Palestinian militant sits, watches

The Baltimore Sun

JENIN, West Bank -- When an Israeli army officer inadvertently drove alone into this West Bank city on Monday, an angry Palestinian mob torched his car and threatened to lynch him.

Noticeably absent from the melee was Jenin's celebrated militant and one of Israel's most wanted men, Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

Zubeidi chose to sit out the riot, idly passing his time in a plastic chair under the eyes of the Palestinian security officials in Jenin, as Palestinian police scrambled to rescue the Israeli officer and escort him safely to Israeli army officials.

But the 32-year-old gunman, who has made a career battling Israelis, had no doubts about what he would have done to the lost Israeli soldier if he had been present.

"I would have killed him," Zubeidi says matter-of-factly.

Palestinian officials' peaceful resolution of the incident won praise from Israeli officials, who have been working to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his new government after the violent takeover of the Gaza Strip by the Islamic militant group Hamas.

"Such action demonstrates the strengthening of the Palestinian government in its efforts in the field to combat terrorism," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said.

A key element of those efforts is Israel's decision to grant amnesty to Zubeidi and 177 other gunmen in the West Bank linked to Abbas' party, Fatah, in return for their promise to disarm and cease all militant activity.

The Palestinians have had mixed results convincing the fugitives to come out of hiding and lay down their weapons. Observers of a gun buyback in Nablus this month claimed that after the militiamen surrendered their weapons in front of television cameras, some returned after the event to pick up their guns and go home. According to other Israeli media reports, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade announced that the cease-fire with Israel was over.

Still, Israeli officials say the successful rescue of the Israeli officer in Jenin indicated that Palestinian-Israeli cooperation is improving and that more amnesty offers may soon follow.

"We understand that Rome was not built in a day. We are not looking for perfection, but we are looking for performance," said Mark Regev, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.

The events in Jenin came ahead of yesterday's meeting between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem, where they tried to tackle the most sensitive issues dividing them - borders, refugees and Jerusalem - before a U.S.-sponsored international peace meeting in November. More meetings are expected.

Zubeidi questioned Israel's commitment to a peace deal, but he is supporting Abbas's decision for now and is willing to give civilian life a try.

"I am committed to stop militant activities," he said more than once.

That decision not come easily to Zubeidi, a slender father of two whose body bears the marks of his profession. He can point to the bullet wounds on his body from several Israeli assassination attempts and his face is splotched with scores of black scars, wounds he suffered while mishandling a bomb several years ago.

Zubeidi's life has often mirrored the hopes and tremendous disappointments that have come to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Zubeidi was an actor in a theater project in Jenin encouraging coexistence and understanding that sought Israeli-Palestinian understanding. But swept up in the Palestinian demand for an end to the Israeli occupation, he turned to throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, landing himself in prison.

After the Oslo Accords in 1993, he was released and went to school and worked. Then in 2001, during the second Palestinian uprising, he joined the growing ranks of Palestinian militants.

"When I saw how the Palestinians got killed I changed and I started my militant activity," says Zubeidi, whose mother was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin. "Israel didn't give Palestinians their rights. We were patient for eight years and we didn't achieve anything."

Zubeidi's willingness to give up armed resistance against Israel came this summer when gunmen from Hamas and Fatah battled one another in Gaza, pitting Palestinian against Palestinian.

"The resistance needs the support from the people, but after what happened in Gaza we didn't deserve to lead the resistance," he says, "We didn't achieve anything."

So Zubeidi helped convince his fellow gunmen to give negotiations a chance. He and 48 other members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade are being housed in the Jenin security compound. Twenty-five of them are officially on the amnesty list released in July and the others are gunmen seeking amnesty from Israel.

Under the agreement with Israel, the gunmen must disarm, sign a pledge not to carry out militant activities and stay in the security compound for three months.

Many of the militants could be found lying on cots in the unlocked jail watching television.

"We check three times a day - morning, midday and midnight - to see that they are all here," said the Palestinian commander of the Preventive Security Service in Jenin, Lt. Col. Suleiman Amran.

Forcing the militants to stay inside the security compound is not popular among many people in Jenin, where the gunmen are regarded as heroes, Amran says.

"But they know it is in the Palestinians' interest to keep these people inside," he said.

Not that the militants are under lock and key. Zubeidi leaves the compound to grab lunch and to attend classes at the Al Quds University branch in Jenin, where he is pursuing a degree in social work.

Nor have all the militants agreed to disarm. Zubeidi walks about town with a revolver, still afraid that Israeli forces may try to kill him."It's for my own protection. It's like my mobile," he says, holding up his constantly ringing cell phone. "I'm always worried that Israel will attack and they may try to kill me again."

His pessimism is understandable. This is the fourth time he has seen a cease-fire brokered with Israel, and each time the peace has been shattered in a matter of days or months, with each side blaming the other for breaking the truce.

Perhaps this time will be different, but he doesn't think so. "There aren't enough reasons yet for me to give up my gun," Zubeidi says.

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