Introductory note: The following long and detailed feature article by Sarah Helm originally appeared in the pages of the Sunday Times Magazine, published in London, in its January 6, 2002 edition at page 54, under the title “The Human Time Bomb”. The Times website no longer has it. The text below comes from the version that originally appeared on the Times website.
This was an ordinary young man – until he sacrificed himself to kill Israelis lunching in Jerusalem. What drives a waiter, and his student accomplice, to plot a suicide bombing? Sarah Helm reports
Ahlam Tmimi had never met Izzedine al-Masri before she joined him on his journey to Jerusalem on August 9 last year. Carrying the bomb in a guitar, the couple didn’t even talk to each other until a few minutes before Izzedine blasted himself, slaughtering 15 Israelis, including a family of five, who were eating lunch in the Sbarro pizzeria. ‘Ahlam says that towards the end of their joint mission she said a few words in English to Izzedine, so people would think they were tourists,’ says her lawyer, Elias Theodory. ‘Perhaps she didn’t want to talk any more than that. Perhaps she didn’t want to get to know him.’
The couple apparently had little in common. Izzedine, 22, was a quiet, religious youth from the northern West Bank village of Aqaba. He worked at the family restaurant in nearby Jenin as a waiter and takeaway delivery man. His mother says he had never spent a night away from home before his trip to the Sbarro. Ahlam, a single-minded, attractive university student, lived in the village of Nebi Saleh, near Ramallah. Not religious, she wore her long dark hair loose over her shoulders, with no veil. She wanted to be a journalist, and would have completed her university course in December.
Neither Izzedine nor Ahlam had a history of extremism. Izzedine dropped a hint of what was to come when he asked his pregnant sister, Hala, a few days earlier, that if he died a martyr, would she call her baby Izzedine? ‘I took no notice. I just thought he was kidding,’ says Hala. Ahlam gave nothing away. She had been studying hard, and helping choose curtains for the new family house. ‘She insisted on taking all the decisions,’ says her father. Yet the couple carried out their operation with stunning precision and audacity. On the morning of the bombing, Ahlam took her usual lift in her uncle’s car to Bir Zeit University. Izzedine, meanwhile, had told his brother he was taking an hour off from his restaurant work to run an errand.
Ahlam’s job was to guide Izzedine to a spot she had previously identified as ‘suitable’ for the bombing: a lively junction where shoppers mingle outside the Sbarro pizzeria. Here, Ahlam left Izzedine and was well on her way back down the street when the ambulances started screaming past. ‘You know what you put a baby in?’ says one of the doctors who was first on the scene, when I ask him to describe what he saw. He pushes his hands backwards and forwards. ‘A pushchair,’ I say. ‘Yes, that’s it. It had half a baby in it. Half a baby. What can you do for half a baby?’
In Aqaba, Palestinian children guide us to Izzedine’s house. ‘Shahid, shahid, this way,’ they yelp proudly. The expression ‘suicide bomber’ does not translate well in Arabic. Suicide, in its conventional sense, is deemed a sin. People may talk awkwardly about someone who ‘explodes himself’, but usually the individual is known simply as a shahid, or martyr.
Aqaba commands a fine position overlooking a fertile valley. The house where Izzedine grew up is a modest two-storey building with a large terrace, and is now easily identified by a line of shiny posters of him on the wall, below cascading bougainvillea. Izzedine’s mother is out picking olives. The harvest is good this year, but the olives cannot reach their markets owing to the Israeli military blockade.
Like everyone else entering or leaving Jerusalem, we have had to pass through the hideous human funnel that is the Kalandia checkpoint. Here, every day, thousands of Palestinians, on their way to see relatives or to reach jobs or hospitals, tramp through the dust or line up in cars. The soldiers manning the barriers will turn them away or wave them through, and they can never be sure which it will be.
The Palestinian West Bank is carved up by the occupying Israeli army into zones called A, B and C. Aqaba, near Jenin, is inside A, the area where Palestinians have the most autonomy. But to reach Jenin we have had to navigate our way through B and C, around which Jewish settlement is heaviest and where Israeli forces are most in evidence. We enter area A just above a rest stop run by Jewish settlers at Kiryat Gat, where one of the first suicide bombers of the intifada exploded in December 2000. Nearer Jenin, the pressure seems to ease. ‘Welcome, welcome,’ say the Palestinian police at checkpoints decked with crimson geraniums.
We pass through dusty Arab villages displaying posters on houses, shops, mosques and schools. All martyrs. A picture of an older man in spectacles recurs regularly, as does one of two small boys. As we approach Aqaba, we pass a pile of twisted metal topped by a wreath of pink plastic flowers. It is the remains of a car that was hit by missiles from an Israeli helicopter gunship just a few weeks ago, killing three. The dead are named on a stone memorial and include Mohammed Bisharat, who, the Israelis said, was an organiser of Islamic suicide bombers in the Jenin area. Under the shade of an olive tree near the car, three boys are sitting talking. Across the road, women in bright dresses shake the trees, bringing olives tumbling to the ground.
Izzedine al-Masri was born in Aqaba 22 years ago, just an average boy – the kind who never really shone at anything except computers and swimming. In the long hot summers he liked to dive into the cold waters of a local wadi. At school he always finished a notch or two down the pecking order, and left before he had completed his final exams. Everyone had low expectations of him, except his mother. The sixth of 11 children, he seems to have been her favourite. ‘The kindest, the gentlest. He never did anything wrong,’ says Fatima al-Masri, sitting on her terrace after returning from the olive groves. ‘It took much to anger him.’
Even during the first intifada, when his peers were out throwing stones at soldiers, it was, for him, ‘home, school, home, school’. The oldest brother of the family, Eyad, who runs the family restaurant in Jenin, where Izzedine worked, remembers him with evident guilt. ‘I wish I had not been so hard on him always. So impatient with him.’ Another brother, Salahaddin, 18, remembers him only as a ‘hero’.
Izzedine used to sleep on the roof of the house in the summer, where it was cool. His mother woke him every day at 3am to go to pray. Like all the family, he prayed five times a day from an early age and fasted at Ramadan. A new mosque is being built nearby to accommodate the growing numbers in the area who are turning to religion.
Izzedine didn’t use the mosque only to pray: he used to come here to meet his friends and to hang out. Noticeboards announce events organised by the local imams, as well as meetings of the zakat committees, which help with social welfare and distribute money to the sick or injured in the intifada. Izzedine pinned notices here when he organised his outings to Al-Aqsa, the Muslim holy shrine in Jerusalem. He started leading these trips about two years ago, according to his brother Eyad. Yet he had never led anything before in his life. It was about two years ago that Izzedine became more religious, says Eyad, who has invited us for lunch in the family restaurant in Jenin.
Eyad, 31, a stocky, serious man in a checked shirt, welcomes us with sweet tea. At the back of the restaurant is a 20ft-high painting of Izzedine – the lowly waiter whom nobody noticed, glorified for all to see. The picture shows Izzedine the studious. His neat black hair is combed back off his pale face; his moustache is manicured into a thin wisp, and on his nose is a pair of oblong chrome spectacles. On a glass counter nearby, behind which slabs of meat are hanging, is Izzedine the warrior, with bandanna and guns. The restaurant is two-thirds empty. There were better times, says Eyad. After the Oslo peace deal of 1993 and the Israeli withdrawal from Jenin, the restaurant used to fill up with Jews from Israel, and Israeli Arabs. ‘Izzedine had a lot of Jewish friends at that time,’ he says. ‘People liked him.’ His parents had tried to find him a ‘good girl’, but he wasn’t interested.
About two years ago, he started praying more in the mosque opposite the restaurant. ‘During the day, most people find a place to put their mat down here in the restaurant. Anywhere will do. But Izzedine started making the extra effort to go to the mosque each time,’ says Eyad. He also found new friends, particularly two Hamas members from Jenin refugee camp, Abu Moussa and Abu Dia. The al-Masri family is not a Hamas family, and the mother insists that ‘We never saw anybody from Hamas in the house, and we don’t want them here.’ Salahaddin objects tetchily when she says this, but she brushes his objections aside. There are clearly Hamas sympathies, as in so many Palestinian families today. And Eyad says he knew that Izzedine had been recruited. He just didn’t realise he was high enough up to be a martyr.
Why did he do it? Eyad explains that since the outbreak of this latest intifada, Israel had repeatedly reinvaded Jenin. Izzedine was no longer able to travel to Al-Aqsa. ‘He saw Palestinians being killed each day.’
Seventy-two Palestinians from Jenin have been killed in the two uprisings, more than 30 in the past year. ‘Then Abu Moussa and Abu Dia, Izzedine’s best friends, were killed.’ They were killed by Israeli forces on their way to give condolences to Mohammed Bisharat, the man blown to pieces in the pile of twisted metal we saw on the way here. Israel claimed that the two refugees were travelling to carry out suicidal attacks at a military camp we passed near the rest-stop settlement. After their deaths, Izzedine arranged a demonstration in Aqaba. ‘I think their deaths angered him more than anything,’ says Eyad.
As we leave the restaurant, I notice a poster of the two small boys that I had seen on walls in the villages as we drove in. Who are they? These are two brothers, Ashraf and Bilal Abu Khader, aged five and eight, says Eyad. They were standing on the street below the office of Jamal Mansour, a Hamas leader in Nablus, when an Israeli helicopter gunship fired missiles at Mansour’s office. The boys were waiting for their mother while she went to the nearby pharmacy. ‘Izzedine was angered by Mansour’s death. But he was pained by the deaths of the boys,’ says Eyad. We ask his mother why her son chose his martyrdom. She doesn’t answer directly, but tells us: ‘My other sons tell me not to cry, as it was God’s will, and they tell me to take off the black. I can fight the tears but I cannot take off the black.’ She leaves us for a moment and returns holding a framed picture containing a collage of two photographs. The main picture shows a little boy in a woolly jumper. The little boy is Ahmed, aged five, Izzedine’s younger brother, who was killed two years ago in a road accident outside the house. Inserted next to this is a cut-out picture of Izzedine. His mother tells us that Izzedine made the collage and kept it next to him in his room. He loved Ahmed dearly. Picking up the photographs and jabbing a finger at Izzedine, she adds: ‘Sometimes I take the picture and I talk to it. I say, ‘You did not think of your mother when you did this thing. Your faith was stronger than your love for us.’
The Sbarro pizza restaurant has reopened. It did so within a month of the explosion. A waitress in a red cap, red shirt and small white apron is squirting thousand-island dressing into small white pots, and a queue is forming in front of her. In front of a memorial plaque to the dead is a constantly burning flame. ‘It was a very hot day,’ says Anat, the waitress, who had just gone off duty when the bombing happened. ‘More people were eating inside than usual, to get cool from the air conditioning.
He came in and walked over there,’ she says, pointing to the tables in the window. ‘The staff that were killed were at the counter, which was right there behind him. We have moved the counter now.’ According to journalists on the scene, there was blood and glass all over the street. Jens Palme, a photographer from Stern magazine, counted 10 dead in two minutes. According to Robert Fisk in The Independent, a child had been so mutilated ‘that its eyes had been blasted from its head’. One witness saw a soldier flying through the air, ‘body parts flying around in smoke’. Fisk also saw ‘a plump lady with her brains bursting through her head’.
Anat says it felt a little strange returning to work here at first. But she is philosophical. ‘We have to carry on. Look, the Arabs who do these things are brainwashed. The Arabs who send them won’t give in until we go into another country. To separate us from them, it is impossible, so what else can we do?’
It doesn’t take much to brainwash a Palestinian suicide bomber nowadays. Just five years ago, suicide bombing was seen by most Palestinians as an aberration, an act approved of only by extreme Islamic groups. The secular factions of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation distanced themselves from these attacks. But all that has changed. Today the bombers are deployed as military weapons, and their actions win approval from all Palestinian factions on military grounds. ‘Religion is just the spice offered to the bombers,’ says Nazmi al-Jubeh, a professor of history at Bir Zeit University.
Even within the minority Christian community, there is support. ‘They [the Israelis] hit us in our homes, our villages, our cities with missiles. We have no sophisticated weapons. We only have our bodies with which to reach Israelis in their homes. Our bodies are the best weapons that we have.’ The comment is made by a young Christian Palestinian from Bethlehem.
In October, Israel declared that there had been 100 suicide bombings in the past year. Not even the most horrific of these acts cause much regret among Palestinians. In Nablus they set up an exhibition of the Sbarro bombing, complete with mannequins with their legs chopped off, dripping red paint. Ordinary people, teenagers, young children came to stare at it, to somehow rub against the pain that had been caused. Arafat closed the exhibition down, as it gave Palestinians a bad name. There is no reason to think that Izzedine and Ahlam thought twice about the people they had murdered that day. Even the babies. When Ahlam got home she continued to behave normally, saying nothing, and watching news of the bombing on TV without comment. She was arrested a few weeks later and is now in an Israeli jail.
It has since emerged that Izzedine devised a means of producing even greater horror than had first been planned. Ahlam had intended him to explode in the outside area that she had designated. But she was surprised to hear later that, after she had left him, he walked into the Sbarro restaurant, maximising the devastation by exploding right next to a family in a confined space.
I ask one of Ahlam’s fellow students what she thinks about the killings. Mia, the gentlest of girls, bright-eyed, in denim dungarees and pink T-shirt, says without any hesitation: ‘You have to understand that the Jewish have made us like animals. Look how they cage us up. How they steal our land. They have made me feel that when I die, I too want to hurt a person who has hurt me and my family.’ And the Jewish children? ‘Yes, the children too. Because the children of the Jewish will be the soldiers of the future. They are the ones who will kill us.’
Hamas says it has hundreds more willing bombers waiting to be deployed. Only three weeks after the Sbarro bombing, a young man called Ra’ed Bargoutti exploded himself in Prophets’ Street, a few hundred yards down the road. Bargoutti’s head landed in the playground of the nearby French lyc?e. Natan Sandaka, a 21-year-old Israeli border policeman who tried to stop the bomber, miraculously lived to tell the tale.
We find Natan – an Ethiopian, just 10 years in Israel – in Hadassah hospital on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus, an award for bravery above his bed. His skeletal body, burnt and holed with nails and screws, is scrunched up in a chair. He looks at us like a man who has been to hell and has still not found his way out. We wait for 15 minutes as he gathers the strength to tell us what had happened. Natan and a colleague were warned that morning to be extra-vigiliant, as there was intelligence about a possible suicide bomber. An Israeli woman approached him and pointed to a man crossing the road who, she said, looked ‘suspicious’. The man looked normal to Natan. He was wearing Jewish religious garb – a kippa, white shirt and black trousers. He was also carrying a rucksack. Religious Jews are often seen carrying rucksacks, but the woman felt something was wrong about it. ‘Perhaps it was too heavy, or perhaps it was to do with the way the man was carrying it over both his arms instead of slinging it over just one, as was the normal style,’ said Natan. In any event, he too decided something was wrong. ‘I got to within five or six metres of the man and I asked him to stop,’ says Natan. ‘But he continued to walk slowly until he was about one metre away. I was about to fire in the air to warn him to stop. But at that point he looked at me, smiling and exploding at the same time.’
Ra’ed smiled because he knew he was going to paradise. He was quite sure of this, because he had studied the Koran and had the qualifications to prove his expertise. At his home in the village of Aboud, his father proudly showed us his many certificates for sharia scholarship pinned to the wall of his room, next to a shelf stuffed with teddies. Even the village priest came to get a poster of Ra’ed after he died, to stick on the church wall.
But did Ra’ed go to paradise? His grandmother evidently doesn’t think so. She has not been in the house since the day Ra’ed died.
We are stuck at Kalandia again, on our way up to visit Ahlam’s family in the village of Nebi Saleh. Today the stallholders are selling Teletubbies and packets of socks. The soldiers are jumpy, and our translator is turned back. Because he lives in East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed, he is classified as Israeli and carries an Israeli ID. Israelis are banned by law from entering the West Bank, for their own safety. ‘But I am a Palestinian. My family live in the West Bank.’ No matter. At Kalandia, perversity rules.
‘You know, I say to a soldier at Kalandia, ‘Here you are making factories for suicide bombers,’ says Albert Agazarian, an Armenian academic who has joined the throng on his way to work at Bir Zeit University. ‘And you know what he said? He said, ‘You may be right.’ Albert has given up taking his car to work. Like everyone else he takes a ‘Ford’, or service taxi, to one side of the block, gets down, walks around the boulders and the soldiers, and picks up another on the other side.
Here is Salam, one of Albert’s students from Gaza. He hasn’t been able to go home to Gaza for five years. ‘You see why people want to explode themselves,’ says Albert, perspiring as he trudges through the dust in his suit. ‘Of these 200 cars, someone will say, ‘To hell with this life.’ They sit here, among all this, then they hear a bomb has gone off in Tel Aviv. The chemistry of anger has been building up in them all day. Are you surprised they cheer?’
Ahlam Tmimi was born in Jordan. Her family fled there from Nebi Saleh when Israel first seized the West Bank during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Soon after the West Bank was captured, the family’s village lost several hundred acres to the Israelis, much of it used to build the Jewish settlement of Halamish, a pink-roofed new town that dominates the hillside opposite. Nearly 400,000 Jewish settlers now live in guarded enclaves, among the 3.4m Palestinians of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Because of the proximity of the Halamish settlement, the only approach road to Nebi Saleh is choked with its own Israeli roadblock. After long negotiation, the soldiers let us pass. One is English. ‘From Oxfordshire,’ he says with a smile.
The youngest of five, Ahlam was the only one of the children eager to return to the West Bank, and used to come back for visits with her mother during the olive season. She was close to her mother, who died a week before Ahlam was arrested. ‘If she had known, she would have died again,’ says her father. When she finished school with high grades, Ahlam decided she wanted to study at Bir Zeit, near her West Bank home. She always got what she wanted, says her father. Her mother, like Ahlam, was keen to return to the West Bank, and persuaded Ahlam’s father to take advantage of the Oslo peace deal and come back. They returned three years ago. ‘Ahlam hoped there would be peace at that time. We all did,’ says her father, clicking his worry beads.
Ahlam gained a place to study media and communications at the university, and also worked part time on a Palestinian television station. ‘Perhaps because she was reporting on all the suffering, she felt it more deeply than some,’ says our translator, who has bluffed his way back through the checkpoint. ‘You risked your life,’ I remonstrate. ‘You see how reckless we have all become,’ he says, and grins at his small triumph. The same explanation for Ahlam’s action is given at Bir Zeit, where she wrote in a student newspaper.
Here on the campus, students are protesting about a rise in tuition fees. Above them, a young man is holding a microphone, giving the call to prayer. Until three weeks ago the call was issued by a student called Dia Tawil. He blew himself up at a bus stop near Jerusalem, students tell us. In the brand-new communications block, where Ahlam studied, we are shown a student paper she used to write for, and in which her colleagues have now written about her arrest.
Ahlam’s teacher, Nash’at Aqfash, is astonished by her action. She was a normal girl, good at her studies, he says. She was friendly with another student, Mohammed Daglas, who was also arrested in connection with the bombing. He was ‘perfectly normal’, too, says Aqfash. They had both recently helped with a research project to gauge children’s attitudes to the intifada. He pulls out the results of the research. Of those aged between 8 and 13, 86% were ‘thinking of offering to suicide themselves’, says the teacher. ‘Perhaps she was affected by writing about that.’
Back at her home in Nebi Saleh, we ask to see photographs of her. The family appear to have none. Certainly there were no posters glorifying Ahlam’s murderous act, not in this household or any other. ‘This act is refused. Especially when it is a girl involved,’ says Ahlam’s father. When he visits his daughter in prison, he says, he will tell her she is ‘still loved’. But he is also going to say: ‘You made a mistake. You destroyed yourself and your family.’ Eventually a collection of her press passes is found, with pictures on them. At first sight they show the face of a young professional woman – well groomed, a touch of lipstick, glossy hair, and quite composed. Yet Ahlam’s is also a very young face. Childlike, almost; determined, yes, but vulnerable. Her fellow students say that she was in love with a young man, a relative who had been locked up in an Israeli jail for more than a year. She had been unable to see him for a long time. Do the family know anything of this? No. And they make it clear that it would not be right for a young woman to have had a sexual relationship outside marriage.
We ask to see her room. It is bare apart from a cupboard stuffed with old clothes and a computer gathering dust. Her books are piled on the floor. One is entitled European Culture and Philosophy, and there is a book of Palestinian poetry. Her uncle pauses for a moment and bends over; he has found a glossy pink folder. ‘It is nothing. It is normal,’ he says, and moves to close it. But the cover falls open to show a picture of a smiling baby in nappies. It appears to have been clipped from a magazine. On the next page is another clipping of two lovers: the stars of the film Titanic. There are words written in Arabic, then some in English: ‘You think that I could live without your love. You will see.’ More pictures of lovers, film stars, babies. ‘Please take me and hold me because I miss you.’ It is very private, he says. It is a girl’s diary: clippings of her passions and dreams. Now she could face 15 life sentences.
We call the respected Palestinian cleric Sheikh Abdel Salem Abu Shukaidem on his mobile. A jovial voice answers, speaking English with a curious Geordie twang. We will have to meet him in the southern West Bank town of Hebron, because he, like the rest of the city’s population, is trapped behind roadblocks. We find him outside Hebron’s town hall, just down the road from the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is said to lie. Distinctive in his turban and traditional cleric’s tunic, the sheikh is chatting to a stout man with a beard and brown pinstriped trousers. The stout man is complaining that his bookshop, in Jerusalem’s Old City, has been raided because it was selling books by Osama Bin Laden. The sheikh invites us to write about this as a clear violation of human rights. Was he really selling books by Bin Laden? ‘Of course, it’s normal. Why not?’ he says.
Sheikh Shukaidem takes us to his office in Hebron 1 (Hebron, home to 150,000 Arabs and 400 Jewish settlers, is divided into two sub-zones) and takes a seat beside rows of leather-bound Islamic tomes. He is a modest man with a twinkle in the eye, and he is friendly to Britain, where he taught for several years at a Muslim centre in South Shields. He takes a souvenir of those days from his leather briefcase: ‘Islam: approach for GCSE.’ We are more interested in the original scriptures, though, and persuade him to take down his Koran and explain who qualifies as a shahid. According to the Prophet Mohammed, a shahid must be a ‘soldier’ following the orders of Mohammed’s locally designated ‘leader’. In the eyes of this sheikh, the leader is clearly the man staring from the wall above: Yasser Arafat. Suicide bombers are followers of Hamas or Islamic Jihad. ‘Prophet Mohammed said, whoever obeys the leader obeys me, and whoever obeys me obeys Allah almighty.’
On the other hand, the sheikh acknowledges that the circumstances make it hard for ordinary Palestinians to know which ‘leader ‘ to follow, since, without a state to run, a leader has little power. ‘And because the bloodshed is touching everyone, everyone considers himself a soldier. The problem is, everywhere is being hit.’ He glances towards Hebron 2, where 30,000 Palestinians live under constant curfew. On Abu Sneineh hill, five Palestinians, including two children, were killed by Israeli shellfire the week before. ‘What do we say to the child whose friend was killed yesterday or disabled this morning?’ he asks. ‘There are wounded and disabled in every house, more coming every day and night. If this is happening day and night to an ordinary man, he will want to explode himself, and he will just think that he must put an end to this disaster and hope there is a better life – and there is no controlling this.’
The call to prayer is echoing across from Hebron 2. The sheikh leaves for a few minutes to pray, and I flick through Islam for GCSE, reading the descriptions of paradise: flowing rivers, fountains and trees. When the sheikh returns, he carries on where he left off. According to Islamic teaching, jihad, or holy war, is not condoned in cases where a weak state is fighting a strong one and cannot win. It is also not condoned for a small child to wrestle with a grown man. ‘But who can persuade the young boy not to throw his stones?’ asks the sheikh. A child should consider his parents, with whom he shares his life. And jihad should not be launched by a single son. Someone in debt cannot go to jihad until he has paid his debts.
What about the killing of civilians who do not take part in the war? ‘Ah, this is indeed a foggy area.’ It is forbidden – but the problem is that many Israeli civilians will take part in the war or have done so in the past. What of killing children? ‘Haram,’ he says (forbidden), and this time he means it. ‘In all circumstances. Any child who dies in these circumstances must go to heaven, because he had no chance to understand or to realise anything.’ So, according to Sheikh Shukaidem’s interpretation, the Jewish children killed in the Sbarro attack will be in heaven, but Izzedine al-Masri will not.
As far as Niza Ramadan is concerned, there is nothing ‘foggy’ about martyrdom.
Ramadan is a senior political leader of Hamas in Hebron, and one of those who argued in the mid-1990s for the movement to back suicide bombings. The change in policy followed the Hebron massacre of February 1994, when a fanatical Jewish settler called Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, just below our window here, and fired several rounds at the backs of praying Muslims, killing 29. Nothing has radicalised Palestinians more than the sight of those blood-soaked prayer mats hanging out to dry. Hamas said there would be five acts of revenge, and there were ? each one a lethal suicide bombing. A chemistry student at Bir Zeit, Yehiya Ayyash, had engineered an explosive device using domestic fertiliser, dynamite, and screws or nails, which could be packed into a large body belt or a strong bag. The ‘engineer’, as Ayyash was known, was assassinated by undercover Israeli soldiers, but not before he disseminated his expertise.
‘It is a general principle of Islam that people should defend themselves. When land is occupied, the jihad is obligatory, and martyrdom operations are legal,’ says Ramadan. What about when land is not occupied, as in the case of the New York attacks carried out by Osama Bin Laden? Ramadan sidesteps this question. Palestinian extremists shy away from association with Bin Laden’s ‘operation’. ‘Ours is a national struggle. It is not clash of civilisations.’
What makes a man decide to kill himself? The Hamas leader flinches, and picks up a small passport-sized photograph from his desk. Another of those pale young men with short cropped beards stares out. This time it is Hasham al-Najar, his nephew. He is the one who blew himself up at the rest place near Kiryat Gat, which we passed in the Jordan valley. He grew up here in Hebron, where his parents run a small store. Najar, who ‘heard a lot but spoke little’, telephoned his mother the evening before he blew himself up. ‘He said to her, “If I die as a martyr, you will not be angry?’ She was worried. Then he said, “I am just kidding.” At public gatherings in Hebron now, Najar’s father is placed in the front line as the father of a martyr. He likes that. But the family are sad to lose their son, and angry that they have no body to bury. The Israelis are refusing to hand back whatever was left of Najar.
Ramadan explains that it is a Muslim tradition to wash a body before burial, but not the body of a martyr. He is buried in his bloodied clothes – then he can go to heaven. One idea for deterring martyrs, canvassed in the Israeli press, is to douse the bodies in pig’s blood so they cannot be received into heaven.
On July 30, there was a small explosion in a Jerusalem supermarket. Under interrogation, Ahlam Tmimi admitted that she had left a bag containing a small beer-can bomb on the supermarket shelf. The beer-can bombing was Ahlam’s test run. She had been given the device by Mohammed Daglas, her fellow media-studies student.
When plans started to be drawn up for the Sbarro bombing, Daglas was asked by his Hamas friends to find and test out a female accomplice. It would make good cover, given the tightened Israeli security. Until the Sbarro, nobody had thought to use a woman as an accomplice.
According to his will (the bomber’s final testament is never called a ‘suicide note’), Izzedine al-Masri had been on stand-by for the operation since last December. ‘To my beloved family. Do not cry for me. I left this ephemeral world leading to the external world to meet the Prophet. The call came to me in the last month of Ramadan’ (the December before the bombing). The ‘call’ is sometimes issued by an imam in a mosque. Although the imam has no contact with military commanders, he may use certain words, passed to him, that the volunteer will recognise. E-mail is also used to give signals. In the period before the operation, Izzedine would have been encouraged to loosen emotional ties, and to spend more time at prayer. Eyad recalls that his younger brother became increasingly forgiving at this time. ‘He would never argue. He just said, ‘May God forgive you.’ And he said, ‘You should give up these material things.’
A Hamas figure would have been designated as his personal mentor, to assure him his family would be looked after financially, and to help him write his will. He would also be advised to find ways of dispelling any suspicion about his plans. Izzedine had recently embarked on a new swimming course, and the day before the bombing he went to the tailor in Jenin and ordered new clothes for the waiters in the restaurant. There were many bombers to go before Izzedine’s turn came. Suicide bomb attacks intensified in the spring, causing bloody retaliation. By the early weeks of the summer, the Palestinian and Israeli desire to hurt each other was overwhelming.
Suddenly, Arafat, under international pressure, called a ceasefire. His security chief, Jibril Rajoub, called openly for an end to attacks inside the Green Line. ‘Military activity does not help but hurts. Sharon is looking for an excuse,’ he said. Hamas appears to have complied, and Izzedine was again on hold. Then, in August, Jamal Mansour, the Hamas leader, was blown up on Ariel Sharon’s orders, along with the little boys. As a direct result of these killings, Arafat’s local followers signalled to Hamas that the ceasefire could be deemed to be over. Izzedine’s operation was now set in motion.
On Wednesday, August 8, Izzedine left the house at 7am to start work at the restaurant. His mother, a diabetic, recalls asking him to bring back some sugar when he returned from work that day.
At noon, Izzedine told Eyad that he was going to be away from the restaurant for an hour. He was driven to Ramallah, where he spent the night in a flat rented by Daglas. Izzedine called his family from Ramallah, saying he was staying the night. He wanted to speak to his mother, but she wasn’t there. The family were uneasy, as he had never left home before, but he said he had travelled to see a friend just released from prison. He had taken nothing with him, leaving in his usual clothes: cotton trousers, shirt and cotton jacket.
The following morning, Ahlam left as if to go to university but travelled on to Ramallah, where she met Daglas and Izzedine in the flat. The bomb, packed into a guitar, was handed over. The group heard that security had been tightened at Kalandia that morning, and they debated whether to call the operation off. They decided to take a gamble.
Izzedine and Ahlam now travelled silently towards Jerusalem in a taxi. Just before they reached the checkpoint at Kalandia, they split up. Ahlam advised Izzedine to go through the checkpoint on foot. She went through in the vehicle, with the guitar. She was unlikely to arouse suspicion.
Keeping his cool, Izzedine passed the tanks and soldiers and was not stopped. On the other side, he waited for Ahlam’s taxi to be waved through. He hailed it and climbed back in. The couple proceeded to Damascus Gate, outside the old city walls, where they descended together. Ahlam led the way up into the Israeli side of town through Prophets’ Street, past the French lycee.
When they reached the junction with King George Street, outside the Sbarro, Ahlam turned and left Izzedine for the last time. Izzedine al-Masri exploded before 2pm. When news of a bombing reached his family in Aqaba, nobody suspected he was involved. His parents watched coverage of the carnage on the TV in the evening. Then an uncle called from Jordan to tell the family he had heard rumours that Izzedine might have been the bomber. Shortly afterwards, a young boy passing in the street told Izzedine’s father that his son was a martyr.
Three days after Izzedine died, Hela gave birth to a boy and named him after her brother, as he had requested. Hela now shows us the dark-haired little bundle wrapped in a white shawl. When we ask her what hopes she has for the child, she says she wants him to be ‘like his uncle’. What does she mean? ‘That he should pray and fast. That he should be a good man and follow in his uncle’s footsteps.’
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