Israel mulls freeing Hamas 'underwear bomber'

At age 21, Wafa al-Biss was arrested at the Israeli border with explosives sewn into her underwear. Five years later, she and some 1,000 other jailed Palestinians may be released as part of a deal to free Israeli Sgt. Gilad Shalit.

Hatem Moussa/AP
Palestinian women and children hold pictures of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel at a weekly gathering in the International Red Cross building in Gaza City, Gaza.

In a bedroom overlooking Jabaliya refugee camp's narrow, potholed streets, an array of new cosmetics and a hairbrush are lined up neatly in anticipation of a daughter's early release from prison.

Next to a portrait of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a framed photo of Wafa al-Biss looks out into the room she has not seen since being arrested at the Israeli border with 20 pounds of explosives sewn into her underwear in 2005. She was 21 years old.

In the photo, Wafa is dressed in bluejeans, heavy makeup, and a lace head scarf. She is unsmiling, almost defiant.

"She was the foundation of our family," says her father, Samer al-Biss, who lives with his wife and 10 other children in their three-room home. "I depended on her like I would a strong man."

Wafa was sentenced to 12 years in an Israeli prison after soldiers caught her at the Israeli-Gazan border five years ago. Now she is reportedly on the list of some 1,000 prisoners Hamas wants released in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Palestinian militants captured in a 2006 cross-border raid. German-mediated negotiations over the controversial swap have gained momentum in recent months, and expectations are high on both sides that a deal could be imminent.

"I have been waiting for Wafa to come home since the day she was arrested," says Wafa's mother, Salma al-Biss. "Preparing for her return is something we do every day. Sometimes I am hopeful, and then the next day I find out there is no progress. Nothing is for sure."

At least 7,500 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails, according to figures released by the Palestinian prisoners' affairs ministry at the end of 2009. Of these, 10 percent are from the Gaza Strip and 34 are women.

Wafa is the only woman from Gaza, but like her fellow female prisoners from the West Bank, she is young. According to the Al Dameer Prisoners Support Association, a Palestinian human rights group, 56 percent of women detainees are between 20 and 30 years old. Nearly half were either studying or had obtained their university degrees when arrested.

Wafa was recruited by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent offshoot of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement, to carry out the attack on an Israeli hospital where she was being treated for burns she sustained in a kitchen fire in December 2004.

Using a permit issued to her for medical treatment inside Israel, Wafa was caught with the bomb after coming under the suspicion of Israeli border guards at the Erez crossing. She tried to detonate the bomb while being strip-searched, according to reports, but it failed to explode.

"Wafa was very sensitive; she used to cry whenever Palestinian children were killed by Israelis in the fighting," says Mr. Biss, in an attempt to explain his daughter's motives. "When Palestinian prisoners went on hunger strike in Israeli prisons, she would do it with them. I can see why she made the decision to do it."

Israel has been reluctant to meet Hamas's demand to free between 10 and 15 Palestinians involved in attacks on Israelis, including Marwan Barghouti, according to media reports. A charismatic Palestinian lawmaker, he was sentenced to five life sentences for organizing several deadly operations inside Israel.

In total, Palestinian attacks killed 490 Israeli civilians between the start of the second Palestinian uprising in September 2000 and December 2008, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Israeli forces killed more than 4,700 Palestinians in the same period.

According to sources on both sides of the talks, Israel would also like to see many of the West Bank-based prisoners sent into exile for fear they would resume their violence against Israel, as did some Palestinians freed in previous releases.

"It's a real fear ... that some of these prisoners will return to the business of killing Israelis," says Uzi Eilam, a former brigadier general in Israel's army. "There is a lot of emotion among those who lost their loved ones in terror attacks, and the rest of the Israeli public really feels that."

Wafa is considered to have "no blood on her hands" – meaning she killed no Israelis – and had expressed remorse in interviews with Israeli reporters immediately following her arrest.

But Biss says that in messages passed through the International Red Cross, Wafa says she is determined to carry out another attack.

Because of an Israeli law banning Gaza residents from visiting their relatives in Israel's prisons, Wafa's parents haven't been able to see Wafa or speak with her.

"I am proud of my daughter, she is a fighter for her country," says Mrs. Biss. "And if she wants to do it again, we won't try to stop her. We will support her."

Another worry among Israelis is that the release of Palestinian prisoners will strengthen its enemy Hamas.

"Any deal would certainly end up supporting the Hamas regime," says Mr. Eilam, "even if it's unclear just how far that support will go."

Biss, an ardent supporter of Hamas's rival, Fatah, says he would nevertheless be thankful to the Islamist movement if they secure Wafa's release. He says all Palestinian militant factions should strive to capture Israeli soldiers. "It's the only thing we have in our struggle against the Israelis," he says. "With Shalit, Hamas has taken the power from Israel's hands. They put the Israelis in a position where they have no other choice."

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