Israel's enemy within: Palestinian militants gird for battle

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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.”

I asked Zubeidi if he and Jenin’s other militants were making specific preparations for war with the settlers. The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, has more or less disarmed the militias that fought Israel in the second Intifada, so Zubeidi and his comrades may find it harder to obtain weapons if a new conflict in the West Bank erupts.

“Of course we are preparing,” he said. “It will be dependent on individuals — to bomb themselves [as suicide bombers]. And some small guns. If the guns are not available and explosives are not available we have experience using stones,” he added, referring to the legendary clashes of the first and second intifadas between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and the heavily armed Israeli Defense Forces.

He pointed out that it was mainly with the tireless throwing of stones in the first intifada that Israel agreed to the establishment of the first autonomous Palestinian areas and the government of the Palestinian Authority. But he also recalled that the guns used in the second intifada were not immediately available to the Palestinian fighters. Things could change quickly if a full-scale war with the settlers erupts.

“I don’t fight in the shadows,” Zubeidi said. “I am in the right. They are taking my freedom. They are oppressing me. They are taking our land. Why should I fight in the shadows? We, the Palestinian people, are fighting for our freedom.”

On the evening of Jan. 19, exactly two weeks after Zubeidi predicted a renewed war between Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank, a 34-year-old settler named Moshe Avitan was driving with his wife Sarah from their home in the settlement of Shvut Rachel — by chance, the same community that is home to American-born Jack Teitel, who was recently charged with 14 acts of terrorism, including murder — to a meeting in another settlement named Kochav Hashahar. It was dark on the West Bank roads, which are shared by both Palestinian and Israeli vehicles (although the Israeli government and military can keep Palestinian cars off the roads at a moment’s notice).

At four minutes to nine, Sarah’s mother called her on her cellphone. At that moment the car behind them accelerated and veered around them on the road.

“A few minutes before we arrived a car overtook us and started shooting at us,” Sarah told me a few days later. We were sitting in a waiting area in Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital, just outside Jerusalem.

“I’ve been shot, I’ve been hurt,” Moshe cried out.

Even though he couldn’t see and blood was pouring out of his nose and out of a bullet hole in his cheekbone just below his left eye he managed to stop the car on the deserted road. The attackers drove on.

“Moshe’s been shot,” Sarah shouted into the phone to her mother.

Sarah jumped out of the car and ran round to Moshe’s side and asked him if he could lift himself over the gear shift and the handbrake into the passenger side. Still conscious, he dragged himself across the front seat. There was blood everywhere, “streaming out of his nose.” Sarah got into the driver’s seat and managed to dial emergency and put the paramedic on speakerphone. She began to drive the short distance toward Kochav Hashahar.

“Is he conscious?” the paramedic asked.

“I am, I’m conscious. I can’t see,” Moshe replied.

“Press a cloth to the wound and see if he has any more,” the paramedic told Sarah.

When she arrived at Kochav Hashahar Sarah was able to check Moshe’s body and found no other bullet holes. As instructed by the paramedic, she turned her husband’s head sideways. She took off one of the two shirts she was wearing and used it to staunch the bleeding until the ambulance arrived.

As we spoke, family members kept arriving at the hospital, thanking Sarah for saving Moshe’s life. “He kept me alive because he got the shot,” she said.

The couple have five children, all girls. They have been married for 14 years and have lived in Shvut Rachel all that time. She was born in England and teaches English in a junior high school in the settlement of Ariel. He is a building contractor. Shvut Rachel is itself named after a settler, Rachela Druk, who was shot dead on a road in the West Bank in 1991. The community was established on the night of Druk’s funeral.

Moshe will live. His brain was not damaged by the bullet. He was in the oral and maxillofacial surgery unit when I visited and he still could not see.

Sarah and Moshe know they live in a dangerous place, but she pointed out that all of Israel can be dangerous, especially as Hamas’s rockets gain greater reach inside the country. There was not a trace of regret in her words about their decision to live in the West Bank.

“The settlers are getting more radical and more extreme because the Arabs are getting more radical and extreme,” she said. “There’s no two ways about it. It’s a vicious circle. They don’t want us. But it’s our land. We have no choice — we have to fight for it.”

The shooting of Moshe Avitan was barely noticed in a country that was coming out of its war with Hamas in Gaza and elections, which were approaching in February and which would bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of the settlement movement, back into power. But the fault lines of violence between the Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank could already be seen on the inside pages of Israeli newspapers — small stories no one paid much heed to.

On Jan. 13, as Israeli troops were battling Hamas in the streets of Gaza, Israeli media reported that a settler had shot dead a 16-year-old Palestinian boy who had been throwing stones at the settler’s car. (The boy turned out to have died from some kind of trauma to the head. The settler was not charged and the family, whom I visited as they mourned their son, was furious and still blamed the settler).

On Jan. 16, there were protests in various parts of the West Bank over the ongoing war in Gaza. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured and a 17-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead.

The shooting of Avitan, on Jan. 19, may have been in revenge for these incidents and the war in Gaza. A previously unknown group calling itself Al-Basha’er Army told a Palestinian news agency that it was responsible for the shooting.

Each of the previous two intifadas were sparked by incidents that did not seem especially portentous at the time but unleashed years of bloodshed. In 1987, a traffic accident that killed four Palestinians led to seven years of violent clashes that came to be known as the intifada. On Sept. 28, 2000, I got up early one morning to cover then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, a massively contested holy site in Jerusalem, which the Palestinians call Al Haram al Sharif. Sharon’s visit was a provocative event in the eyes of Palestinians, to be sure, but not an act that many people believed would cause a renewed war between Israel and the Palestinians far more bloody than the first intifada.

What both intifadas had in common was the long build-up of an unbearable tension between the Palestinians and Israel. The sparks could have come from anywhere. As they could again now.

Read the rest of "Israel's enemy within":

Part 1: A rising militancy from the Jewish settlements

Part 2: A community on the edge

Part 4: The "Hilltop Youth"

GlobalPost correspondent Matt McAllester has reported on Israel/Palestine since the late 1990s, when he was Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, and more recently as a contributing editor for Details magazine. The field reporting for this series was done over several weeks in the West Bank and Israel earlier this year.