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Interview with Tali Fahima

In September 2003 a young Israeli woman visited Jenin refugee camp and met with Zakariye Zbeide, leader of Fateh militants in the camp. Another visit to Jenin, and the dangerous words she spoke have landed her, almost a year later, in an Israeli prison, under administrative arrest (read: without a trial). In the following interview, published in Ha'Ir magazine in February 2004, Fahima narrates her experience

Rona Segal, Ha'Ir Magazine

English: oznik.com

6 Oct. 2004

“I was brought up to consider Arabs as something that should not be here. One day I understood there were many gaps in my information, things that are not in the media. The penny dropped, I realized that it's about human beings, and that we have a responsibility for the way their life looks. This was the day I stopped watching TV.” Thus describes Tali Fahima, a 28 years old secretary from Tel-Aviv, the shift she experienced two years ago. From that moment she began walking the path that led her, finally, last September 12th, to Jenin refugee camp, where she was hosted alone for a night in the house of Zakariye Zbeide, commander of the Al-Aqsa Brigades in the region, a senior on the wanted men list, who has so far escaped three assassination attempts by the IDF.

She was born in Qiryat Gat, she says she “barely finished high school,” and came to Tel-Aviv at the age of 23. The word “left” still deters her, and in the recent election she voted for Sharon. “The process of my disillusion had started before the elections,” she says, “but I voted Likud because I felt the remains of a primordial fear of the bombings. Because I knew Sharon is a man of war.” Her mother, Sarah, has lived in Qiryat Gat for 46 years. “I always voted Likud,” says Sarah Fahima, a single mother. “Today I don't know if such a thing even exists, you can't believe anyone.” The shift in her daughter has affected her, she admits. “Today,” she says, “not everyone has to be against peace. A human should be free to think what they want, and when Tali talks to our enemies it's because she does not want bombings, and does want peace.”

It's hard to attach a political tag to Tali Fahima, or any other tag. She's single and lives on her own. Next to curiosity, being stubborn, and an extreme individualist, Fahima also describes herself as “a sucker for news.” She began her journey to the world of alternative news on the internet. “I visited Arab world web sites, like arabia.com,” she says. “At first I suffered a lot of curses, but later incredible connections evolved with people from Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. I talked with Palestinians through 'Hello, Shalom – Hello Salaam,' a communications center for civilians on both sides. I saw news photos from Palestine that aren't shown in Israel, and I learned what is hidden behind the words “assassination.”

Following her thirst for knowledge and direct communications, Fahima's mail box greeted her with phone bills, and cellular phone bills for 3,000 and 4,000 Shekels a month that accumulated late fees. She also found in her mail box a summons to the police station. “A man in civilian clothes appeared there, presented an ID, and introduced himself as a Shabak [General Secret Service, AKA Shin Bet] worker,” she says. “He interrogated me briefly, asked me why I was talking to so many Arabs, and if I was part of a group. I told him I weren't, and he left me alone.”

On July 28, 2000, towards the end of the Hudna, Fahima ran into an interview on Ynet, by 'Ali Waqd, with fugitive Zakariye Zbeide, in which the Palestinian militant was quoted as saying, “We have no regard for no Hudna here. We are willing to have real peace, but just like Sharon tried to 'be a man' in Jenin, let him come and 'be a man' in the peace process, only then will everything work out.” Fahima felt that behind Zbeide is a “Personal thing, not the beastly monster that's usually portrayed by the media.” She contacted Waqd to help her contact Zbeide.

Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy has written about Zbeide more than once, in his weekly column, “The Twilight Zone.” Zbeide's family hosted many Israeli lefty activists. His mother ran a peace theater in her home, together with the late Arna Mer, actor and filmmaker Juliano Mer's mother. His brother Taha received a press card from the Peace Center in Giv’at Haviva. During operation “Defensive Shield” Zbeide's house was bombed, his mother and sister, who were in the house were killed. He then swore not to lay down his arms, and much of his anger is directed at the Israeli lefty activists who never offered condolences.

Before he became the commander of Fateh's military branch in Jenin (a position inherited after his predecessors were assassinated by Israel), Zbeide's life has traveled through many stops: At 15 he worked in construction in Haifa, where he witnessed for the first time the gap between his quality of life and that of an Israeli his age. Later he was sentenced to lengthy incarceration in Israeli prisons for hurling stones and Molotov cocktails. In the late 1990's Zbeide worked, under a forged identity, as a remodeling contractor in Israel, and after being caught, began stealing cars. With the outbreak of the second Intifada he joined the Al-Aqsa Brigades and terrorism.

Zbeide has been “wanted” by the IDF for about two years. The military says he was involved in shooting attacks, and in a suicide bombing (in the Likud branch in Bayt Shean), in which ten people were killed. The Fauda (anarchy) that reigns in the territories since the collapse of the Palestinian Authority's apparatus, and Zbeide's gift for leadership, have also made him a central activist in internal matters, arbitrating between families in conflict, feeding the poor, and struggling with the local establishment. Last summer Zbeide and his men abducted Haydar Ershied, Governor of Jenin, alleging him of corruption. Only an order from Yasser Arafat led to Ershied's release. In January Zbeide's men pointed guns at Anuwar ‘Az A-din, head of the Arabe regional council, and demanded he quit his position, saying he was robbing the residents' money. Last Thursday, in the most recent attempt to assassinate Zbeide, five of his men were killed, but he survived.

Zbeide called Fahima the same day she contacted Waqd. “We spoke about five hours,” she says, emphasizing there was no romantic tone. “I realized, suddenly, that it's a guy my age, considered the worst and most dangerous in existence, and in conversation he comes across as an entirely different person. Slowly we won each other's trust. We talked many times, even on the day his son was born. He, of course, could not visit the hospital and see the baby, wary of being assassinated. At one point I asked to visit him in Jenin. He sent one of his men, who called me from Tel-Aviv. I invited him over. I was not afraid, although I did not know him, I figured he was Zakariye's “eyes,” and his job is to make sure I was not a Shabak agent.

“I was hospitable, and that guy told me that in order to reach Jenin I must pass the Jalame check point. 'When you pass the check point, I'll have someone waiting there to pick you up.' I told, cynically, but with a grain of truth, 'You won't kill me, right?' After all, I'm a woman, I'd be on my own, and like everyone I still have nightmares about the lynching in Ramallah. He laughed and said the two of us are like mountaineers, checking ourselves at every step on the way to the peak.

“A few days later, at Nine O'clock in the morning, I'm on the bus to Afula, excited, anxious. I called Zakariye from the bus and he was still asleep. I'm overflowing with adrenaline, and he's sleeping. From Afula I took a taxi to Jalame, it was the first time I saw a check point with open eyes – long lines of Palestinians on each side. The soldier that stopped me asked where I was headed, and I said 'Jalame.' I crossed the check point by foot. The soldier didn't even ask me for an ID, he just said 'Take care of yourself.' Inside, I felt scared to death, and a great joy. Someone was waiting for me at the gas station behind the check point, and soon a taxi arrived. I boarded the taxi and thought, 'It's an orange cab, real Palestinian, and there's no turning back from here.' After riding a bumpy dust road we arrived at Jenin refugee camp. The driver told me, 'Look to the right. That's him.'

“I saw an armed guy, and another armed guy next to him. I looked in his eyes and try to discern anything there that might harm me, my intuition was all I had. His eyes said everything is OK. He told me, 'I have seen crazy people, but you are really crazy. I did not believe you'd come.' I saw he was embarrassed, and tried to break the ice, saying: 'After this trip from Tel-Aviv, aren't you going to offer me some coffee?' He laughed, but it took some time before we had coffee. First we toured Jenin. Zakariye showed me the destruction, the bullet holes, the ruined water tanks, who died here, who died there. Everything there looks like one big sewage, and the poverty is horrific. I observed his great power there, residents show him a lot of respect. On the way he told me that I'm 'More than a great man,' and that he could see I came to visit because I cared, personally, and that I'm not condescending, which is something he must be used to from Israeli leftist activists.

“Then we went to some house, where journalists from Dubai were waiting for him. The house walls were sprayed with graffiti, left there by the IDF soldiers, something like 'this and that Unit was here.' Zakariye asked me what it said, and I told him it meant nothing. The journalists asked him who I was, and he told them I'm Israeli. They were shocked. When the interview ended he showed me a big crowd of people marching toward us, carrying banners and weapons. He said: 'Now we go to a demonstration.' I watched them from a distance and turned pale. When he noticed my angst he said, 'Now you'll see how I stop them.' He has this macho thing, even childish at times, to show his power. And indeed, he made a phone call, said something, and the crowd in the distance stopped.

“We started walking down towards the demonstration, through piles of rubble, his pace was quick, and I stumbled after him in my elegant shoes, and black trousers that turned white of dust and dirt. When we got down there, Zakariye left me with his men and mingled in the crowd. I heard several gun shots, I learned that they shoot in the air during their demonstrations, and I was very scared. My 'guards' tried to speak to me in Hebrew, and I asked them to stop. Everyone was staring at me anyway. To top it all off, I was the only woman in this crowd.”

- Did you feel threatened because of this?

“Not really. Of course their gaze, as traditional folks who are not used to feminine presence, could be scary. But I took care to position myself in a very specific place and not to appear accessible.”

- Weren't you wary of an IDF attack?

“At that moment I didn't think of that. I looked at the speakers that were yelling, I tried to see if I could recognize anyone I'd seen on TV. I felt that the people there, although they know I'm Israeli, simply did not hate me. Somebody told my 'guard' that my cell phone was sticking out of my bag, and that I better conceal it, so it won't get stolen. That little thing is huge: Not only do these people not want to put me on a spit, but to a degree they want my good. After the demonstration Zakariye came back in the company of the Fateh commander in Jenin. The commander asked me, 'Aren't you afraid?' I replied that I was dying of fear.

“Then we boarded some random car -- it's a kind of city without rules -- and we went to his house. I met his wife, and his son. His wife let me hold the baby. It's their way of being respectful to a guest, but in my heart I was anxious that I might not be holding him right, because he's so tiny. I wished him a life of freedom, that which his father does not have. I asked his wife, a beautiful girl, how old she was. It turned out that she's seventeen, from a religious family, and that unlike Zakariye's family, hers supports Hammas. I asked her, through an interpreter, if she'd prefer to study at this age, the way it is in Israel. She smiled, and said 'No.'”

- Weren't you worried that she'd be jealous?

“Why on earth? She had no reason to be. And this isn't a society in which a woman can criticize her husband. Later, she asked his permission to go to a wedding, and if he would not allow it she would not have gone.”

- Did you notice raised eyebrows, or criticism of Zakariye because of your presence?

"Even if anyone had something to say, they wouldn't say it. It's not a democracy there, they blindly rely on the leader, and believe that he knows what he's doing.”

Other speakers from the demonstration later arrived at Zbeide's home. He introduced Fahima to Hata, another fugitive, whom he said was in charge of communications with the families in Israel.

“Zakariye told Hata, 'Remember you said you'd eliminate any Israeli?' I smiled, and said 'Tfadal, if you can. I'm not afraid, I came to visit Zakariye and see how he lives, and I know you won't hurt me.' A very interesting conversation ensued. I told them I was a classic example of an Israeli citizen who had no idea of their situation. 'I didn't know you lived like dogs,' I told them. 'All that we see is your terrorism, and I think it doesn't help you. Use our tools, and make sure that every day people around the world see how you live.”

While Fahima was having a chummy talk with Fateh seniors, news came that a curfew has been imposed on Jalame, and IDF soldiers were conducting a door to door search for the Israeli woman that went there in the morning. Zbeide's men seemed worried, and suggested giving her over. Fahima said she was not afraid, and that she preferred to stay. Zbeide supported her stand. They went to a nearby house, where his sisters, and another relative, Raj'ah, live. Raj'ah was appointed to be Fahima's host. Before going in, Fahima says, Zbeide gave her his gun, a short-barreled M16, and asked her if she could shoot. “I said I probably remembered, from being in the army,” she says. “But I asked him to remove the magazine and make sure it was empty of bullets before he let me hold it.”

- How did Zbeide take your having served in the army?

“I explained this to him, that a lot of soldiers serve inside Israel, and don't get to the territories even once. I did not hide my identity, including my military service. I would like to criticize the army, not to shut it down. Perhaps the IDF protects me too from terrorism, sometimes. But not when eighteen year old girls are shouting like beasts at older women at a check point. Soldiers come out of this crazy.”

After eating, taking a shower, and changing, Fahima's conscience suddenly struck her. “I felt I was having a good time while the IDF imposes a curfew on the people in Jalame, and it's all my fault,” she recalls. “I knew I was going to face trouble when I get out, but preferred not to think about it.” Towards night, when Zbeide returned to the women's house, she noticed he would not look straight at her when he talked to her. “It dawned on me this was because I was wearing a tank top. I asked him to look at me anyway, because it made me feel awkward, and explained that I would not go out like this, but now we are at home. We talked about life, not only about the conflict. About how he takes care of people there, feeds families, fights against their corrupt politicians. I asked him if he had blood on his hands, and he said 'Yes,' without elaborating. This was hard to hear, I had to remind myself that I came there to see their truth, not mine.

“I told him that dispatching a suicide bomber is the cruelest act, toward the victims, and even toward the person dispatched. He replied that no one needs to convince the suicides, they come of their own will, and he explained that because they have no tanks and airplanes, suicide bombers are the only 'technology' they have left. Of course we did not agree on this. But honestly, if the situation was inverse, and I were forced to live under the conditions they do, I'd have been the first to fight.”

- Against women and children too?

“There are no rules, and there's no logic in these matters. I would not have been willing to live in such darkness, without even a tiny bit of liberty.”

Fahima woke up at six the next morning. Raj'ah got up too, made her coffee, and took her up to the roof. “I saw Jenin in sunrise,” Fahima recalls. “You know how pretty Jenin is? I heard the birds singing and didn't know whether to weep or to laugh.” Zbeide showed up at Nine O'clock, had a farewell coffee with her, and walked her and Raj'ah to the taxi. “I shook his hand not knowing if I would see him again. I thought he looked sad. I wish I could properly reciprocate and host him in my home. A man with freedom has natural joy, but in Jenin everyone is in a kind of depression, trying to cling to anything that helps them imagine a normal life.”

- You describe an emotional situation, it sounds romantic too...

“Emotional, yes, but not romantic. A person my age who does so much for his people, who gave up everything, who cannot stay in one spot for half an hour, you can only admire him. I am not familiar with the whole of Palestine, and I don't know if everyone is worthy of being saved. This man is.”

Fahima realizes that her life may change following the publication of her story, but says it's a price she is willing to pay to save Zbeide's life. “Only after the last assassination attempt the penny dropped, I understood they are going to kill him. If nothing else helps, I contemplate being a human shield for him.”

She tries her best to ignore the faults in this plan of hers. “I talked with Zakariye after they shot him in the shoulder. This is a man that has managed to sneak away from the IDF, and it hurts their ego. I think they don't know already why they persecute him. I am living proof that he is not a monster, because he didn't touch me. They shouldn't kill him for the sake of the IDF’s self respect, and while at it always kill another three or four civilians -- then they'll claim those civilians were “high ranking.” How many high rankers are there already in this people? If a public discussion regarding the attempts to assassinate Zakariye I will try to save this man myself.”

- But you know the chance you will meet again is slim.

“Never say never again.”

Before she left, Raj'ah bought Fahima a bag of coffee in downtown Jenin as a souvenir. A few steps before the Jalame check point the two embraced and said goodbye. “I walked away from her toward the check point,” Fahima recalls. “As soon as a soldier at the check point noticed me he stopped traffic on both sides, and called out to me on the megaphone, Stop! And turn out your bag.' I told him there's nothing there, that I am Israeli, and that he shouldn't treat me in this way. He asked me what I was doing there, and asked for an ID. I told him I visited friends in Jalame, and that I'm from Tel-Aviv. He left, and a Lieutenant came in his place, followed by a Captain, and they were all whispering among themselves. I told they I was not Palestinian, and if they want to detain me they should get me some water and a chair. I said that just to be cynical, but they actually did get me water and a chair.

“Then they took me aside, and told me they had been looking for me all night, and that they should not have let me in. I said 'OK, that's your failure. Now let me go.' Then a Lieutenant Colonel came, and all the soldiers stared at me. I felt the way I did at the demonstration in Jenin. Just at that moment Zakariye called me on the cell phone, and talked to me with great enthusiasm. I understood that only at that moment did the penny drop for him, that I really have been there, and wanted his good. He kept saying he couldn't believe it. I told him, 'Listen, Moshe, I can't talk right now,' but he was so excited he didn't understand. In the mean time I pressed the soldiers to let me go, if they do not intend to arrest me.

“Suddenly border patrol people arrived, a policewoman searched my body briefly, policemen came, they talked to me nastily. They took me to the Afula police station, and from there to the Salem facility, near Jenin. I was amused that they should take me back there. In the interrogation I repeated the Jalame story. The policeman told me, 'We know where you've been.' But he also asked if I was a member of some organization, so I figured they had no idea. Finally they let me go after signing a 3,000 Shekel bail.

Fahima has recently received a birthday gift from Zbeide, delivered by a man who visited him in Jenin, a white furry teddy bear in a rustling pink bag. She was happy when she saw it, of course, but then her smile froze. “I hope it's not a goodbye gift,” she said. “You know what he told me once? That his dream, his biggest fantasy, is to work as a gardener, make 1,500 Shekel a month, and raise his children. I think this man, if his life weren't so hard, he'd have been in an entirely different place.”

 
 

This interview was published in Hebrew in Ha'Ir Magazine, in February 2004.