claims that the "hundreds" of armed members of the faction buy many of their weapons, for example semi-automatic M-16s, at around £3,000 apiece from Israeli drug dealers. He does not deny that some of the money comes from Iranian and Syrian-backed Hizbollah, "but this is less than 1 per cent of the money America and Britain gives the Israelis for their weapons."

The "dusty" Qassam rockets - "what is it? Just a three-inch pipe"- and even SAM missiles are no match for Israeli tanks, F-16s, and Apache helicopters. So is he making the all-too-familiar point that this is a justification for suicide bombing? "It's not a justification, but there is nothing else to do. The Israelis have pushed us to this point."

How can it possibly help the Palestinian cause internationally to use such a tactic? "The international community sees us through Israeli eyes. Can you imagine 650 houses being demolished in Tel Aviv? That is the number demolished here."

Does he really believe that armed resistance can defeat the military strength of Israel? "The Soviet Union was militarily strong too. American was strong but it left Cuba, Vietnam. I don't know how long it will continue in Iraq."

His father, Mohammed, who died of cancer in 1985, was stopped from working as an English teacher after serving a jail sentence at the end of the Sixties for being a Fatah member. Instead he worked in an Israeli iron factory, did some private teaching on the side and became a peace activist. An Israeli counterpart in the peace movement, the late Orna Mer, founded a kindergarten and theatre group that met at the Zubeidi home in the refugee camp.

Then, during the first intifada, the 13-year-old Zubeidi was shot in the leg while throwing stones and was in hospital for several months. He never returned to school. Instead he was soon arrested for throwing stones and jailed for six months. After his release, he graduated to Molotov cocktails and was jailed again, this time for four years.

Prison politicised him. Like many other Palestinian prisoners he learnt Hebrew, but he was also recruited to Fatah. Outside prison, events were changing fast.

Released in the wake of the Oslo accord, he was obliged to forsake the ideology he had learnt at the hands of his Fatah mentors in jail, that "Israel was an illegal state; Palestine extended from the river [Jordan] to the [Mediterranean] sea; and this could only be secured by armed struggle. Now all these principles were put in a box and left on a shelf." Nevertheless, he supported Oslo "because the leadership approved and signed it".

True to Fatah's - as opposed to Hamas's - official position, he backs a two-state solution, provided it is along 1949-67 borders and allows the families of refugees a choice between the right of return to their pre-1948 homes or compensation for not doing so.

Having joined the new Palestinian Authority security forces, he became a sergeant, but then left, disillusioned, after a year. While he has himself since attracted accusations of gangsterism from his enemies, Zubeidi says: "There were colleagues whom I had taught to read who were promoted to senior positions because of nepotism and corruption. I felt the security groups, the police and intelligence were gangsters, not helping the homeland."

He went to work illegally in construction in and around Tel Aviv and Haifa; arrested and briefly detained, he turned to stealing cars, for which he was sentenced to 15 months in jail.

By the time the second intifada broke out, he was driving a lorry delivering flour and olive oil in Jenin.

He now suggests that a turning point in his journey towards armed militancy was when a close friend was killed by Israeli soldiers. By late 2001, he was making crude bombs. In March 2002, his mother was one of 20 people killed in an Israeli incursion which preceded the bigger one in April.

Since then, he says, his position at the head of the brigades is unchallenged. "I am morally respected. People listen to my words. I help people.

"I have many qualifications for this job. I had two martyrs in my family. I am an ex-prisoner. I have two brothers in prison. My house was demolished. I have been wounded. I am a good fighter. I was the only leader to oppose the hudna [last summer's brief and uneasy ceasefire by the armed factions]. I am against corruption. And I am bankrupt."

Part of his high profile is self-cultivated. His willingness to be interviewed, pose for pictures, and even demonstrate to visitors his shooting prowess - despite having lost some of his vision when the bomb blew up in his face - by blasting a Coke can from 50 metres with his M-16, all help his image as a local idol to many - particularly teenage boys - in the refugee camp. And an Israeli woman, Tali Ifhime, is currently in custody after offering to be a human shield for him.

Although the Israeli army this week declined to comment on him, a security source told The Wall Street Journal last year: "He's a car thief, a punk and a street gangster," and insisted that he had risen only after bigger figures had been captured.

Bassem Eid, director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, has accused the brigades of killing at least seven Jenin residents suspected of collaborating with Israeli intelligence, adding: "Their power as 'police' is a function of fear."

But the present governor of Jenin - in contrast to his predecessor - has no problems with the al-Aqsa Martyrs' presence in the city, according to Yousef Zeid, the director of his office, who insists: "They are seen by the society as heroes, because they sacrificed their lives for the homeland."

Zeid denies that the faction causes trouble if their "suggestions" to the PA are rejected, or that they extort protection money. But is it right that they should endanger the local population by hiding among them?

"People are protecting their sons. Do you thing the people will abandon their sons? Look at the way they live. They are poor. They are not thieves. They are strugglers."

Zeid's relaxed attitude to Zubeidi's presence may underline why Mohammed Dahlan, the former PA security chief, this week sharply criticised the authority for surrendering control of Jenin to the gunmen.

Zubeidi flashes up on his cellphone screen a photograph of his six-month-old son.

Doesn't he fear a fatherless future for the boy? "Without a state my son has no future."

How does his wife, who has to move from house to house as he does, cope with his life? "She knew what I did when we were married. Everybody here expects to be killed. If someone noticed us here, you could be killed with us."

And no, he will never surrender if the Israelis try to arrest him.

"I'd like to have a settled life but I went too far. I can't go back. It's irreversible for me."