Middle East


Crossing the Line

Israeli Tali Fahima

Tali Fahima at the Tel Aviv district court on September 6, 2004. (Photo: Tal Cohen/AFP-Getty Images)

Sarah Echiany, a 48-year-old divorcee, wears a harried look on her face as she climbs the stairs to her small but tidy Kiryat Gat apartment. It has not been easy raising three daughters on her own, but nothing could have prepared this stalwart Likud party supporter for the day when one of own her children, Tali, would be branded a traitor.

On August 9, Tali Fahima (she uses her father's surname), 28, surrendered to Shin Bet agents at the Einav military checkpoint, north of the West Bank city of Jenin, and has been held in prison ever since. Fahima's heart-to-heart talks with Zakariya al-Zubaidi, the local commander of the Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and a wanted man, earned her the ire of Israeli authorities.

The Shin Bet claims that the peace activist planned to aid Zubaidi commit some unspecified terrorist attack -- a charge her mother and lawyer Smadar Ben-Natan hotly dispute. This Tuesday, the defense finally gets to cross-examine "Oren," the agent who authored the aide-memoire on Fahima; the freedom and reputation of Sarah's daughter hangs in the balance.

"She is a very loving and sensitive person," Echiany says of Tali, adding, "She is not dangerous and is not involved in terrorism."

She pulls out a photograph of her daughter taken at age 20, after she had finished her mandatory, two-year military service. Tali's hair is dyed an orange blonde, and she is smoking a cigarette in bed. She looks like an altogether different woman from the one now in courtroom shots -- heavy framed glasses, dark hair pinned back.

The dyed blonde was a Likud voter like her mother and her low-income, Mizrachi neighbors in Kiryat Gat. The brunette describes suicide bombings as "a side-effect of the occupation" and considers a Palestinian militia leader one of her close friends.

Echiany explains that her daughter's transformation happened in phases.

Two years after returning from a post-army stay in the United States, Tali Fahima moved to Tel Aviv, where she worked as a legal secretary for various law firms. Then, in September 2000, the Aqsa Intifada broke out, and in two short years, there were over 100 suicide bombings in Israel.

"She wanted to know why there were so many terrorist attacks and losses," says Elchiany. "She wanted to learn more about the other side."

In a June interview with Nana, an online Israeli news site, Tali Fahima says that she started surfing Internet chat groups to speak "with the other side." This lead to phone calls to her e-pen pals in Arab countries -- many of which were still in a state of war with Israel.

Her mother says that Tali also attended Jewish-Arab dialogue groups in Jaffa, but she came as an individual.

"Tali was never really involved in any organized group. She found them too Ashkenazi, too academic, too bourgeois," says Lin Chalozin-Dovrat, a left-wing activist who has taken up Fahima's cause since her imprisonment. "What interested her were people at the most basic level."

Eventually, she would go to talk with a Palestinian militia leader.

In June 2003, the Palestinian Authority -- instead of cracking down on terrorist organizations -- got Hamas and Islamic Jihad to declare a temporary cease-fire, or "hudna," on attacks against Israelis. But one group that refused to go along with the deal was Yasser Arafat's own Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, headed in Jenin by Zakariya al- Zubaidi.

His face scarred by black, explosive powder from a "work accident," the 28-year-old Zubaidi is probably one of the most recognized Fatah-aligned commanders. In 2001, he joined the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as a bomb maker after some short stints as a PA police officer, an unlicensed renovator and a car thief.

A year later, he became head of the Brigades in Jenin following the death of its previous leader. In November 2002, his group attacked the Likud party headquarters in the northern city of Beit She'an, killing six Israelis, but Zubaidi's notoriety is due more to his warm embrace of the media than to any terrorist action.

Indeed, Zubaidi first captured Fahima's attention after he gave a June 2003 interview to Y-Net, a news site affiliated with the daily newspaper Yediot Aharanot. Fahima wanted to know why he opposed a "hudna" and, managing to get his cellular phone number, called him.

The two talked for hours about military occupation and peace.

Three months later, Fahima traveled by herself to Jenin and met in person with Zubaidi. He told her about his mother, who had until 1997 hosted a children's theater frequented by Israeli leftists in the top floor of her home. She and one of Zubaidi's five brothers were killed during Israel's mid-2002 invasion of the refugee camp in Jenin.

He showed Tali the flattened homes.

According to Israel's foreign ministry, almost a quarter of suicide bombers, from the beginning of the Aqsa Intifada up until the invasion, came from Jenin. And an Islamic Jihad militant, interviewed by CNN in April 2002, admitted that the Palestinians had laced the place with "1,000 to 2,000 bombs and booby traps."

Nevertheless, Tali was horrified by the large-scale destruction, and she returned to Tel Aviv with a new friend and new perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a June interview with the conservative Jerusalem Post, Tali said, "It is hard for a 28-year-old girl who was brought up on certain values to find out one day that they are all wrong. I never knew the whole truth. I didn't know what I was responsible for ... Now I know that I am responsible for the occupation."

When Zubaidi narrowly escaped an Israeli assassination attempt last February, Fahima announced to the media a few days later that she would act as a "human shield" for the wanted man. The public fallout was fierce: She was spat upon on the street; fired from her secretarial job, and her own family gave her the cold shoulder.

Amazingly, Fahima later said that she was surprised by the reaction.

"I thought she was very naive," says activist Chalozin-Dovrat.

Sarah Echinay, having subsequently reconciled with her daughter, skips over the family's initial, hostile reaction to the human shield idea and now says that Fahima only meant it as a way draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians. However, others believe that she was serious.

"When she came to Jenin, her whole thinking was turned upside down," Juliano Mer-Khamis, whose mother Arna ran the theater in the Zubaidi home. "She saw that Zubaidi was a good guy. He's not Jihad or Hamas. He speaks about freedom and ending the occupation."

Whatever the case, Fahima soon switched gears.

She saw "Arna's Children," the film Mer-Khamis made about what happened to his late mother's theater students in Jenin. The Jewish wife of the Israeli Arab leader of the Communist Party, Arna Mer had formed the theater in 1990, and it lasted two years after her death in 1995. But by time the Aqsa Intifada was in full bloom, many of her Palestinian pupils traded in the microphone and stage for guns and bombs.

"Tali called me and said that she wanted to continue Arna's work," says Mer-Khamis. "I thought she had an infantile personality ... I think she also liked being a celebrity."

Still, the Haifa-based director agreed to work with her, and before she left for Jenin in March, Fahima raised $750 in donations for the project at Jaffa's Arab-Jewish Theater. However, Israelis are prohibited by the army to go into Palestinian-controlled areas, and it was not long before her return to Jenin that security forces started looking for her.

In May, Fahima surrendered herself at the Salem checkpoint -- only to discover that she was to be treated like a suspected terrorist.

"I was made to sit by the gate of the Salem compound until a battalion came, accompanied by [an] official and an explosives expert," she told the Palestinian, English-language Jerusalem Times. "They used a metal detector to search me, and when I asked why they said they have information that I was carrying explosives...”

She was taken to a Shin Bet detention center in Petach Tikva, where she was kept handcuffed and without a shower for five days. According to Fahima, her interrogators tried to enlist her as a spy, but she said that she refused to "betray" Zubaidi.

Fahima was released but was arrested in early August at the Einav checkpoint after another trip to Jenin.

This time around, the Shin Bet was serious about the terrorist accusations. After 28 days of interrogation by agents, the defense minister slapped her with a renewable, four-month administrative detention sentence on September 5. That way, the agency does not have to expose its secret sources as it would in regular criminal proceedings.

And who are these sources?

Fahima's lawyer says that Palestinian collaborators have fingered her client as a participant in some planned terrorist attack. But Ben-Natan says that these spies are just telling the Israeli security establishment what it wants to hear.

"They act out of money and other benefits," she says.

It would not be the first time the Shin Bet has raised security concerns where there are none. It recently recommended that a pro-Palestinian British journalist be banned from entering Israel on the grounds that she might be duped by terrorists into helping in an attack. It also claimed that national security would be threatened if jailed Rabin assassin Yigal Amir were to have sex with his wife.

As for Fahima's illegal entry into Area A, Ben-Natan says that many others are guilty of the same crime and do not get administrative detention.

The defense gets to challenge the damning Shin Bet report on Fahima on Tuesday, in the Tel Aviv district court. The hope is that she will be freed from administrative detention, which she is serving out in solitary confinement in Ramleh's Neveh Tirza Prison.

In the meantime, far-fetched rumors about Fahima have been circulating in the press. She has been described as Zubaidi's lover -- despite the fact that Jenin is a very small, very conservative city and Zubaidi is a married man. The otherwise reputable Ha'aretz daily reported, in early August, that she is connected to the car bombing at the Qalandiya checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Yet even the authorities do not make that claim.

Juliano Mer-Khamis says the notion of Palestinian terrorists using leftists to shuttle bombs into Israel is absurd: "Zubaidi knows how valuable the connection is with the Israeli Left. They use that connection very smartly."

"My daughter was lynched in the media," cries Echiany. "She was judged before anything was proven."

Life goes on in the Echiany-Fahima home despite the occasional threatening phone call. Sarah says that she believes "100 percent" in her daughter's innocence and says that the whole affair has shaken her own right-wing convictions.

"We're Mizrachi. We all vote for Likud without troubling our heads..." she says, "but today, I'm not connected to any party. I am just a mother fighting for her daughter."