Facing Failure: Avi Issacharoff interviews the former Head of the Al Aqsa Brigades

Avi Issacharoff has a fascinating interview with Zakariya Zubeidi about the failure of the Intifada. What Avi can’t do, and I can, is point out that these reflections come from someone who is bitter about the failure of the Intifada not because it was a mistake, but because it was incompetently carried out. Like the Palestinians bitter about the Naqbas of 1948 and 1967, they’re not ready to rethink fundamentally, just to bitch about Arab leadership’s incompetence and corruption. So while the interview is revealing to those of us in the West who want to know about what went on inside the Palestinian leadership during the “spontaneous” eruption of violence in response to Sharon’s visit to the Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount), it offers little in the way of openings for a real solution.

zakaria zubeidi
Former Al-Aqsa commander Zakariya Zubeidi

Last update – 10:47 04/04/2008
‘Marching toward total ruin’
By Avi Issacharoff

JENIN – “When you see Zakariya, maybe you’ll be surprised, but he looks like just any other Palestinian man now. Without armed men, without a weapon, just an ordinary guy,” related an acquaintance of Zakariya Zubeidi, until not long ago the commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades in Jenin.

This is a subtle way of saying, here’s a guy who used to walk with swagger, a weapons-bearer with wise guys who could intimidate anyone he wanted (i.e., fellow Palestinians).

Though Zubeidi is no longer hiding from the Israel Defense Forces, for a number of hours the people at the theater where he works tried to find him. Zubeidi didn’t answer his mobile phone even when the commander of the Palestinian security forces in Jenin, Suleiman Umran, called him. In the end, a woman who works at the theater explained that he usually sleeps late and maybe that’s what he was doing.

In the past, Zubeidi used to show up briefly at his house, in the Jenin refugee camp, together with his wanted colleagues, before disappearing for fear that Israelis would ambush him. The only reminder of those days are the framed pictures of the “martyrs” killed recently in the camp, and the huge poster of Saddam Hussein posted in one of the alleys leading to Zubeidi’s home. The door is opened by his son Mohammed, who immediately summons his father. He comes down in sandals and a black T-shirt, and promises that in a few minutes he will come to the theater offices. Zubeidi arrives in his officer’s “battle” jacket and mountaineering shoes, but without a weapon and without his erstwhile colleagues from the brigades.

What are you doing these days?

Zubeidi: “Nothing special. We’ve shut down the Al-Aqsa brigades and I haven’t yet received a full pardon from Israel. I’m at home a bit, at the theater a bit.”

Why haven’t you received a pardon?

“They lied to us, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The PA promised us that after we spent three months in PA facilities and if we didn’t get involved in actions, we would receive a pardon. The three months ended and nothing happened. We still need to sleep at the headquarters of the security organizations. They promised us jobs and they haven’t materialized either. Some of us are getting a salary of NIS 1,050 a month. What can you do with that? Buy Bamba for your children? They lied to everyone, they made a distinction between those who were really in the Al-Aqsa Brigades, whom they screwed, and groups that called themselves by that name, but in fact were working on behalf of the PA.”

I wonder what he expected in the way of “jobs.” On the payroll? Or something productive? In any case he clearly has a sense of entitlement — so what if I engaged in terrorist activity, they owe me.

So why have you stopped?

“In part because of the conflict between Fatah and Hamas. Look, it’s perfectly clear to me that we won’t be able to defeat Israel. My aim was for us, by means of the ‘resistance’ [code for terror attacks], to get a message out to the world. Back in Abu Amar’s day [the nom de guerre of Yasser Arafat], we had a plan, there was a strategy, and we would carry his orders.”

And what was this “message to the world”? That the Palestinian resistance would fight to the last man? That the Israelis are vicious, genocidal killers? That we poor, suffering Palestinians are brave and need the world to help us get our “legitimate rights?” It’s interesting that the terror attacks were seen primarily as a way of “getting the message to the world” rather than to the Israelis. And of course, initially, that worked. People were demonstrating in favor of these suicide terror attacks in European cities; models wore nothing but suicide bomb belts; Palestinians were the cause du jour. And accordingly Arafat was elated.

In effect, are you saying what Amos Gilad and intelligence always said, that Arafat planned everything?

“Right. Everything that was done in the intifada was done according to Arafat’s instructions, but he didn’t need to tell us the things explicitly. We understood his message.”

This remark is worth pondering on several levels.

First, the comment, “He didn’t need to tell us the things explicitly. We understood his message.” This suggests, like in the Pallywood footage, a widespread public “secret” about what was going on. Everyone with weapons understood this was war; Arafat didn’t have to spell anything out because, a) his guys knew what was going on, and b) it was a lot easier to lie to the West and claim it was spontaneous.

Second, if you go back and read the Mitchell Report, you’ll see how the authors tried to be even-handed, even though (as it turns out), the Israeli assessment was right on, and the Palestinian claims were openly dishonest.

    The GOI asserts that the immediate catalyst for the violence was the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations on July 25, 2000 and the “widespread appreciation in the international community of Palestinian responsibility for the impasse. In this view, Palestinian violence was planned by the PA leadership, and was aimed at “provoking and incurring Palestinian casualties as a means of regaining the diplomatic initiative.”[8]

    The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) denies the allegation that the intifada was planned. it claims, however, that “Camp David represented nothing less than an attempt by Israel to extend the force it exercises on the ground to negotiations,”[9] and that “the failure of the summit, and the attempts to allocate blame on the Palestinian side only added to the tension on the ground …[10]

    From the perspective of the PLO, Israel responded to the disturbances with excessive and illegal use of deadly force against demonstrators; behavior which, in the PLO’s view, reflected Israel’s contempt for the lives and safety of Palestinians. For Palestinians, the widely seen images of the killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al Durra in Gaza on September 30, shot as he huddled behind his father, reinforced that perception. From the perspective of the GOI, the demonstrations were organized and directed by the Palestinian leadership to create sympathy for their cause around the world by provoking Israeli security forces to fire upon demonstrators, especially young people.

In the years of the Intifada, reporters, like Mike Shuster at NPR, gave more than ample time to the Palestinian narrative, and “Zionist” objections, like this (now obviously accurate) CAMERA critique, remained at the margins of the MSM. Even now, if you consult any MSM site that presents the origins of the Intifada, you’re more likely to get the Palestinian version (Sharon, Israeli provocation) than the Israeli. The BBC, for example, scruples about the possibility of their losing their credibility if they don’t carefully measure their terms:

    The usual guidelines about paying due regard to the context in which words are used should be carefully considered if we are referring to the causes of the uprising. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. So, for example, it is preferable to say that “Sharon’s visit and Palestinian frustration at the failure of the peace process sparked the (second) intifada or uprising” rather than it “led” to it or “started” it.

In other words, even when they try and be fair, all they do is water down a Palestinian propaganda claim.

Issacharoff doesn’t follow this up with a question like, “So when the Palestinians claimed it was spontaneous and a response to Sharon’s provocation, that was just propaganda?” Instead he goes in another direction.

And today there is no leadership?

“Today I can say explicitly: We failed entirely in the intifada. We haven’t seen any benefit or positive result from it. We achieved nothing. It’s a crushing failure. We failed at the political level – we didn’t succeed in translating the military actions into political achievements. The current leadership does not want armed actions, and since the death of Abu Amar, there’s no one who is capable of using our actions to bring about such achievements. When Abu Amar died, the armed intifada died with him.”

Fascinating. Does this mean that, given another chance, he’d be against trying the Intifada? I doubt it. “We didn’t succeed in translating military actions into political achievements.” They had the perfect opportunity at Taba, where Barak offered even more (the famed 97%). But (as far as I can make out), that offer only whetted Arafat’s appetite: if the Israelis responded to the violence of the Intifada by offering more, that meant he was weak, and therefore, more violence would get more. What would Mr. Zubeidi consider acceptable “political achievements”? Anything short of “Palestine from the River to the Sea”?

And what’s with this nostalgia for Arafat, who never knew when to translate violence into political achievements? Whose corruption, especially where money was concerned, is legendary? By Zubeidi’s logic, the Intifada had died long before Arafat’s death.

What happened? Why did it die?

“Why? Because our politicians are whores. Our leadership is garbage. Look at Ruhi Fatouh, who was president of the PA for 60 days, as Yasser Arafat’s replacement. He smuggled mobile phones.

And that’s somehow worse than the billions Arafat stole?

Do you understand? We have been defeated. The political splits and schisms have destroyed us not only politically – they have destroyed our national identity. Today there is no Palestinian identity. Go up to anyone in the street and ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He’ll answer you, ‘I’m a Fatah activist,’ ‘I’m a Hamas activist,’ or an activist of some other organization, but he won’t say to you, ‘I am a Palestinian.’ Every organization flies its own flag, but no one is raising the flag of Palestine.”

I have to take this with a grain of salt. But again, it seems primarily like bitterness at not sticking together and sticking it to the Israelis, not a serious meditation on why Palestinians still don’t have a state.

Are you, who used to be a symbol of the intifada, saying, “We have been defeated, we have failed, the intifada is dead?”

“Even Gamal Abdel Nasser admitted his defeat, so why not me? Come on, I’ll tell you something. On Saturday there was a ceremony to mark the killing of one of our martyrs. They asked me to say a few words. What could I say? I can no longer promise that we will follow in the martyr’s footsteps, as is customary, because I would be lying. So then one of the heads of Fatah came over to me and said, ‘We are following in the footsteps of the martyrs, we are continuing the resistance.’ And I told him that he is a liar.

Note that when the Palestinian “resistance” had previously made such claims about suicide terrorists (i.e., martyrs) and the Israeli policy of “targeted killings” — kill one and a dozen will rise to take his place — the Western media tripped over itself to repeat the claim as if it were “fact.”

“I feel that they have abandoned us, the Al-Aqsa activists. They have left us behind and forgotten us. We are marching in the direction of nowhere, toward total ruin. The Palestinian people is finished. Done for. Hamas comes on the air on its television station and says ‘Fatah is a traitor.’ That is to say, 40 percent of the nation are traitors. And then Fatah does the same thing and you already have 80 percent traitors.”

This is classic karma for demonizers. Spend your life villifying your enemies, and when your own movement starts to split, you’ll villify each other.

Is that why you are at home?

“I got tired. When you lose, what can you do? We, the activists, paid the heavy price. We’ve had family members killed, friends. They demolished our homes and we have no way of earning a living. And what is the result? Zero. Simply zero. And when that’s the result, you don’t want to be a part of it any more. Lots of other people, as a result of the frustration, and because Fatah doesn’t have a military wing any more, have joined the Islamic Jihad. Those activists are still willing to pay the price.

Interestingly enough, the price is always in terms of being willing to sacrifice friends, family, self. Has anyone talked about being willing to pay the price of making peace, of giving up on the totalistic demands of Palestine, river to sea?

“And look at what the PA does to those who are keeping at it. If a PA person is killed in a battle with the Israelis, the stipend paid to his family will amount to NIS 250 a month, even though he had been earning about NIS 2,000. Why? So that he won’t even think about carrying out terror attacks. This is the only plan that the PA has these days: Israeli security. The security of the occupation before the security of [Palestinian] citizens.

And if the “resistance” were to stop, and you negotiated for the security of Palestinian civilians… what then? This man, like so many Palestinian “activists” and ex-“activists” lives in a permanent contradiction. He tells the Western press, “look at the poor Palestinian civilians. I care about them.” But then he can’t conceive of how his attitude in fact immiserates those same civilians.

“When an occupation jeep comes into a refugee camp, the PA doesn’t do anything, and if someone shoots at the jeep, they’ll go and arrest him immediately. Today the president of the Palestinian people is General Dayton [Keith Dayton, the U.S. security coordinator]. They’re all working for him, he is the boss. A PA no longer exists.”

Forecast: war

Zubeidi relates that for him, the theater is a refuge from the bleak political reality that the Palestinians are facing. “Here there’s no politics, no religion. I still feel free here.” From time to time he talks with Tali Fahima [the Israeli woman who spent time in prison for her contacts with Zubeidi], and Jewish friends come to visit him at the theater. As to the future of the region, Zubeidi’s forecast is very grim.

“Abu Mazen’s mistake,” he says, referring to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, “is that he is gambling everything on the negotiations. And what happens if the talks fail? What is his plan then? I’m telling you that if by the end of 2008 a Palestinian state isn’t established, there is going to be a war here. Not against Israel, or between Hamas and Fatah, but against the PA. The citizens are going to throw the PA out of here. Today the PA is doing what Dayton and Israel are telling it to do, but at the end of the year, when Israel doesn’t give the Palestinians a state, the PA is going to be thrown out. There’s going to be an all-out war here, for control of the West Bank.”

Interesting. Of course that war will be preliminary to the next insane war against Israel. There’s not an ounce of effort here, either by Zubeidi or Abbas, to think about how to make negotiations work. The incitement continues; the lack of a serious state-structure that takes care of its civilians continues; the generation of a terrorist “resistance” that brings the Israeli jeeps into the camps continues. Zubeidi goes from leading the “resistance” to sitting on the sidelines and predicting war… the very move he so bitterly regrets at the beginning of the interview.

Zubeidi is not the only one who’s feeling pessimistic about the future of the PA. Similar remarks can be heard everywhere in the West Bank these days. Senior American and Israeli officials who have spoken recently with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are saying that his despair is obvious. Some of Fayyad’s bitterness derives from Israel’s scornful attitude toward the PA. However, it appears that Fayyad is frustrated to the same extent by the endless conflict with Fatah people, who urge him to appoint cabinet ministers from their movement and at the same time are lying in wait for him to fail.

Some of the criticism of Fayyad’s government, which has no Fatah people, is justified. The Palestinian prime minister, his many successes notwithstanding, is by no means a miracle worker, nor can he by himself change the face of the reality. The group of cabinet ministers he has appointed are considered technocrats, for better or worse, and they are not succeeding in implementing a substantial change in the government sector.

The heads of the Tanzim, the senior Fatah people who were supposed to have become the organization’s leaders of the future, are also making little effort to conceal their despair. They watch as their movement marches toward annihilation: without real reforms, without substantive change, but with endless talk about elections in Fatah and a war on corruption. Even the heads of some of the security organizations are critical of the stuttering actions of the PA against Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank. And while Hamas indirectly conducts indirect negotiations with Israel on a cease-fire, the PA, as Zubeidi says, has “zero achievements” to show: limping negotiations, Israeli unwillingness to help, corruption and the absence of reforms. In the view of some Tanzim people, the PA is on a sure path to disintegration. Not in a swift and sharp way, but rather in a prolonged process, at the end of which it will disappear from the West Bank and will be replaced by the Israeli occupation and Hamas. Nearly the only scenario that could change the face of things is, of course, a political agreement or a framework agreement between the PA and Israel. But who can trust the Israelis?

When I first read this article, I thought that last line was from Zubeidi. Now I realize there’s no quotation marks. Is this a paraphrase of what many Palestinians say? Is this a bitterly sarcastic remark from an Israeli who realizes how the Palestinians have backed themselves into their corner, all the while ignoring — as they did at Camp David — the open door of actually dealing with the Israelis rather than, as Abbas does (and Arafat did), talking out of two sides of his mouth, and thus guaranteeing failure even as he makes it possible to blame that failure on the Israelis? Or is this an Israeli who doesn’t feel his own side is trustworthy? With Israelis, it’s impossible to know for sure.

For all those who want to believe that negotiations can work now, this interview offers the sober, reality-testing reader small comfort. An ex-terrorist who has given up his weapons, nonetheless can’t think his way out of a paper bag because he can’t for a fraction of a second empathize with the Israelis and wonder what the Palestinians can do to make negotiations work. (In a sense, this is the Palestinian corollary to the superficial thought that Westerners impose on themselves to rationalize their appeasement of intimidation; in the same way, Zubeidi’s and his friends’ thinking is hopelessly superficial because all their discourse and “logic” in the service of lost honor.) All he can do is bitterly regret the failure of the military option, denounce the (indirect) control the Israelis and Americans exercise on their (otherwise undisciplined, unself-regulated) lives, and predict (hope for) more (hopeless, desparate) wars. Tragedy for everyone.

4 Responses to Facing Failure: Avi Issacharoff interviews the former Head of the Al Aqsa Brigades

  1. oao says:

    once you realize and accept that there is NOTHING the pals are interested in other than the elimination of israel, the analysis of the interview is logically correct, but politically irrelevant.

    the palestinian negotiation makes plenty of sense in this context: everything is geared towards getting as many concessions from an incompetent and weak israeli elite, to make it easier in later stages to restart the jihad in more advantageous circumstances.

    In fact, had the pals not indoctrinated generations with rabid hatred and the “honor of not accepting israel” the elite could have adopted what seems to be their most effective strategy: create appearance of compromising with israel, sign anything required in a peace treaty, get the idf out of the wb and gaza, then attack israel from all directions.

    the problem is they may get killed just from trying to make that first impression of compromise. arafat had to walk a very thin line to convince them negotiations are just a ruse.


  2. […] Augean Stables wrote an interesting post today on Facing Failure: Avi Issacharoff interviews the former Head of the Al Aqsa BrigadesHere’s a quick excerptSome of us are getting a salary of NIS 1,050 a month. What can you do with that? Buy Bamba for your children?… […]

  3. Bozoer Rebbe says:

    Sharon’s visit to the Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount)

    Prof. Landes,

    It’s bad enough when the MSM propagates the “Haram al Sharif, what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount” meme, but when someone on the side of the angels does it, it’s depressing to see how effective the Muslim propagandists have been.

    Note how not only is the default term the Muslim appellation, but the Arabic form is used, while the Jewish appellation is given in translation.

    I’m dreaming of course, but it would be nice to see a MSM report describing the area as:

    Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount, what Muslims refer to as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, an allusion to the Jewish Temple, the Beit haMikdash.

    But then we hear about Beijing, Mumbai, Torino and Dar Al-Islam, and all those Hispanic place names with exceeding correct Spanish pronunciation, but it’s Benjamim (not Binyamin) Netanyahu, and Jerusalem, not Yerushalayim.

  4. Eliyahu says:

    guess I’m being pedantic. But bear in mind that in the Bible [Tanakh], Jerusalem is not called Yerushalayim but Yerushalem or Yerusholem [depending on pronunciation of the qomets/qametz].
    Yerushalayim is the dual form [as you probably know], thus it means The Two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly. The term seems to be rather late, that is, from mishnaic times.
    It is interesting that in Greek & Latin the city is called Hierosolyma or Hierosalem [and other, similar spellings]. The first part of the name –Hiero– is a prefix meaning holy in Greek. So the name Hierosolyma might have been interpreted by ancient Greeks as Holy Solyma or Holy Salem/Shalem/Sholem. Thus, Hierosolyma connects the ancient Jews to the Solymoi/Solymi, a people mentioned in Homer’s works and in the Odes of Pindar. Anyhow, ancient Greeks would have been aware that the city was considered holy.

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