dream was to be a suicide bomber. I wanted to kill 20, 50 Jews.
Yes, even babies'
Manuela Dviri in Tel Aviv
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 realized. She had failed her
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
Hashomer, near 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
[COMMENT: In how many places in the world
would there be such a reaching out to the enemy -- other than in a
Judeo-Christian setting? E. Fox]