For nearly two decades, Zakaria Zubeidi has been an object of fascination for Israelis and Palestinians alike, who have seen his progression from child actor to swaggering terrorist to the scarred face of a West Bank theater promoting “cultural resistance” and then back to terrorist once again.
In his latest act, he has emerged as one of Israel’s most wanted fugitives after tunneling out of a high-security prison in the early hours of Monday, together with five other highly dangerous Palestinian security prisoners.
Zubeidi, now in his mid-40s, comes from a generation of Palestinians who were children during the First Intifada, or uprising against Israel, which erupted in 1987.
He was prominent among those who took up terrorism in the far more violent Second Intifada that erupted in 2000, which saw a strategic onslaught of suicide bombings and other murderous attacks on Israelis, and which claimed the lives of Zubeidi’s mother, brother and several comrades among the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who died in the fighting.
To most Israelis, he is a notorious terrorist, responsible for suicide bombings and shootings that killed civilians. “In many ways, he’s the poster kid for Israelis of the Palestinian terror campaign of the Second Intifada,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired general who served in Israeli military intelligence during the uprising. “He’s a Forrest Gump, sort of. He played all the roles.”
Among Palestinians, Zubeidi was just one of several prominent militants of that era, his name having long ago faded from the headlines. Now, he and the other escapees are being hailed as national heroes by some for staging the biggest breakout from an Israeli prison in decades, helped by a litany of Israeli blunders.
Al-Aqsa terror chief
Zubeidi rose to prominence during the Second Intifada as the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terrorist offshoot of the secular Fatah party, in the impoverished Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank.
The camp, which is home to Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war and their descendants, was a central arena in the training and dispatch of suicide bombers to targets all over Israel, and the scene of a major battle with the IDF in 2002, as Israel sought to dismantle what it termed the “infrastructure of terrorism” there. A mishandled explosive left a peppering of black scars on Zubeidi’s face, and he spent years eluding Israeli authorities.
A far younger Zubeidi appears in the archival footage of “Arna’s Children,” a 2004 documentary about a children’s theater founded in the Jenin refugee camp in the late 1980s by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli Jewish activist who married a Palestinian and supported the Palestinian cause.
The film, made by her son Juliano, follows boys from the Jenin refugee camp who joined the theater as children, only to be drawn into the vortex of the Second Intifada as young men.
Of the five core members of the group, only Zubeidi survived. Juliano was gunned down in Jenin in 2011 by masked men under mysterious circumstances. “His bringing together of young men and women angered conservative Muslim elements in Jenin,” the Guardian reported at the time.
In a 2006 interview with the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times, Zubeidi traced his militancy back to the death of his mother, Samira, who was killed by an Israeli sniper in 2002.
His brother, Taha, was killed shortly thereafter, as were friends and fellow fighters during clashes with Israel Defense Forces soldiers that had entered the city in force. The operation was a response to a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel, as many of the bombers had emerged from Jenin.
The theater Mer-Khamis started, which initially met on the roof of Zubeidi’s family home, was demolished that year.
Another Israeli woman, Tali Fahima, also had an unlikely cameo in the drama. The pro-Palestinian activist struck up a friendship with Zubeidi during the intifada and met with him in Jenin. Israel arrested her in 2004 and she spent three years in prison for aiding a terrorist organization.
Israeli media speculated the two were lovers — something they both denied. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 10 in 2008, Fahima accused Zubeidi of collaborating with Israel’s Shin Bet security service after he secured permission to travel from Jenin to the West Bank city of Ramallah for eye surgery.
The intifada had begun to wind down in 2004-2005, after Israel retook control of major West Bank Palestinian cities, and after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died and was succeeded by the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who says that he is committed to resolving the decades-long conflict through negotiations with Israel.
He seeks to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — territories Israel gained in the 1967 Six-Day War. (Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2005, and two years later, the Hamas terror group seized control of the coastal enclave from the Fatah-dominated PA. Hamas remains the de facto ruler of Gaza.)
Signed up for Israeli amnesty
Yizhar David, a former senior officer in the Shin Bet, said on Thursday that Zubeidi was “one of the first” to sign up for a general amnesty for wanted Palestinians from Abbas’s Fatah party — but “he broke it” in 2006, “attempting to carry out an attack with an explosive device in the Ariel area” of the West Bank.
David said that he and other members of the Israeli security services then set out to “settle accounts with him,” over that and previous “terrorist activities” dating back years. In a Channel 12 interview, David said that Zubeidi “simply smelled that the forces were approaching” and vanished — including by crawling under cars and “through a crack in a wall.”
In 2007, he joined the Freedom Theater, which Juliano Mer-Khamis had founded the previous year to continue his late mother’s legacy. “We want to take the Palestinian cause to the people through theater,” Zubeidi told The Associated Press in 2008.
But he never surrendered his weapons to the Palestinian Authority, saying that he did not trust the amnesty agreement and feared for his life. In 2011, Israeli media reported that Israel had revoked Zubeidi’s pardon.
In 2012, the PA arrested him after a shooting outside the home of Jenin’s governor. Zubeidi was released months later after a widely publicized hunger strike.
He later worked on prisoner affairs for the same Palestinian Authority that had jailed him, and studied political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank. His relatives say that he gave up militant activities.
“As long as we are under occupation, no Palestinian will abandon the struggle against the occupation,” Zubeidi’s brother, Yehia, told The Associated Press. “But there are a lot of factors, like age, a decision to take a break.”
Israel arrested Zubeidi again in 2019. He was later charged with taking part in two shooting attacks against Israeli buses in the West Bank, in which no one was seriously wounded, and was said to have been planning a third. Allegations dating back to the Second Intifada were added to the charge sheet.
His brother said that Zubeidi did not acknowledge the charges and was awaiting trial.
Zubeidi was being held at Gilboa prison, a maximum-security facility in northern Israel just a few miles away from Jenin. Early on Monday, he escaped from a cell with five members of the Islamic Jihad terror group, also from Jenin, four of whom were serving life sentences on terrorism convictions.
Each of them squeezed into a narrow hole they had dug through the floor of their cell and escaped through a tunnel running beneath the prison walls.
It’s unclear what role Zubeidi played in the escape, but he is the most famous of the six — and is once again among Israel’s most wanted.
Kuperwasser suspects that if he remains at large long enough he’ll return to his old ways — and not just the terrorism. “It’s dangerous for him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he would look for an opportunity to speak with somebody to gain some more political clout from his success in escaping prison.”
Yizhar David said that Zubeidi evaded another attempt to target him, by the IDF’s elite Egoz unit, “by hiding out for days in a chicken coop.”
“If people think he’ll be recaptured quickly, this is Zubeidi. He’s evaded IDF forces many times. He’s been wanted since he was 13… He knows how to get away.”
David added that he thought it was unlikely Zubeidi was planning further attacks right now, “For now, he’s concerned with survival.”