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Unlikely Terrorism Suspect Faces Harsh Israeli Penalty

A Jewish citizen befriended a wanted Palestinian militant. Now she's behind bars.

September 06, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Tali Fahima isn't your average terrorist suspect.

For one thing, she's an Israeli Jew. She grew up in a small, conservative town in southern Israel. Like virtually all her friends, she served her mandatory time, happily enough, in the Israeli army. Her family has always staunchly supported Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party, and she voted for him in the country's last election.

On Sunday, though, the bespectacled, 28-year-old paralegal living in Tel Aviv became subject to one of the most draconian penalties that Israeli law allows for a person who has not been convicted of a crime. Or even formally accused of one.

Fahima was remanded by Israeli military order to at least three months in "administrative detention," which amounts to jailing her without levying charges. She's already been in custody for nearly a month.

Although Israel holds more than 700 Palestinians under administrative detention -- for various alleged offenses, most often security-related -- it is extremely unusual for a Jewish citizen to be subject to this status. Israeli legal expert Moshe Negby describes the procedure as "Kafka-esque" because the accused are not permitted to know the nature of the evidence against them when they are remanded.

In day-and-night interrogation sessions, agents from Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency, have been attempting to find out whether Fahima was involved in terror activities orchestrated by an unlikely friend of hers -- a Palestinian named Zakariya Zubeidi, one of the most wanted men in the West Bank.

For months now, Israeli newspapers have been matter-of-factly describing Fahima as Zubeidi's girlfriend -- the clandestine lover of a married man who runs the operations of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in the northern West Bank town of Jenin, which is considered a hotbed of Palestinian militancy.

Fahima and her lawyers say it's not like that at all. She became acquainted with Zubeidi, they say, when she simply called him up one day, angrily asking to know what he had against her and other Israelis.

"What she has with Zubeidi, it's not a romantic relationship -- it's a political relationship," said Fahima's lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan.

The story of Fahima and Zubeidi is in some ways a tale of enemies and their odd intimacy. Most Israelis and Palestinians live within a few miles of one another; in many cases, just yards. You can drive from Tel Aviv to the northern West Bank in 15 minutes, and from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, also in the West Bank, in five.

It's not difficult to get anyone's mobile telephone number, even one of the West Bank's most notorious fugitives, if you just call enough friends and contacts, and ask -- as Fahima did.

What happened next is highly contested. Undisputed is the fact that Fahima visited an initially wary Zubeidi repeatedly this year in Jenin, whose adjoining refugee camp was the scene of bitter fighting between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops during a wide-ranging Israeli offensive in the West Bank in spring 2002.

Palestinians said there had been a massacre in Jenin. Israelis said there had been a hard-fought battle, with dozens of soldiers and militants killed and a few civilians unfortunately caught in the middle. (Although there was massive damage to the camp, eventual body counts backed the Israeli version of events.)

Enter Fahima -- one of few Israelis, other than heavily armed combat troops, to set foot in the area since the offensive.

Zubeidi, in his late 20s, was one of a small number of Palestinian militant leaders to survive the Israeli onslaught in Jenin. He's a talkative guy, routinely bragging about this or that Palestinian attack against Israelis, explicating in the Israeli and Palestinian media why the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel is justified.

That wordy insouciance was precisely why an infuriated Fahima thought to contact him -- and was able to do so far more easily than she would have thought. The two met and talked more than half a dozen times, she and her lawyers say.

At first, both were somewhat hostile but eventually warmed and began having substantive discussions about the conflict, associates of both said.

Zubeidi has denied that the two are romantically linked. And he has declared repeatedly and publicly that Israel is pursuing a vendetta against any citizen who seeks meaningful contact with Palestinians.

The military order for Fahima's remand to administrative detention, which carries no bail, must be confirmed today by a district court judge in Tel Aviv. Her lawyers promise to take the case to Israel's Supreme Court if their bid to overturn it is denied.

"It shows what can happen to any citizen who tries to have a personal impact on our situation," said Ben-Natan, the lawyer. "This is what you risk."

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