Palestinian militants are intensifying their use of suicide attacks against Israel. Since March 4, 15 suicide bombers have taken the lives of at least 52 people, the vast majority of them Israelis. One of the most deadly occurred last Thursday in a pizza restaurant in Jerusalem; another bomber struck a coffee shop near the Israeli port city of Haifa Sunday evening.
In recent weeks, the Monitor has interviewed Palestinian militants involved in suicide bombings, a young man who has considered carrying out such an operation, the father of a deceased bomber, and some Israelis who were affected by one attack. The following accounts offer a closer look at this form of violence - the motivations of its perpetrators and the experiences of its victims.
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
Hassan, as he asks to be called, holds a brand-new professional degree from a Palestinian university. He faces a career choice that says much about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the one hand, he might like to get into human rights work. Another option is "martyrdom" - perhaps by carrying an explosive into a crowd of Israelis and detonating it.
"I have become capable of sacrificing myself for my religion and my homeland," says Hassan, who was interviewed on the condition that his real name not be used. Having spent several years in Israeli jails for militant activity, he worries that the exposure could put the Israelis back on his trail.
A slender, soft-spoken young man with wiry brown hair and a narrow face, Hassan wears jeans, a brown T-shirt, and delicate, metal-framed glasses.
He has the intense, slightly uncertain demeanor of a university intellectual - hunching his shoulders and crossing his legs, he smokes a lot and fidgets endlessly with a ring on his right hand as he speaks.
During a two-hour meeting in the leafy garden of a private home in Ramallah, Hassan is gentle-humored in his explanations of the theology and logistics of suicide bombing.
Martyrdom-seekers, as they consider themselves, reject any notion that their actions constitute suicide, which is forbidden by the Koran. Hassan says candidates are chosen for their piety and sincerity; anyone who seems troubled or suicidal is screened out.
The proper motive is to take jihad - a holy war to defend or promote Islam - to the extreme. Those preparing for an operation, Hassan says, spend much of their time in prayer in an attempt to separate themselves mentally from the world as they know it.
They see jihad as a "pillar" of Islam, an obligation. "As long as people occupy Muslim land," Hassan adds, "that obligation remains." Hassan is a member of Islamic Jihad, a militant group that advocates the eradication of Israel.
Would-be bombers are always free to step back, even during the final moments of their missions, Hassan insists.
"It is written in the Koran that the hearts of believers are in the hands of God," he says. "He can make them change their minds, so the choice is always wide open."
The bombers typically are not members of Islamic Jihad's secretive "military wing," which is known as the Jerusalem Brigades. They are part of a corps of pious volunteers who implement a bombing's final phase.
Members of the military wing handle just about everything else involved in suicide operations. Some specialize in assembling the combination of explosives and nails that most bombers employ, others in defining targets, still others in penetrating Israeli security and bringing the bomber close to a target site.
Operating in small cells with different functions, the militants are linked by intermediaries and have little or no contact with each other, to defend against infiltration by Israeli agents, Hassan says. The militants work with a bomber only when an operation is set in motion.
He is unfazed by questions about the legitimacy of actions in which civilians and even children are killed.
"According to my religion, I'm doing Jewish children a favor, because if they get killed [in an operation] they go to Heaven instead of dying as a soldier and going to Hell," he says.
The bomber, too, is promised admission to the highest level of paradise, the one reserved for prophets and saints, Hassan says. Martyrs win salvation for 70 of their relatives and enjoy the eternal pleasures of a like number of heavenly virgins.
Bombers are freed from worry about their families' futures, since Islamic Jihad undertakes to provide for those left behind. Hassan says a colleague once told him: "Don't talk to me about earthly things - I'm in another world."
NABLUS, WEST BANK
In a vacant suite of offices in a busy commercial building in this West Bank city, three Islamic Jihad operatives - two militants and their "handler" from the party's political department - sit down to talk about their work with three foreign journalists.
The operatives insist on staying in the suite's airless hallway, away from windows that might admit an Israeli missile more easily than stone-and-cement walls. They keep their eyes on the door.
The militants' faces are wrapped in Palestinian headscarves, or keffiyehs, to prevent identification. One man wears a red-checked scarf. The other's keffiyeh is the same black check worn by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
They provide no names; the handler gives only a first name that he asks not be published. The militants sit mute through questions about their backgrounds, operations they have participated in, and what they are training to do. The handler vetoes these topics as too sensitive.
The journalists, wary of hoaxsters with clever imaginations, begin to get exasperated. Mr. Red begins to get annoyed. He pulls a handgun from under his plaid shirt, displaying it in a way that violates several rules of firearm safety.
"This is how I would identify myself," he says.
In the end, his comments, and those of Mr. Black, are more convincing than the weapon.
They claim two motivations for joining the military wing. "Our main objective is to satisfy God's will by undertaking jihad," says Red. The other is to regain the Palestinians' "stolen land and dignity."
The handler explains that the two men are not would-be bombers, but militants who help the bombers carry out their missions. He identifies Red as a bombmaker and Black as a "sender," someone who devises operations and brings the bomber or bombers within striking distance.
Yet the two men themselves sound ready for the ultimate sacrifice.
"We are living martyrs; we are martyrs who are not yet dead," avers Black, adding that his enthusiasm is shared by the bombers with whom he has worked.
He recalls one operation, on May 25 in the Israeli seaside resort of Hadera, in which two Islamic Jihad bombers died when they detonated an explosive-laden minivan near the city's bus station.
The mission had been conceived as a solo attack, but two candidates to carry it out were fighting over the opportunity.
So the militants changed the plan to allow for a second bomber, who was supposed to detonate an explosive in a place apart from the minivan. For reasons known only to the bombers, they died together, injuring more than a dozen people.
Red, Black, and their handler identify the main criteria of a mission's success: a high number of casualties, the penetration of the Israeli security cordon, and the derailment of whatever negotiations or cease-fire efforts are under way.
The handler explains that Islamic Jihad is under no illusions
that suicide bombings can defeat Israel's military, the most powerful in the Middle East.
The organization's goals are to "escalate the conflict" so that the "Islamic world" will join the Palestinian struggle, to "balance the terror" that the Israelis inflict on Palestinians and to demonstrate that the Israeli security forces are not invincible.
Black, the sender, stresses the importance of defeating Israeli efforts to prevent bombings. On July 16, the Israelis were expecting an attack in a town called Binyamina.
"To reach the target and explode the bomb" under such circumstances, he says, "that's success."
That is exactly what a young Palestinian farmer named Nidal Abu Shadouf did. Although Islamic Jihad has a reputation for indiscriminate killing, Black also considers Binyamina the most successful of the group's recent operations because its victims were Israeli soldiers.
At nearly half past 7 p.m. on July 16, Nidal Abu Shadouf's sender dropped him off a short walk from the train station in Binyamina, a town of red-roofed bungalows in central Israel that mainly serves as a bedroom community for Tel Aviv and other cities. Binyamina is nine miles from the "green line" that divides Israel from the West Bank.
The Israel Railways Authority had assigned extra security guards to the station. As in other areas of the country, people girded themselves for the worst.
Abu Shadouf, the eldest of 11 children from a farming family in the northern West Bank village of Burqin, proceeded along a two-lane road that runs past the station.
The day was fading into dusk, and the light dimmed still further as he walked under a shade tree that towers over the station entrance.
Every weekday, between 7:25 p.m. and 7:35 p.m., three trains stop at the station, depositing scores of passengers onto its platforms. These people may have been the bomber's intended target.
But a guard at the front of the station caught sight of Abu Shadouf, says Chanan Graf, head of security for the Railways Authority.
What the guard saw sets off mental alarms anywhere in Israel today: a 20-something Palestinian carrying a knapsack. The eyes of the guard met the eyes of the bomber.
Abu Shadouf apparently changed course, hurrying across the street and walking up to a bus stop. Four soldiers were in the small shelter because Binyamina is close to an Israeli military training facility.
Miri Shamir and her 2-year-old son had just parked in front of the station. She had brought a big balloon to greet her husband. It said "Happy Birthday." At 7:34 Ms. Shamir, a Tel Aviv lawyer, answered a call on her cellphone. Then Abu Shadouf set off his bomb.
Less than 100 yards away, in a garden filled with sculptures, an artist named Gabriel was enjoying the cool of the early evening with a friend.
The noise of the blast deafened the ears and its shock wave jarred the stomach, says Gabriel, who wouldn't give his second name.
The two men sensed there were casualties and ran toward the scene. The smell of explosive filled the air.
Silence descended. "It was quiet like a desert," says Gabriel. All traffic had stopped. Everyone who could had fled. Those who couldn't - the dead and the wounded - lay on the ground.
Then Shamir stepped out of her station wagon, its windows shattered, its sides punctured. Blood from a wound on the back of her head was staining her white shirt.
Inexplicably she left her sandals in the car and walked barefoot on broken glass to reach her son and get him out of the car seat. He was screaming that he couldn't see.
Security guards and soldiers soon reached her and took care of the boy, who was unhurt except for a scratch above his eye.
Gabriel and his friend, a medic in Israel's military reserves, helped Shamir until emergency teams arrived. She and a half-dozen others were hospitalized with serious injuries.
Shamir is recovering from her injuries and feeling vulnerable. "In Israel, it's like Russian roulette. You never know when you are going to get it," she says. In June, the family had moved from Tel Aviv to a town near Binyamina because they feared bomb attacks in Israel's largest city.
Avi Ben-Haroush and Hanit Arami, the young soldiers who died in the blast, are memorialized in a plaque that Binyamina authorities installed next to the reconstructed bus stop.
"They were murdered at the hands of a son of injustice who lacked humanity," the inscription reads.
BURQIN, WEST BANK
Ibrahim Abu Shadouf found out about his son's death on TV the night of July 16. He says he never knew that Nidal was involved with Islamic Jihad, much less contemplating a suicide bombing.
Mr. Abu Shadouf is vague about what feelings of loss he might be experiencing.
"You know how parents feel when their child gets killed," is all he will say about hearing the news. Neighbors and friends soon distracted him with congratulatory visits.
When Palestinian suicide bombers die, their families receive accolades, not condolences. Posters depicting Nidal in heroic poses were quickly printed and put up throughout his village.
The Abu Shadouf family lives in a whitewashed hillside home in Burqin, a West Bank village known as the site where Jesus healed 10 lepers. The eldest son of a partially blind father, Nidal sacrificed his birthright and deprived Abu Shadouf of daily help in the fields when he carried out his mission.
A gruff man with a head of wavy white hair and a bristly beard, the father is without complaint.
"You can't ask others to liberate you," he says. "We don't have enough people to support us for the time being - that's why we end up throwing ourselves in front of tanks."
Of suicide attacks, Abu Shadouf says: "That is what is left to us. We have no tanks, no Apache helicopters."
Many Palestinians say the current conflict is making life unbearable, the worst period in their modern history. Abu Shadouf calls it "the best period" because he sees Palestinians fighting for their rights.
"The jihad is the only way to achieve our freedom," he says. "Although it is tough and we pay with the blood of our children, still it is good.... I am willing to sacrifice my seven sons so that one day justice can be achieved."
Abu Shadouf says his son was distraught over the death of a cousin, a Palestinian security-force member who was killed by Israeli fire in December. Nidal may have wanted to avenge his cousin's death.
On the day he died, says Abu Shadouf, Nidal stopped working at about 4 p.m., showered, and prayed. He put on some clothes he had recently bought - a black T-shirt and trousers - and left as if he were going to hang out with friends. There were no meaningful goodbyes, not even to his mother.
A photograph exists of Nidal's head and upper torso after the bombing. Much of what it depicts is a grisly mess. But his face is unblemished, his hair neatly combed, his eyes almost fully closed. The expression is one of peace.