JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank -- Israeli F-16 fighter jets roared lower and lower in the summer sky, and Zakaria Zbeida broke out in nervous tics: He twisted a short, black curl on his forehead round a finger, he jiggled his right knee, he sent a neighborhood boy out for another red and white pack of L&M cigarettes.
"Every minute, I fear death," said the gaunt 28-year-old Zbeida, the Jenin commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, and a man wanted dead or alive by Israel as a terrorist leader.
Zakaria Zbeida, an al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades commander, passes the offices of Jenin's governor on July 31, hours after he and his men set the building on fire.
(Mohammed Ballas -- AP)
While Zbeida spends most of his waking hours in hiding, he has not shied away from becoming the self-appointed sheriff and unofficial mayor of this refugee camp of 15,000 people. The role is a shift for a militant accustomed to fighting Israel. Pinned down by Israeli forces, Zbeida has turned to exercising local power by punishing accused criminals, mediating family disputes and serving as chief broker between residents and the sluggish Palestinian bureaucracy, according to the accounts of numerous residents and officials.
"Due to the absence of law," said Zbeida, "we are the law."
Last month, Zbeida and his fighters torched two Palestinian Authority government buildings because officials refused to meet their demands for protecting and finding jobs for al-Aqsa fighters, according to witnesses. A few weeks earlier, one of Zbeida's men reportedly shot an alleged rapist in the leg as punishment. Last year, his men kidnapped and flogged the governor in a public square, accusing him of corruption.
"In Jenin, the Israelis have destroyed all the Palestinian Authority institutions," Zbeida said in one of three lengthy interviews conducted in hideouts in the refugee camp over a three-month period. "The only group that remains is the resistance."
Zbeida is unrepentant not only about attacks on security officials and Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories, but also about those that have killed civilians in Israel. Two weeks ago, he claimed responsibility for a bombing at a busy crossing between the West Bank and Jerusalem that killed a Palestinian and wounded a dozen other Palestinians and six Israeli border patrol officers. The bomb was apparently meant to be smuggled into Israel when it detonated.
Zbeida is described as "extensively involved in terrorist activities" by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an organization of retired Israeli security officials that conducts research for the Israeli military. Although he has acknowledged authorship of violent actions carried out by his group, Zbeida declined to discuss how he chose targets that killed civilians.
Since the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel began nearly four years ago, Israeli security forces have honed their intelligence and tactical skills and have decimated the leadership and ranks of Zbeida's guerrilla army with arrests and assassinations.
The barrier Israel has built near the northern area of the West Bank has all but halted the stream of suicide bombers from Jenin. In the first two years of the intifada, before construction of the barrier began, 16 suicide bombers from Jenin carried out 14 attacks against Israelis, nearly one-fifth of the 75 suicide bombings recorded from late 2000 to the end of 2002. No bomber from Jenin has carried out an attack inside Israel since last October, according to the Israeli military.
"The martyrdom operations are still part of the struggle," insisted Zbeida, using the Palestinian term for suicide bombings. He added, however, they are "a tiny part."
More and more, according to Zbeida, the struggle is shifting inward.
On the Run
Just after midnight on June 10, a bullet from an Israeli sniper came so close to hitting Zbeida that he felt the rush of air next to his shoulder.
"We didn't know the soldiers were there," Zbeida recounted, blowing a stream of smoke through teeth that have been yellowed by too much tea, coffee and nicotine. "They were undercover. The sniper was on the hill."