(February 28, 2019 / JNS) The recent arrest of Zakaria Zubeidi, who was once a senior Fatah-Tanzim leader in Jenin, was highly unusual and can be seen as a warning of a new period of instability in the West Bank.
Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency announced that Zubeidi, along with a second man in Ramallah, had been arrested on suspicion of being involved in “severe and current terrorist activities.
Zubeidi was once on Israel’s most wanted list before entering into an amnesty agreement in 2007. He was a senior terrorist figure in Second Intifada, heading up the Fatah Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin, but later put down his gun and claimed that he was busy with nonviolent activities, including the running of a local theater.
The reason his arrest is unusual is because of his organizational affiliation.
In recent years, most of the counter-terrorism arrests by the Shin Bet, the Israel Defense Forces and the counter-terrorism unit of the Israel Police have targeted Hamas, not Fatah-Tanzim members, who have been dormant.
Hamas has, in recent years, been behind the big majority of foiled attacks.
Large numbers of Hamas cells have been forming in the West Bank every year, some with the aid of Hamas in Gaza and with the help of the organization’s headquarters in Lebanon. These cells have plotted shootings, suicide-bombings, the planting of explosives and kidnapping attacks in the heart of Israeli cities. They also planned attacks against the Palestinian Authority itself.
United by a common need to keep Hamas repressed, Israel and the P.A. have maintained a security coordination on the ground. The P.A. has itself arrested Hamas cells, including one recently that was planning bombings in Israel.
The Shin Bet has been one step ahead of Hamas, breaking up more than 200 of its dangerous terror cells in the West Bank last year alone.
To boost this stability, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas sent the message that only his 30,000-strong security forces had the legitimacy to use force in the West Bank and told other parts of Fatah—mainly, the Tanzim militias—to lie low. The Tanzim members are under orders not turn their guns on Israel and to stay out of the picture. Their willingness to listen to this directive reflects the strength of Abbas’s authority.
Despite the diplomatic war that has been raging between the P.A. and Israel, and the huge differences between them, on the ground this arrangement has greatly contributed to a relative calm and to security.
But Zubeidi’s arrest could signal that things are changing, just as former Israeli defense officials told JNS earlier this month that they might, as the succession battle over who will replace Abbas heats up.
‘Sliding into internal power struggles’
Lt. Col. (res.) Alon Eviatar, an expert on the Palestinian arena and a former adviser to Israel’s Coordination Unit for Government Activities in the Territories, warned of power struggles between various Palestinian forces—tensions that might “go down to the street level, with militias and competing elements trying to seize strongholds.”
“This kind of situation—of sliding into internal power struggles—can also be directed against Israel. There is no roadblock stopping this from happening,” he cautioned.
Dr. Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of the security coordination between the IDF and the P.A., warned that forces on the ground are stockpiling of weapons. He warned of the possibility of “chaos that could develop if there will be no consensus and all sides go dig into their corner.”
It’s important to keep in mind that Fatah is not a monolithic force in the West Bank, and that Abbas and his security forces, together with the P.A.’s head of intelligence, Maj. Gen. Majid Faraj, have been instrumental in keeping the Tanzim militias under control.
The Fatah Tanzim, once headed by Marwan Barghouti, played a major role in the mass casualty terrorism of the second intifada; their removal as a violent actor played an important part in stabilizing the West Bank.
In light of that, Zubeidi’s arrest raises questions over whether the old order is under threat.
Speaking to Israel’s Kann news channel on Wednesday, relatives of Zubeidi claimed that he was innocent of all wrongdoing,
“The whole [refugee] camp is sad because of this [arrest]. The whole camp stands with him,” a young Palestinian told Kann’s reporter, Gal Berger. “Zakaria is the whole camp.”
Zubeidi’s brother, Daoud, told Berger that dozens of gunmen had signed the 2007 amnesty along with Zubeida. “Now they say, here in the camp, in the West Bank, that there is no ceasefire with Israel,” he said. This comment was echoed by Atta Abu Ramila, the chairman of Fatah in Jenin, who accused Israel of “violating the ceasefire with the Palestinian people.”
Yet the arrest could be a sign of Israel’s vigilance regarding changes underway in the Tanzim militia, which could strengthen Israeli deterrence and send the signal that Israel will not tolerate any return to violence by this faction.