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Gilboa, one month on: how Palestinian Great Escape ‘leader’ Zakaria Zubeidi continues to inspire hope

Bethany Rielly speaks to Jenin Freedom Theatre’s artistic director AHMED TOBASI about his friend Zubeidi’s ongoing legacy as a symbol of Palestinian liberation and cultural resistance

THERE are few people who have lived and lost as much as Zakaria Zubeidi, one of the six Palestinian prisoners whose daring escape from a maximum-security Israeli jail hit headlines across the globe last month. 

Breaking out of Gilboa prison with nothing but their wits and a simple spoon, the prisoners’ escape made a mockery of Israeli security, empowering millions of Palestinians.

Considered the leader of the operation, Zubeidi has since become a symbol of hope for the Palestinian people and their unwavering bid for freedom. 

Now held in solitary confinement in the Israeli prison of Eshel after his violent recapture, Zubeidi’s name and the hope he inspires live on. 

But his hero-like status among Palestinians can be attributed to more than the escape.

In fact the jail-break is only the latest event in the 46-year-old’s remarkable and tragic path through life.

First appearing on the scene as a child actor, Zubeidi went on to become a militant leader and Israel’s most wanted, before co-founding a West Bank theatre to give the next generations an alternative path. 

 

Violence and art 

 

Born in Jenin refugee camp, Zubeidi’s childhood was permeated by the everyday violence of Israel’s brutal occupation.

At 13 he was shot in the leg for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers and at 14 he was imprisoned for the first time.

It’s said he first picked up a gun after his mother was killed by occupation forces in 2002, followed swiftly by his brother and the demolition of his family home.

During the Second Intifada, or uprising, of 2000 to 2005, Zubeidi rose through the ranks to become leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Fatah political party in Jenin, and led fighters in the Battle of Jenin.   

For years, Zubeidi was Israel’s most wanted and he continues to be viewed as a dangerous terrorist responsible for carrying out attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians and deserving of a life behind bars. 

But for many young Palestinians, who grew up knowing nothing but Israel’s brutal occupation, going down the path of armed struggle is not often viewed as a choice, as Zubeidi’s friend Ahmed Tobasi explains. 

“I don’t know what the international community or the West is expecting of a child growing up in Jenin camp or in Palestine,” he tells me.

“Born there with [the] army invading each night, destroying your house, killing your brother, arresting your neighbour, you go to prison... I tell people around the world, if you were in my shoes, if you [were] born in Jenin camp what would you do differently? 

“They only leave four choices for you as a Palestinian — a refugee in the camp, a martyr, a prisoner or handicapped.”

But while the violence of Zubeidi’s younger years likely pushed him onto the path of armed struggle, the seeds of another kind of resistance were also sown during his childhood.

In the late 1980s, Israeli peace activist Arna Mer-Khamis set up a community theatre in Jenin refugee camp as an act of cultural resistance against the Israeli occupation and an outlet for the children to address their trauma and anger on stage.

Zubeidi was one of the project’s child stars and featured in the award-winning 2004 documentary about the theatre, Arna’s Children, created by Mer-Khamis’s son Juliano, who also taught at the centre.  

The Stone Theatre, initially set up on the top floor of Zubeidi’s own home, was destroyed in the fighting in 2002. But the project meant so much to him that in 2007 he helped set up another community theatre in its place — the Freedom Theatre. 

 

‘The third intifada will be one of culture’

 

“Zubeidi believes in culture and that is why he started the theatre,” Tobasi, the artistic director of the Freedom Theatre, which still stands proudly to this day, tells me. 

Over the years Zubeidi has swung between the promotion of peaceful resistance against the Israeli occupation and armed struggle — or a mixture of both. 

His path to armed struggle is depicted in Juliano’s film, showing the gradual transformation of the smiling 10-year-old theatre kids into determined fighters in the crucible of the bloody Second Intifada, which left Jenin camp in ruins and dozens of Zubeidi’s friends and fellow fighters dead. Of the five core subjects of the film, only Zubeidi survives. 

But shaped by his early experiences at the Stone Theatre, he revisited the belief in the power of culture as a form of resistance, especially against a much more powerful and well-armed foe.

“He believes the third intifada should be a cultural one — dance, theatre, poetry everything… drawing!” Tobasi says.

“These languages can reach all over the world, people will understand you for a long time. Now we have been under occupation for 80 years, the Israeli propaganda for the international community puts a different picture of what is going on.”

Emerging battle-scarred from the Second Intifada, living in hiding and dodging assassination attempts (Israeli spies made at least four attempts on his life), Zubeidi also wanted to give the youth of Jenin camp a different path in life from his own.

“Zakaria didn’t want to be a fighter,” Tobasi explains. “He doesn’t want the gun all the time. He believes that his generation get f****d, his generation have no possibility to be something different.

“But he opened the theatre in a way that can provide a chance for the new generation to be something different, something else and that is the most important point for Zakaria — why if you meet him he will not talk to you about the killing, the shooting the guns, he will talk about Palestine, culture, art, reading…”

Without Zubeidi’s support, Freedom Theatre would not exist, Tobasi says resolutely, explaining how the ex-militant leader helped his former teacher Juliano to set up the project in the wake of the Second Intifada.

“Now we exist in a strong way because people see what we are doing, we are spreading the Palestinian voice all over the world.”

Appointed artistic director of the theatre in 2020, Tobasi now builds on the legacy of its co-founder Juliano, who was killed in 2011 in circumstances that remain unsolved. 

Ahmed Tobasi, the artistic director of the Freedom Theatre
Ahmed Tobasi, the artistic director of the Freedom Theatre

‘We are choosing theatre to resist the occupation’

 

While Tobasi stresses that “as Palestinians [we] have [the] right to resist in any way we can,” (the right of peoples to resist military occupation with armed struggle is recognised in international law), he says his personal belief is that “we can resist without guns, without killing.

“The Israelis for sure, they will find the reason to use any violence they want,” he says.

“We can resist in ways that embarrass the occupation in the way we react and for sure that is education, art, culture. For us we are choosing theatre to fight and resist the occupation.”

Having himself turned from armed struggle in his youth to cultural resistance, Tobasi elaborates that “now doing theatre — I tell my story, at the end they clap me. Art, culture, theatre brings you to a different stage, people can listen to you, people can recognise you, you can tell them what you want so it’s language that we are working on here at Freedom Theatre for everyone to get a chance to taste the freedom of the stage and to learn how to tell your story for the world.” 

The power of culture as a tool of resistance is evidenced by Farah Naulsi’s 2020 Bafta award-winning film The Present, depicting a day in the life of a Palestinian father and his daughter while trying to pass Israel’s notorious Checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem.

Also nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, the powerful short film shines a spotlight on Israel’s degrading and violent treatment of Palestinians, bringing the issue to the world stage and counteracting the Israeli narrative. 

Tobasi explains that this is what Jenin’s Freedom Theatre aims to do, as well as challenging issues within Palestinian society such as sexism and racism. 

 

He tried to live a normal life 

 

Around the time Zubeidi was helping to restart the theatre project, he was granted an amnesty brokered by the Palestinian Authority and Israel for militants of the Second Intifada in exchange for giving up arms.

But his pardon was revoked in 2011, resulting in him being jailed by the Palestinian Authority. Zubeidi was set free some months later after a widely publicised hunger strike. 

Over the next decade, Zubeidi tried to lead a quieter life. Moving from his beloved Jenin to Ramallah, he enrolled on a master’s course in political science and sociology and worked as director of the Palestine Ministry of Prison Affairs. 

During this time Tobasi noticed a marked difference in his friend. Recalling Zubeidi’s visits to Jenin he says: “He would come back each weekend and talk about academic perspectives.”

When Zubeidi was wanted by the Israeli government, he was too preoccupied with his security and rarely spoke, Tobasi explains.

“He wasn’t very academic, he didn’t get a good education and suddenly he’s studying for a MA. So his whole presence is totally different from a wanted guy hiding.

“Now he’s open, knowing everything, he can give his opinion on anything. You feel the happiness of this guy. You see his character — it’s unique.” 

But to the Israeli authorities, Zubeidi never stopped being a wanted man, and in 2019 he was rearrested over accusations of attacks on settler buses and charges dating back to the Second Intifada.

He was imprisoned at Gilboa prison, a maximum-security jail in the north of Israel, where he had yet to stand trial two-and-a-half years later. 

“He tried hard to be normal. He tried his best to be with his family, to be with his children, to study in the university, to live life but the occupation... The choice is not with Zubeidi. He cannot choose, we cannot choose, the occupation decides what changes will come to you whether you want or not.”

 

‘He became a story’

 

The jail break on September 6 was met with euphoria across Palestinian society. In the following days, sweets were handed out in the streets, schoolchildren drew celebratory pictures of stick men clambering out of a tunnel towards freedom and entire villages went on strike in solidarity with the prisoners.

Explaining the reaction, Tobasi says, “With all the crises and Arabs running to the Israelis [normalisation of diplomatic relations], we were depressed and really sad about what was going on around us. 

“But in the end from Palestine, in Palestine, a Palestinian prisoner brought back the hope after 80 years... And said we can make change, we don’t need help from anyone.

“Zubeidi and the other prisoners brought the hope that whatever is the security, whatever the Israeli army [is] doing, whatever this occupation does, still a small thing can make a difference. It made something that we needed as the Palestinian people.” 

The escape also brought the plight of Palestine to the world stage, especially its prisoners, he adds.

About 4,650 Palestinians are in Israeli prisons accused of security offences.

The youngest of the six escapees, Monadel Yacoub Nafe’at, 26, had been in jail for two years without charge.

“All the social media were talking about the prisoners of Palestine. After the Covid crisis Palestinians’ case disappeared, [but] thanks to Zubeidi... We came back to the scene to say: ‘We are still here as Palestinians, we still facing this occupation, there are thousands of people in prisons’.”

While all six prisoners were recaptured within two weeks of their escape, the hope they inspired lives on.

“Now he is an icon for the young people in Palestine, he became a story. So there is a lot of hope now.”

Israeli authorities are trying hard to stamp out that hope, severely punishing the six prisoners as well as collectively punishing other Palestinian inmates. But they are unlikely to succeed. 

Reports claim Zubeidi is now on hunger strike in protest at being held in solitary confinement and his treatment in prison. As Tobasi says: “he is not a mind that easily gives in,” making me think perhaps we have still not heard the last of Zakaria Zubeidi. 

Bethany Rielly is a news reporter and feature writer for the Morning Star — follow @b_rielly.

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