In the early morning hours of November 10th, Baha' Said crawled in through an opening in the barb-wire fencing that surrounds the Israeli settlement of Kufar Darom in the central region of the Gaza Strip with a Kalashnikov automatic machine gun. There he made his way to a nearby Israeli military outpost and opened fire upon the unexpecting soldiers on shift, killing two before being shot dead himself. The military operation stunned the Israeli establishment for two main reasons: first, when Israel identified the body, it turned out that Said was a member of the Preventative Security Forces, making it the first military operation known to have been conducted by a person on the Palestinian Authority payroll. Second, the operation shattered the illusion that the settlers were safe on their own (confiscated) land.
Scratching the surface beneath the figure of Baha' Said reveals a profound tale of a Gazan life not reported by the morning paper headlines which covered the incident the following day. In a nutshell, Said's life sheds light upon the deeper dynamics at work within the Intifada tested cadre of the Occupied Territories and their experience in the post-Oslo quagmire of the Palestinian Authority, the negotiations treadmill, and the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. His brothers sip bitter coffee and recount his story as they sit around a camp fire in a condolence tent establshed to receive well-wishers since his death.
Said was born in Al Mughazi refugee camp in Gaza Strip to a bedouin family exiled from their ancestral home in Bir Al Seba' (Beersheva) during the 1948 war. Mughazi camp is the home of 20,000 resident located in a triangle of three refugee camps (together with Breij and Nusseriat camps) in the center of the Gaza Strip. As the fifth son of 14 children, he lived the typical life of a child of the over-crowded Gaza camps living beneath the boot of the Israeli occupation. His father spent 14 years in an Israeli prison, together with six of his brothers who served various sentences. He himself was arrest twice before the age of 18, serving three and five month sentences respectively. Like much of the Al Mughazi camp residents, Said was raised upon the 'mother's milk' of Fateh national liberation ideology, to which he was a devoted believer. His committed yet unobtrusive personality allowed him to climb the underground ranks of Fateh swiftly. By the outbreak of the first Intifada, Said began getting involved in the Fateh Hawks, the military wing which emerged after the liquidation and imprisonment of Fateh's first military wing in Gaza known as the Black Panthers. At the age of only 19, Said was arrested by the Israeli army for transporting weapons, and was accused of participating and organizing military operations. He was detained in Al Sirrayeh prison in Gaza where his family anticipated he would receive no less than a seven-year jail sentence.
It is at this juncture in the story where Said's life begins to take on mythical proportions. After only four months in detention, Said escaped from Al Sirrayeh prison with a fellow prisoner while waiting for his military trial. He remained in Gaza for seven months, living an underground existence as a leader of the Hawks in the central Gaza district with a certain death sentence hanging over his head from undercover Israeli units. He then went south, cutting his way through the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah where he was quickly imprisoned by the Egyptian army for 'illegal entry'. After serving 6 months in Abu Za'bal jail, he was released from prison and was able to establish contact with the PLO, then centered in Tunis.
Like other expelled or wanted Palestinians who escaped from the Occupied Territories, Said was given residency in Libya. It was there where he got a taste of the PLO movement in diaspora between the years 1991 to 1997. Though information on this period of Said's life is scattered, it is said that he participated in a rebellion at the PLO embassy in Tripoli, protesting the discriminatory treatment wanted or exiled Palestinians from the Occupied Territories experienced in comparison to the corrupt PLO elite of the diaspora. Because Said was still wanted by Israel, he was not permitted to return back to the territories that came beneath the control of the newly established Palestinian Authority, after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993.
Said's talent for cutting through fences was proven once again when he sneaked back into the Gaza Strip in 1997. Soon after his entry however, he was apprehended by a border patrol and found himself once again behind Israeli bars. A strange twist of fate led to his release when the Palestinian Authority traded three Israeli collaborators for Said and another Palestinian prisoner who had been wanted. Finally free from prison and in his home base of Gaza, Said looked forward to leading a more 'stable' life. He got married, built a home with the help of his family, and had a child. (His wife is now pregnant with their second child). Though he preferred to work a plot of land his father had purchased years previous as his means of living, his desire for 'normalcy' was dashed when the Palestinian Preventative Security Forces imposed his recruitment in their services. The tactic of 'mandatory enlistment' of experienced Fateh cadre into the security services served the function to ensure PA control over both the local political scene and the Fateh activists themselves who were more used to independent activity in the pre-PA days.
The last two years of Said's life were wrought in the crucible of the regime the PA established throughout the Gaza Strip. By that time (1997), the classism of Gazan society between 'haves' (PA elites) and 'have nots' (everyone else) was only too apparent. Furthermore the dominance of diaspora Fateh outsiders over the local Fateh cadres caused a splintering within the party itself. This tension was exacerbated by the worsening political and economic situation, and a sense which emerged on the local scene that the PA preferred the cycle of fruitless negotiations (combined with access to power and lucrative economic dealings) to fighting to achieve national goals. Said was no exception to this less-well-talked about phenomenon within Fateh during the reign of the 'peace process'. His refusal to betray the national principles which he had sacrificed much of his life for caused him to be rebellious and problematic to the PA interests which attempted to control him. According to associates, Said was imprisoned several times by the PA, had his gun taken away and apparently even had his wages held back, all for reasons having to do with not 'keeping his mouth shut' and 'refusing to follow orders'.
Were it not for the Al Aqsa Intifada which broke out, this dynamic within Palestinian society was sure to break open the seams of the straight-jacket Palestinians have found themselves the past seven years. Many Palestinians in fact acknowledge that it is this very tension which fuels the current Intifada because of the people's desire not to return to the way things were before it broke out. Said's military operation was a fulfillment of this popular sentiment, as it came at a time when there was a lull in daily clashes, and when rumors were emerging that the PA was seeking ways to return to negotiations.
Said's funeral was attended by 30,000 mourners who flocked from throughout the Gaza Strip to bid him farewell. Despite Israel's direct accusation of the PA's accountability in this operation, (something the PA has been quick to side step throughout the Intifada) no self-respecting future-minded PA official felt he could bear the price of not attending.
Said's picture now adorns countless graffiti-scribbled streets of Gaza. He has been adopted as the exemplifying martyr of the Al Aqsa Intifada, a son of the Gazan camps, and another hero in a proud list of homegrown fedayeen. Unlike the image of Muhammed Al Durrah who was helplessly murdered in his father's embrace, Baha' Said is a symbol of the pride, power, and vengeance of the Palestinian oppressed and forsaken. He is what Muhammed Al Durrah (had he lived) and all the children of Gaza aspire to one day be. It should then come as no surprise to Israel, the world, or even the PA, that unless Palestinian national aspiration are fulfilled, no doubt, some of these children will follow in Said's footsteps.