A new and deadly militancy is erupting inside Yasser Arafat's political base, the Fatah movement. Fatah this week spawned what is believed to be the first woman suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, who blew herself up in Jerusalem Sunday, killing an elderly Israeli man and wounding more than 100 people. The trend, expressed in attacks against civilians inside Israel, portends an even more intractable Middle East conflict.
Friends of Ms. Idris said Wednesday that she had been active for many years in Fatah and served on a women's committee. Fatah is the largest Palestinian political group and until Sept. 2000 it was Israel's uneasy partner in the now defunct peace process.
"The pressure of our situation, being under siege, facing assassinations, the demolition of houses, all built up and exploded for her," Jihad Tumali, a Fatah leader in the camp, said. "She sacrificed her life for her people," he added. But then he distanced himself from the bombing. "We in Fatah are adhering to a strategic choice for peace, but the state terrorism of Sharon is driving people to revenge."
Idris's friends believe she carried out the bombing because of her experiences as a paramedic, during which she frequently treated people wounded by Israeli troops, including children. They said that on one occasion she was beaten by Israeli soldiers. Palestinian analysts warn that unless the political climate changes drastically, Ms. Idris may be the first of a long line of Fatah suicide bombers. "Fatah is definitely entering a new period," says Bir Zeit University political scientist Ali Jarbawi. "It is a movement with many different groupings, and one of these groupings favors escalation of the resistance."
Suicide bombings were formerly the exclusive domain of the Islamic fundamentalist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which call for the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic state. Fatah had concentrated its attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, usually in the form of drive-by shootings. Until this month, it had not mounted a suicide-style attack since the 1970s, according to Jarbawi.
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says Fatah's foray into suicide bombings offers evidence that "basically the goals of Fatah and Hamas have become identical, with Fatah also being committed to Israel's destruction, but in stages." He said that previously there had been a "division of labor" between the two movements according to which Hamas and Islamic Jihad would operate inside Israel's pre-1967 borders while Fatah would concentrate on the West Bank.
"This division was more useful when Arafat and Fatah attempted to present themselves as a moderate diplomatic force ready to compromise. It had been eroding and now it has broken down entirely, says Gold."
Before Sunday's bombing, there were two attacks inside Israel by Fatah loyalists this month, one a deadly shooting spree at a bat mitzvah in the town of Hadera and another on Jaffa Road. Those followed almost immediately after Israel assassinated a Fatah militia leader, Raed Karmi, ending a period in which Palestinian attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip dropped to a record low after Arafat called a ceasefire on Dec. 16.
Ramadan Safi, a moderate Fatah political activist, says that the more conservative tendency in Fatah "is experiencing a weakness because the Oslo Agreement failed" and because it is associated with corruption. Younger, more militant and populist leaders keep gaining ground, he says. Mr. Safi believes that deaths of friends or relatives at the hands of the Israeli army played a role in both shooting sprees. Arafat, he argues, cannot control every Fatah supporter while Israeli army actions stoke feelings of revenge.
But Jarbawi says that with his movements barred and Israeli tanks positioned outside his office, Arafat has no interest instopping the attacks inside Israel. "I don't think Arafat is responsible for these attacks, but I don' t think he is keen to control them. Why should he do his best to control them? He knows Sharon will give him nothing in return. There is a message here from Arafat: if you continue to maintain enormous pressure and to strangle me, then this is what you'll get."