Why a Palestinian girl now wants to be a suicide bomber

On Friday, a suicide bomber killed herself and two Israelis, joining two other female 'martyrs.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The living room of the Oudeh family, with its flowered settees and polished stone coffee table, its carved wooden antelopes and framed needlepoints, seems an unlikely place to meet a terrorist, even a hypothetical one.

But Shireen Oudeh, 14 years old, a delicate gold chain hanging over the collar of her beige turtleneck, doesn't bridle at the label. "If Sharon is calling us terrorists," she says, referring to Israel's prime minister, "we should show him the terror."

Would she herself become a suicide bomber? "If God wills it," she says in a low, serious voice. "If I had the means, I would have done it yesterday."

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In Shireen's world, the Deheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, there is nothing hypothetical about her answer. On Friday, 18-year-old Ayat Akhras, a friend and neighbor, walked up to a supermarket in Jerusalem and detonated her explosives, killing two Israelis and herself.

Israel is mounting its most expansive operations yet in the Palestinian territories, but the outcome of previous incursions, including an invasion of Deheisheh in early March, illustrates the paradoxes and limitations of Israel's efforts to stop suicide bombings and destroy what Israeli officials call the "infrastructure of terror."

Occupying Palestinian areas curtails militant activity, Israeli officials say, but only up to a point and only as long as Israeli troops maintain their presence. When the troops pull out, they sometimes leave people ever more determined to strike at Israel. "Government and military officials are always trying to strike a balance between the absolute need to fight terror ... and the negative repercussions of too much force," says an Israeli official who declined to be named. "Nobody is kidding themselves that there aren't negative repercussions."

Three weeks ago, Israeli forces seized weapons and made arrests in Deheisheh, but they also killed a non-combatant named Issa Faraj, a construction worker who residents say was shot while he was playing with Legos with one of his children. Members of the Akhras family went to help their mortally wounded neighbor, and Ayat screamed when she saw him, says her father, Samir Akhras.

Ayat gave no inkling of her intentions before her suicide operation, says Mr. Akhras and her fiancé Shadi Abu Laban. She was a pious Muslim, Mr. Abu Laban says, and not overtly political. But now that the two men are spending their days comforting each other as they receive mourners, they remember the scream and wonder whether her shock and horror drove her to her act.

The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group allied with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, said it was responsible for sending Ayat to kill herself, and presumably as many Israelis as she could. According to a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper, the militia has set up a special suicide-bomber unit for women.

A two-minute walk away from the Akhras house, members of the Oudeh family grapple with Ayat's death in individual ways. Awad Oudeh, father to Shireen and six other children, seems stunned to find himself in the position of having to discourage his own daughters from the ultimate act of political self-sacrifice.

A lifelong resident of Deheisheh, a jumble of tightly packed concrete buildings that house refugees from the war that preceded Israel's founding in 1948, Mr. Oudeh has achieved middle-class prosperity. He is responsible for customer service for a company that imports Whirlpool washing machines, among other things. "The burden of fatherhood is greater here than anywhere else in the world," he says, his green eyes wide open.

When his daughter Shireen isn't contemplating being a suicide bomber, she works hard at school – math is her favorite subject – in the hope of becoming a doctor. Medicine is her fallback option, she says, should she fail to become a "martyr." For her, Ayat's act is "sensational, it's awesome, it makes me think anyone would love to be in her place."

A physical disability – she walks with a pronounced limp – will in all likelihood rule out Shireen as a candidate for a suicide operation. But it is clear that Shireen and her sister Shurug, Ayat's good friend, have thought hard about performing acts of violence that are widely condemned as terrorism.

Shurug, two years older than Shireen and much more inclined to weep for Ayat than to envy her, says carrying out a suicide operation has long been a topic of discussion among her friends.

First, she says, the acts are considered revenge for Palestinians who have been killed by Israelis. Second, a suicide bombing is "a painful attack on Israel in order to end the occupation." And finally, "the security of Israel cannot be gained at the expense of the tears of the children of refugee camps."

But the suicides hardly bring an end to tears. Abu Laban, Ayat's fiancé, endures a few questions from reporters, perhaps because Ayat had planned to study journalism at Bethlehem University once she graduated from high school.

Sitting on a plastic chair in a chilly, cement room, Abu Laban has a long, high-cheekboned face, and his eyes are red around the rims. Those grieving for suicide bombers often say they are proud of their loved one's sacrifice, but Abu Laban defies that convention.

"I hope God forgives her for what she has done," he says quietly, and then excuses himself. He crosses the lane and enters Ayat's house, where the women of the family are also receiving guests. A billowing Palestinian flag, perhaps 25 feet long, is draped over the front of the building.

The walls and shutters facing the lane are covered with stencils and posters depicting previous martyrs. As in other places where poverty meets dense population, little children find their space to play in the lanes and alleys of the camp. No doubt they will soon see Ayat's face all around them.

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