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Freedom Theater's Zakaria Zubeidi on life-threatening ‘death fast’ in PA prison

Zubeidi, a former fighter who famously laid down his arms in a 2007 amnesty agreement, has been detained by the Palestinian Authority since May. A hunger strike to protest his detention without charge is threatening his life.

By Jenny Nyman

Zakaria Zubeidi (center) outside the Freedom Theater in Jenin (photo: Jenny Nyman)

Heard of Zakaria Zubeidi? Most people around here have, but perhaps not in the past four months. This is because Zakaria has spent this time detained by the Palestinian Authority in Jericho Prison with no charges pressed, no evidence presented against him in court, and surrounded by nothing but a deafening silence.

Zakaria was arrested on May 13, as part of a crackdown by the Palestinian Authority in response to the death of Jenin governor Kadura Musa. Some 120-150 Palestinians were arrested after the attack on the governor’s house, which eventually led to the latter’s death from a heart attack. The majority of those arrested have since been released. However, apart from a four-day release for Eid al-Fitr, Zakaria’s detention has been extended time after time.

Complaints of torture and ill-treatment include having his hands tied behind his back and being pushed down a flight of stairs, being forced to drink water from a toilet, repeatedly having his arms tied together and raised in a painful elevated position for two days at a time, and being tied to an iron door outside in the heat of the day.

On Sunday last week, Zakaria initiated a “death fast,” refusing all food and drink in protest of his detention by the Palestinian Authority. On Thursday evening, after almost five days of fasting, he agreed to take some fluids ahead of an upcoming court hearing that was held yesterday (Monday), September 17. As the judge announced his decision to extend the detention for an additional 19 days, Zakaria raised his hand.

Visibly weakened by his hunger and liquid strike, supporting himself on the railings that separated him from the courtroom and speaking in an uncharacteristically frail voice, Zakaria declared he would be resuming his death fast: “From this moment I will not eat, drink, or speak.” Taking off his shirt, he said, “I’ve been a freedom fighter all my life. Can you see the wounds from the bullets that I took fighting for freedom against the Israeli occupation? I will not let you now be the ones to take my freedom away from me. You will see me again at my funeral in four days.” He was referring to a doctor’s opinion he received earlier that morning that he would not last more than another three days on a complete hunger and liquid strike.

This is an extreme move by an extreme man. A symbol of the Palestinian resistance during the Second Intifada, Zakaria in recent years gained increasing recognition internationally for his decision to sign an amnesty agreement with Israel in 2007, and to support The Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in its efforts to create a movement of cultural resistance in the northern part of the occupied West Bank. But something seems to have gone terribly wrong.

Zakaria’s deadly predicament is clearly nothing but a complete disgrace for the Palestinian Authority, and one has to ask what anyone really has to gain from this situation. Of course, nobody expected that the shadow of Zakaria’s past would ever stop haunting him, but surely to have survived as one of the leading Palestinian fighters during the Second Intifada, only to commit suicide in a Palestinian prison a few years later can be nothing but bad news. For myself, and I believe many others, Zakaria’s death would strike a deadly blow to the Palestinian cause.

Jenny Nyman is the widow of late Israeli-Palestinian actor and director Juliano Mer-Khamis, who was gunned down outside The Freedom Theatre in Jenin in April 2011. 

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    1. Kolumn9

      What is it about Zubeidi that entitles him to our concern in the first place? He is an admitted terrorist dirtbag who chose to lay down his weapons because the alternative was death. Perhaps his value is as a symbol? He is a symbol of what exactly? The wave of suicide bombings that murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians? The decimation of the Palestinian economy? What good came out of it? So, even as a symbol he is a disgrace. Let him rot in prison. Literally.

      Reply to Comment
      • Militants accept that there is a risk of dying when they take up arms, so it’s very unlikely that Zubeidi agreed to amnesty purely because of that risk. The fact is that he did agree to it and he hasn’t breached it. He’s in prison without being charged with anything specific. The lack of trial and the degrading treatment is wrong even with his history.

        Every year thousands of young Israelis go to the army. They’re all implicated in occupation. Later some of them become activists. If people are never to be allowed to change their minds or to be given the benefit of the doubt over why they changed, there can be no justice or peace here. Palestinians would have to reject every last member of Combatants for Peace and Shovrim Shtika on the basis of what those people had been before. Peace demands an understanding that people can change and a willingness to at least let them try.

        But such change can’t be taken for granted. Zubeidi’s involvement in militancy began after the death of a friend, and was cemented by the killing of his mother (although being shot by the IDF at the age of thirteen and getting jailed for six months for throwing stones at the army probably helped). The Zubeidi apartment had been used for joint Palestinian-Israeli theatre workshops, and Zubeidi waited for the Israelis who had participated to contact him over his mother’s murder. None did. I will never forget reading his words to them in a Times interview he gave towards the Intifada’s end: “We gave you everything and what did we get in return? A bullet in my mother’s chest. We opened our home and you demolished it. Every week, twenty or thirty Israelis would come to do theatre there. We fed them. And afterward, not one of them picked up the phone. That is when we saw the real face of the left in Israel.” This is why I struggle with people who condemn Zubeidi’s own turn to militancy – the casual assumption that total non-violence is just something that he owed, no matter what happened to him and his family. A standard that they don’t apply to themselves. How many people who condemn Zubeidi oppose the occupation that killed his mother and the conscription that enables it? I don’t think you do. You expect from Zubeidi a respect for life that you don’t always seem to have yourself.

        His decision to get involved with Mer-Khamis’s project is a testimony to the power and scope of creative arts as resistance. That theatre is doing something wonderful for kids in Jenin, which is the main good thing about it for me, but it also has proven ability to interest people with blood on their hands and allow them to conceive of and fight for freedom and justice in another way. This is reason enough for Zubeidi to be important, aside from the obvious fact that torture and imprisonment without trial shouldn’t be used on anyone.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Militants that realize they lost a war have no desire to die for no reason. He has explicitly stated that he accepted amnesty because he got tired of always being afraid of getting shot and because he realized that the second intifada accomplished nothing so it was all pointless.

          So, his value is some kind of redemption story? Hallelujah, amen! His evil deeds have been washed away through the baptism of his adoption by pro-Palestinian organizations and media. Or is it that his glorious theatrical output has compensated for his terrorism? How many plays cancel out the murder of an Israeli civilian? one? ten? a hundred? Nope, doesn’t work for me. He was the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin that dispatched suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians. He got amnesty because it was more expeditious to do so than to hunt him down. It doesn’t change what he has done and it doesn’t turn him into some kind of hero. It most certainly doesn’t entitle him to any sympathy from me, nor I would argue, from anyone else. There is no treatment degrading enough for his history. As far as I am concerned I hope he has an extremely painful and slow death.

          Reply to Comment
    2. todd

      Israel should let these guys go all the way and die. It would improve the human condition.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      They have no case against him, but the two comments we have show that some are not disturbed by the idea of someone being locked away for four months without an explanation as to why. Of course they aren’t. Israel does it all the time so why shouldn’t the PA?

      But it shows how representative the PA must be of those it claims to speak for.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        This isn’t ‘someone’. This is the former head of a terrorist organization that dispatched suicide bombers into Israeli cities. Why should I be disturbed in the slightest that this man suffers?

        Reply to Comment
    4. “If people are never to be allowed to change their minds or to be given the benefit of the doubt over why they changed, there can be no justice or peace here.”–Vicky, above, is right. The man may have given up armed struggle, but he did not give up struggle. Nor would very many Israelis. To lose this man of struggle will be a great error for the PA.

      I’m surpirsed K9 didn’t say the PA acts just like the IDF in detention, for he would be right. There may well be less chance for the rule of law in the PA than in the IDF, and certainly less in the latter than in Israel proper. Which is why I advocate rights jurispurdence for Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      I have yet to see a coherent explanation for Zubeidi’s detention. Someone is behind this.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Zubeidi is probably one of dozens arrested. It is a preemptive measure by the PA to remove potential popular leaders from leading and organizing the population against them, especially now that there is some hint of instability. He will probably be released when the protests die down.

        Reply to Comment
        • Sounds right to me, K9. And what will his death do for future protests? Arafat failed partly because patronage is incompatible with a free economy. If you jail political alternatives ultimately all you have are violent alternatives. You have to know when to lose and how to lose. The PA hasn’t shown much insight in this. Nor Israel.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            I couldn’t care less what his death does for future protests, nor do I think it would do much. Zubeidi has more of a following in the West than in the West Bank.

            Losing is one of those things that is best avoided entirely.

            Reply to Comment
          • If you fail to lose you would make all into you. And on that path lies atrocity. Small, big, atrocities. In some things the suicide bomber holds no monopoly.

            The world evolves; children are not always as their parents. Enemies give birth to things unexpected to all. There, I believe, is the promise called humanity.

            Reply to Comment
    6. RichardL

      Kolumn9. Why is it exclusively Israeli deaths and injuries that concern you? Do you never consider the other part of the equation?

      Reply to Comment