Where suicide is a cult

Kevin Toolis visits the homes of the Hamas suicide bombers and learns from their relatives what drives quiet young men to such a desperate end

Observer/December 16, 2001
By Kevin Toolis

Before he left the village that night, 24-year-old Nabil sorted out a few things. At four in the afternoon he went to see his cousin Abdullah Halabiyeh, who lived next door, and paid him back the £10 he had owed him for a year and a half. Then he cleaned his new car for nearly two hours. At 6pm, he handed over a petition he had been gathering to get the local council to tar the road outside the family home and told Abdullah to keep hassling them until the job was done. And then at 9.30pm he went to his bare room to pray.

'He was crying and saying Koran. After 10 minutes or nearly 15 he finished the prayer. And I asked him [why he was] making a long time in the praying and he said nothing - and smiled,' Abdullah said.

Abdullah watched him drive off around 10pm. Nabil's final destination was only 10 minutes away so he must have stopped somewhere to pick up his companion and fellow villager Osama Bahar, and the explosives they would wrap round their waists. No one, apart from the men who recruited them, knows where that was. But we do know where Nabil and Osama ended up.

At about 11.30pm they walked into Jerusalem's crowded Ben Yehuda pedestrian shopping mall and, in the midst of the bright lights and chatting teenagers, pulled the detonators. Nails and shrapnel, mixed in with the explosives, mutilated anyone within 20 feet of these two exploding human bombs. Eleven Israelis were killed and 37 injured. There was little of the bombers left to pick up.

A few minutes later Nabil's car exploded; it was a car bomb designed to kill rescue workers rushing to the scene. Nabil's 'new' car turned out to be stolen with only one purpose in mind - to kill as many of the hated enemy as possible.

The bombers' village, Abu Dees, nestles in the foothills of Jerusalem. The fanatical Islamic Hamas movement's cult of martyrdom has reached the very gates of the Israeli citadel.

In June this year, Ismail Masawabi, 23, drove a car packed with explosives into a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip and waited for a passing Israeli patrol. When they were within range, he flicked a switch on the dashboard and blew them and himself up. He killed three soldiers.

We visited the Masawabi family as they were watching their favourite film - Ismail's martyrdom video. The video contains an extraordinary piece of footage. Masawabi was filmed, by a Hamas cameraman, moments before he drove into the settlement. The film is grainy, but behind his gun you can see the explosives roped into the passenger seat. Masawabi plays with the detonation switch on the dashboard for the camera. All the time he is smiling a huge cheesy grin.

Ismail's father, Bashir Masawabi, said: 'I am happy when I see the Jews crying every day. The Jews raped and occupied our land. They desecrated Al-Aqsa [the third most important Muslim shrine which lies next to the Dome of the Rock]. They deserve this.'

The next suicide bomber, Nafeth Enether, was filmed attending Masawabi's funeral. A few days later, Hamas filmed him trying to blow up a Jewish settler's van in the Gaza Strip. Enether failed, but the footage of his death is a further proof that Hamas will use anything as propaganda to further its sacrificial war.

How can anyone become a suicide bomber? How can you hate an enemy so much you would gladly die killing them?

To try to answer these questions I went to Nabil's village with a Channel 4 News team. The villagers were insistent that Nabil and Osama were not suicide bombers but shaheed - blessed martyrs - who now lived with the prophets in paradise. They were heroes whose 'martyrdom poster' is now plastered over the village's walls and the sports club where both young men spent spare hours playing football or practising karate.

Osama, 25, had been imprisoned by the Israelis for three years, but both he and Nabil were, according to the villagers, quiet young men who never spoke about politics. Nabil was a local sporting hero, a centre-forward in the Abu Dees team that won the 1998 amateur Jerusalem District Cup.

Their martyrdom poster shows two fresh-faced young men superimposed on Jerusalem's disputed Golden Dome of the Rock - a symbol of their elevation into paradise. Incongruously, Osama is wearing a black rugby jersey that has the letters USA emblazoned on it.

At Osama Bahar's house the women gather to mourn, waiting endlessly for the Israelis to return the body bits so that the funeral can begin. The family are still reeling in shock from his suicide mission. Neither Osama nor Nabil gave their relatives the slightest clue about their impending suicide mission.

The Bahar family are middle-class by the village's standards. They live in an palatial three-storey house that was built on the proceeds of Osama's grandfather's construction work in Kuwait. In retribution the Israeli army has sent in teams of engineers to plan the house's demolition.

Many Palestinians are unemployed, but Osama had a job as a bank guard. Even under Israel's tightening iron fist in the West Bank he had some prospects. He was not a desperate young man. The only sign that he had secretly been recruited by Hamas's military wing was his resignation from the bank two months ago and his explanation that money lending was forbidden under Islam.

Nabil's family were poorer, but he, too, had a job, reputedly working for one of Yasser Arafat's intelligence agencies.

So why did they do it? There is not a simple answer. Under the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Abu Dees, which lies within sight of the Dome of the Rock, has been designated as the home of the Palestinian parliament. The building, funded by the European Union, lies half built. Arafat's office is an empty ruin. The empty parliament, its courtyard still littered with builders' rubbish, is a concrete symbol of the failure of the peace deal.

According to Oslo, Abu Dees was classified as 'Area B' territory that was to be jointly controlled by both Israelis and Palestinians. If the peace plan worked, 'B' would become 'Area A' - under exclusive Palestinian control.

All that changed with the new intifada and the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bombing in August. Within days of the Hamas attack on the restaurant, which killed 21 people, the Israeli Defence Force drove the Palestinian agencies from their temporary headquarters and re-established a military command post in the Governor's office. Abu Dees is firmly back under Israeli military control.

The failure of the peace process is only part of the explanation. To understand the lure of martyrdom you must travel to Gaza City, home of the Palestinian Authority and stronghold of Hamas.

The cult of death began in Gaza. In its streets Hamas militants shroud themselves in the white robes of the paradise-to-come, and strap dummy explosives to their waists to symbolise their willingness to sacrifice their lives.

The city's wall are shrines to suicide bombers and the death toll they have inflicted on the Israeli occupiers. Many of the city's mosques are plastered with the 'martyrdom' posters extolling the deeds of suicide bombers. No details are hidden. Even the Sbarro attack, where most of the victims were young children, is celebrated with news photos of the aftermath.

Almost every day, even under the so-called crackdown by the Palestinian Authority, the streets are filled with another frenzied funeral, a dark pageant of martyrdom. Every martyr, or what remains of him, receives a hero's funeral. Each funeral is another blood ritual, a rallying call for more sacrifice and death.

By the side of the crowd we even found a stall selling a 2002 Suicide Bomber calendar displaying the faces of all the dead bombers, and Hamas's spiritual leader, Sheikh Yessin.

In life most suicide bombers are nobodies, but in death they rise and become shaheed, and their families rise with them. Each martyr's family receives an official certificate of martyrdom from the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and a prize of $10,000.

With the peace process in ruins, and the blood cycle of revenge and retaliation turning, there is only one certainty: Nabil and Osama will not be the last young men to drive off in the night towards Jerusalem. In the war between Arab and Jew in the benighted Promised Land, a terrible blood sacrifice, a terrible human slaughter, has only just begun.

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