'My dream was to be a suicide bomber. I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews. Yes, even babies' By Manuela Dviri in Tel Aviv (Filed: 26/06/2005)
It was about midday when a young Palestinian woman from the refugee camp of Jabalya in Gaza approached an Israeli checkpoint clutching a special permit to visit a doctor on the other side of the border.
The girl had big, brown eyes and her black hair was tied in a ponytail, but it was the strangeness of her gait that attracted the attention of the security officials at the Erez crossing, the main transit point between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
When a soldier asked her to remove her long, dark cloak, she turned to face him. All her movements were taped by the military surveillance camera at the checkpoint: calmly, deliberately, she took off her clothing, item by item, until she looked like any normal young woman in T-shirt and jeans. It was then that she tried to set off the belt containing 20lb of explosives hidden beneath her trousers. To her horror, she did not succeed. Desperate, she clawed at her face, screaming. She was still alive, she realised. She had failed her martyrdom mission.
That afternoon, on June 21, the 21-year-old, Wafa Samir al-Biss, was brought before the press by Israeli intelligence. Her neck and hands were covered with scars caused by a kitchen gas explosion six months earlier. The ugly scars - which had been treated in a hospital in Israel - had probably helped turn her into the perfect would-be huriia (virgin), the ideal martyr, since they would make it difficult for her to find a suitable husband.
The decision to publicise her case was intended to show that a terrorist threat remains despite a lull in the intifada since the Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire agreement at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit in February.
According to the Israeli doctor who attended Wafa at the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, she received blood transfusions during her treatment."I told her, with a laugh, that now she has Jewish blood in her veins," he said, adding sadly that she had"seemed so nice - we got a lovely thank you letter from her family.''
Wafa had been sent on her mission by the Abu Rish Brigade, the small militant faction with links to Fatah. She did not, she said later, regret it, though she stressed that her decision had had nothing to do with her scarring."My dream was to be a martyr. I believe in death," she said."Today I wanted to blow myself up in a hospital, maybe even in the one in which I was treated. But since lots of Arabs come to be treated there, I decided I would go to another, maybe the Tel Aviv. I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews …''
Asked whether she had considered the consequences of her planned attack, that it might have now precluded access to Israel for Palestinian patients who meant no harm and needed special medical treatment that could be achieved only here, she answered:"So what?" With a flat look in her eyes, she said:"They pay you the cost of the treatment, don't they?"
And what about babies? Would you have killed babies and children? she was asked."Yes, even babies and children. You, too, kill our babies. Do you remember the Doura child?"
Then she started to cry. ''I don't want my mother to see me like this. After all, I haven't killed anyone … will they have pity on me?'' It is unlikely. Wafa has become one of a very special group of females: the women who have tried - and failed - to die while killing for the Palestinian cause. I recently visited the Israeli jail that holds these"suicide women" near the finest Israeli villas, in the heart of the most fertile area of the country, the Plain of Sharon.
They are here, and still alive, because they changed their minds at the last moment, because they were arrested, or because, like Wafa, they did not succeed. They are kept in a kind of labyrinth, behind seven, or perhaps eight, iron doors and gates, at the end of long corridors to which few people are allowed access, and which are reached after climbing and descending one flight of stairs after another.
Their unarmed guard, a young, calm-looking blonde woman, calls them her"girls"."There are 30 of them, between 17 and 30 years old, some of them are married and others aren't, some of them have children," she told me."Their stories come out of the Thousand and One Nights. Some of them did it to make amends for a relative who was a collaborator, others to escape becoming victims of honour killings, and for the psychologically frail or depressed it was a good way to commit suicide and at the same time become 'heroines'. Personally, I don't judge them or hate them, because if I did I wouldn't be able to look after them any more."
One of the inmates, Ayat Allah Kamil, 20, from Kabatya, told me why she had wanted to become a martyr:"Because of my religion. I'm very religious. For the holy war [jihad] there's no difference between men and women shaid [martyrs]."
According to the Koran, male martyrs are welcomed to Paradise by 72 beautiful virgins. Ayat, as with many of the women she is incarcerated with, believes that a woman martyr"will be the chief of the 72 virgins, the fairest of the fair".
Her fellow prisoner, Kahira Saadi, from Jenin, is one of the jail celebrities. A mother of four, aged 27, she was held responsible for an attack in which three people died and 80 were injured. Zipi Shemesh, five months' pregnant, and her husband, Gad, were among the dead. They had gone to an ultrasound appointment and had left their two daughters, Shoval, seven, and Shahar, three, with a babysitter. They never came back.
Kahira was given three life sentences and another 80 years. She looked pale, sad, anguished. I asked her if the dead tormented her during the night."No," she said."Anyway, the actual attacker would have blown himself up even without me. I didn't kill anyone myself, physically."
Who do your children live with?"With my mother-in-law, my husband is in jail, too."
Aren't you sorry you ruined their lives as well as your own?"I did it to defend them. I'm not sorry, we're at war. But perhaps I wouldn't do it again. It was an impulse," Kahira answered balefully.
I think the real reason for what you did was different from the official one."You're right," she said,"but I'm not going to tell you what the reason was."
You're paying heavily for it. Who comes to see you here?"Nobody came for the first two years, but now my children are beginning to come."
Have you had the courage to tell them you're never going to get out of here?"No, and I trust that God will solve my problem somehow. I tell you again that I didn't physically kill anyone that day."
What did you do?"I helped the attacker to get into Jerusalem. I gave him some flowers to hold in his hands."
When?"I don't remember the exact date, only that it was Mother's Day. That's why I prepared him some flowers."
Then it was February, I told her.
"How can you remember it so well?" she asked.
Because my son was killed on Mother's Day, I said, and I watched as she grew pale and seemed to stagger.
No, it wasn't you, I explained. He was killed in 1998, while your attack was in 2002. But we certainly have an anniversary in common.
At this, Kahira gave me a look that I'll never be able to describe. She didn't utter another word.
One question has bothered me since my visit to that prison. The parents and the relatives of these failed martyrs, what happens to them afterwards? What do they feel after the tragedy, with that knowledge? I decided that I would ask Wafa's father, Samir al-Biss. Samir is the owner of a tiny, shabby grocery shop. For many years, before the intifada, he worked as a day labourer in Israel. After the initial shock of his daughter's martyrdom mission, he disconnected the telephone and now will not speak directly to anyone.
He has, however, allowed Wael, Wafa's cousin, to answer on his behalf."Wafa's father is still in a state of shock," Wael said."He wishes to say that he can't bring himself to believe that his daughter was going to blow herself up. He believes that she was put up to it and exploited by someone and that it's not fair that the whole Palestinian population should be punished for what she has tried to do. The Palestinians don't have to pay for her act," he added sadly.
I tend to agree with him. Neither the Palestinian people nor the Israelis should have to pay for the fanatical acts of their extremists.
© Manuela Dviri
• Manuela Dviri is a journalist, playwright and writer whose son, Jonathan, was killed by a Hizbollah rocket seven years ago. She received the 2005 Peres Reward for Peace and Reconciliation for her involvement with Saving Children, an Israeli-Palestinian project which refers Palestinian children to Israeli hospitals for free treatment
• This is an edited extract of an article that will be published in Italian Vanity Fair this week