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Accused Israeli traitor talks about her ordeal

JAFFA, Israel—She's been denounced as a traitor, a terrorist's whore and a collaborator who betrayed her country by befriending a prominent Palestinian militant that Israel has repeatedly tried to assassinate.

But even now, after 877 days in Israeli prisons, Tali Fahima steadfastly believes that her improbable friendship with Zacaria Zubeidi did more to help her country than hurt it.

"I'm building bridges," Fahima told McClatchy Newspapers on Sunday in her first interview with an American newspaper reporter since her release from prison. "And, yes, it is for the benefit of the state."

Fahima was freed Wednesday after a three-year odyssey that transformed her from a right-wing legal secretary who thought Arabs should be expelled from Israel into an unbowed activist for the Palestinian people.

"The most important thing to me is that when I go to bed at night, I am sure of myself and what I am doing," Fahima said between puffs on cigarettes at a cafe south of Tel Aviv. "From that place I get my strength."

Scores of Israelis have been pilloried over the years for defying their government and its decades-long occupation of the Palestinian territories. Soldiers have been jailed for refusing to serve in the West Bank. Left-wing activists have been imprisoned for meeting with Palestinian leaders.

From the start, Fahima's story was different.

Growing up in a working-class southern Israeli city, Fahima was raised to see Palestinians as the enemy and thought her country's Arab minority should be expelled.

Fahima threw her support behind the hawkish Likud Party, served her required three years in the Israeli military and launched a career as a legal secretary in Tel Aviv.

As the second Palestinian uprising reached a crescendo in 2003, Fahima decided to find out for herself what was fueling the increasing number of deadly suicide bombers sneaking into Israel. Instead of seeking out Israeli lawmakers or political activists, Fahima decided to call a man she and her government considered a top terrorist: Zubeidi.

As head of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin, Zubeidi was a well-known militant who Israel says is behind a series of shooting attacks and bombings that have killed at least nine people.

"The first time I spoke to him, I thought my phone was going to blow up just from talking to him, just from fear," said Fahima, a reserved 30-year-old who wears dark-rimmed glasses and her black hair pulled back in a tight ponytail.

After months of talking on the phone, Fahima decided they had to meet, even though Israeli laws barred her from traveling through most of the West Bank.

Without telling friends or family where she was going, Fahima caught a bus north one day in September 2003 and crossed through an Israeli checkpoint into the West Bank. There she was met by one of Zubeidi's men and taken to Jenin, considered a stronghold for Palestinian militants.

Fahima returned time and again to meet Zubeidi and work on local projects. Her illicit trips might have gone unnoticed had Israel not tried to assassinate Zubeidi in June 2004.

Enraged by the attack, Fahima held a press conference and publicly offered to serve as a human shield to protect Zubeidi.

"I am not familiar with the whole of Palestine, and I don't know if everyone is worthy of being saved," she said at the time. "This man is."

The vow caught the attention of Israeli security. At first, Fahima said, Israel tried unsuccessfully to recruit her as a spy. Then, on Aug. 8, 2004, they threw her in jail and held her in isolation for months without charge under an Israeli law usually reserved for Palestinians.

Fahima said her hands and feet were shackled to a chair as she was interrogated day after day, sometimes from dawn until midnight.

Very quickly, Fahima became a cause celebre for left-wing activists, who saw her arrest as an attempt to quash attempts by Israelis to reach out to Palestinians.

Then-Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz accused her of helping Palestinian militants plan attacks on Israeli targets. The Israeli media cast Fahima as Zubeidi's lover and even suggested that she was carrying the married militant's baby.

It was all part of a false and specious campaign, Fahima said, to destroy her reputation and undercut Zubeidi.

The rumors took their toll. Detractors called Fahima a traitor and a whore.

"When a civilized person contacts these people and deals with these people, he or she crosses the line," Israeli lawmaker Yuli Edelstein said Sunday. "Definitely she's a traitor, and not just to Israel. She's a traitor to human values."

As time wore on, the Israeli government backed away from the most sensational allegations that Fahima was helping Zubeidi plan attacks.

At the heart of the case was a small packet of military photographs accidentally lost by an Israeli soldier in Jenin. The packet contained aerial photographs of Jenin pinpointing Zubeidi's home and snapshots of the militant and his deputies.

The Israeli government accused Fahima of translating the Hebrew document for Zubeidi and his men, aid that helped the militants evade capture.

In a documentary on the case that aired this weekend on Israeli television, Zubeidi, who can speak and read Hebrew, ridiculed the charge and noted that Fahima knew little about the layout of Jenin.

"I translated for her," he said.

Faced with the prospect of spending years behind bars, Fahima made the difficult decision last fall to cut a deal. She agreed to plead guilty to passing information to the enemy, contacting a foreign agent and defying a ban on entering the West Bank.

Prosecutors dropped the more serious charges of aiding an enemy in wartime and supporting a terrorist organization.

Last Wednesday, after 877 days behind bars, Fahima was set free—so long as she doesn't contact Zubeidi for a year or enter the West Bank until 2010.

Before her release, Fahima said an Israeli intelligence officer made one last visit. He tried once more to recruit her, and then let her know that she'd always be under scrutiny.

"It makes me crazy that I can't talk to him," Fahima said. "But if this is the price that we have to pay, then we'll pay it."

As for Zubeidi, he still remains a top assassination target for the Israeli military.

"We haven't been able to get him yet—the emphasis is on yet," said Israeli government spokesman Danny Seaman. "He's been observing the cease-fire so he's off the hook. For a while."


(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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