Palestinian families wonder:

Were suicide attacks worth the loss of our children?

'The only one who supports such a thing is the person who hasn't seen her child die,' says one mother

NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: This week, Palestinian and Israeli leaders will sit down for a summit that many hope will begin to lay the groundwork for peace in the Middle East. Some analysts are cautious, for the world has seen diplomacy collapse in the wake of more violence, such as Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli army missions. Still, many Israelis and Palestinians are tired of the killing. And some families of those who "voluntarily" gave their lives to murder others are casting doubt on both the value of suicide attacks and the motives of those behind them. The families spotlighted in this story provide a rare glimpse into how time, political reality and an unceasing pain shape the thinking of those left behind.

FEB. 6, 2005

BY CHRISTINE SPOLAR/Tribune correspondent

An hour after Fatima Daraghmeh heard the first report of a suicide bombing at a mall in Afula, Israel, her 5-year-old son ran excitedly into the kitchen. "My sister's picture is on TV!"

Three Israelis were dead and dozens wounded and, miles away, the Daraghmeh family found itself caught in the horror. Their 19-year- old daughter Hiba was the killer. Israeli authorities interrogated the girl's parents, Fatima and Azzem. Soon reporters crowded their West Bank home. Fatima Daraghmeh recalled that they asked her if she felt a "mother's pride" in sacrificing for the Palestinian cause.

She couldn't bear the words.

"They kept asking and asking and then, finally, they could tell: I wasn't going to praise the operation," Daraghmeh said. "There was no way I was going to say I was proud. The only one who supports such a thing is the person who hasn't seen her child die."

For years, suicide bombings have proved to be a potent and popular tactic in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. But a new era in politics--the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat, the election of Mahmoud Abbas and a summit this week in Egypt -- will likely mean a reckoning over the use of armed violence and suicide killings in the name of national aspirations.

Recent opinion polls by the respected Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found growing misgivings about the violence as the intifada, or rebellion, moves into its fifth year.

Palestinian support for armed attacks against Israeli citizens dropped from 54 percent last September to 49 percent in December. Opposition to such attacks rose to 48 percent, another 5 percentage- point change, and the number of Palestinians who believe they are winning the armed conflict dropped 5 points, to 35 percent.

Nowhere has the impact of the wanton killing been more debated and, at times, damned than in the homes of the suicide bombers themselves.

Their children can be counted among the region's most determined killers. Since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000 through the most recent attack Jan. 18 at a Gaza checkpoint, Palestinian suicide bombings have left more than 4,000 victims--533 killed and 3,523 injured--in 98 separate attacks documented by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Israeli lives were shattered by the killings. At the same time, the bombers tore apart their own families' prospects. Israel, invoking national security, sent troops and tanks into Palestinian cities after the attacks to search for militants. In 2002, Israel began building a mammoth and controversial concrete-and-barbed wire barrier around the West Bank to stop the flow of bombers.

For this story, the families of eight killers were interviewed. Some of the families, interviewed soon after the bombings and then repeatedly in the past year, asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from Israelis as well as Palestinians. The eight Palestinian bombers tracked by the Tribune accounted for 82 dead and 628 wounded Israelis.

The bombings, many of the killers' relatives now concede, fed a national passion at a terrible cost.

In the days after his daughter's deadly attack in May 2003, Azzem Daraghmeh, a thick-waisted, towering man, barely spoke when friends came by the traditional mourning tent to offer congratulations. He was overwhelmed by harsh realities. Israeli soldiers blasted their house into rubble, and he was forced to sell 40 sheep so he could clean a two-room animal pen and call it home for his wife and two young sons in the village of Tubas.

More than a year later, Daraghmeh agonized, with words familiar to other Palestinian parents, over the dark-eyed daughter he lost.

"Those guys who set my daughter up--they took advantage of her age and her ideas of the world. What has happened has turned my life upside down," he said. "If I knew who set up Hiba, I'd kill him. Why didn't he send his own daughter or wife or mother?"

'Passover Massacre'

Soccer teams are named for Issam Odeh's younger brother. So are newborn babies. But Issam Odeh, a 37-year-old father of six, now stumbles over the word "hero" when his children ask about their uncle, Abdel Bassat Odeh, a Hamas operative who one Passover night in 2002 killed Israelis by the dozens.

"All these people say he's a hero. They claim him as a hero. Well, we're the ones who lost him," said Issam Odeh as he stood in his meagerly stocked food store in Tulkarem, a Palestinian city barricaded by Israel's security wall.

"He did what everyone here thinks is great. But look what happened then and look what happens now. The whole world views what he did as something unacceptable."

Issam Odeh once spoke with pride about the brother who triggered the conflict's single deadliest bomb. "We have lost a brother, but we are left with pride," he said in an early interview. But last summer, with Israeli soldiers in control of the West Bank and Palestinian fighters dead or underground, Odeh wondered whether the feverish days of 2002 and his brother's suicide bombing were worth the ruin around him.

"Now we are in a chaotic situation," he said. "We don't know what works and what doesn't work. I look at it this way now: The solution is peace."

His brother's attack was painful for Issam Odeh in ways older Palestinians and in particular his parents, fruit traders from a coastal village lost to Israel in 1948, might never understand. Odeh and his brother were educated and, in their youth, worked at hotels in Tel Aviv and Herzliya. As a young waiter, Odeh enjoyed mastering English and Hebrew. He liked foreigners and dated some. He counted Israelis among his friends.

But by the coldest months of 2002, neither Odeh, his brother nor many other men from Tulkarem had good thoughts about Israelis. More than a year had passed since hard-line politician Ariel Sharon had visited a holy site--known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims--and touched off bloody clashes.

Tensions were boiling. The peace talks arranged by President Bill Clinton at Camp David were a sour memory. Suicide bombers hit a Tel Aviv disco and a Jerusalem pizzeria, and snipers targeted Israeli roads and settlements. On orders from Sharon, who had become prime minister, troops sought militants in densely populated Palestinian areas and ended up killing Palestinians, the fighters and the innocent, in numbers nearly four times those of the Israeli dead.

In March 2002, as the Israeli army raided militant hideouts in Gaza and the West Bank, seven bombers blasted a cafe, buses, bus stops, a market. Then on March 27, Abdel Bassat Odeh donned the dark suit of an Orthodox Jew and pushed the carnage higher.

The handsome 25-year-old detonated an explosives-wired valise amid a crowd gathered on Passover eve for a seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel. Thirty Israelis were killed and 180 wounded.

Within 24 hours, the Israeli commanders called up 20,000 reservists, the largest emergency order since the Lebanon war of 1982. Tanks rolled into Tulkarem, Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah.

The Odeh family huddled in its apartment, about 8 miles from the bombed hotel, uncertain what to do.

Weeks later, Israeli soldiers took over the Odeh home and packed dynamite into its walls. The explosion blew up both the Odehs' building and a neighboring one. Dozens of people, mostly relatives, were homeless.

Many of the Odehs eventually resettled in a small building they renovated. Odeh's mother, Nawal, and father, Mohammed, waved off questions about the bloody consequences of Abdel Bassat's action. They wanted to talk instead about what led Abdel Bassat to kill himself. They didn't blame him. They didn't blame any Palestinian. They blamed Israel.

Israeli security, months before the bombing, had named their son a wanted man based on suspicions that he funneled money into Hamas militant activities. Their son viewed the arrest warrant as a death sentence, the parents said, and he went underground.

Hours after the bombing, crowds milled around the Odeh home to celebrate what they called martyrdom. Some family members found the acclaim soothing. Nawal Odeh, who expressed pride during media interviews that day, later said she was raging behind closed doors. "I kept shouting, 'Shut up, shut up. You don't know what we're going through.'

"We knew the Israelis were after him," Nawal said. "What is better--to just be killed or to be a martyr? They did this to him. I think it was better to be a martyr."

Wasn't she pained that her son killed people gathered for a cherished religious event? "I assume the Jews feel the same pain I feel," the 58-year-old woman said. "There is pain on one side and there is pain on the other."

Issam Odeh, the bomber's brother, shrugged at the idea that he might have known some of the Israeli dead. Compassion, he said, cannot blur loyalties.

"When the soldiers come to Tulkarem and kill us, at the end of the day, their families say 'Welcome home.' They don't worry about how many they killed," he said.

Still, Palestinians lost ground with the attacks, he acknowledged, and his own four sons and two daughters suffered. His business, like much of the Palestinian economy, collapsed. Entire cities were placed under Israeli military control and, for months, Issam Odeh's family was turned back at every Israeli checkpoint when it tried to move beyond Tulkarem.

"Children look at you to protect them. Mine still talk about their old home, their toys," he said.

One son speaks about the dynamited home as a bad dream. The child sees him as a failed father, Odeh said. "It's like he's thinking: Couldn't you have done something?"

The bombing by Odeh's brother, which was dubbed the Passover Massacre, came to symbolize the worst of the senseless violence in the Middle East.

"We feel the whole world turned against us," said Odeh, who watches Arab and Western media.

Does that change how he or anyone else remembers his brother? Is he still a hero? "We are all victims," he countered.

"The other day, my 7-year-old kid, in 1st grade, asked me: Daddy, is an Israeli soldier a human being, like us? . . . I couldn't figure out how to answer," Odeh said. "I knew if I did, after one question, he'd ask another difficult question. And how do I keep answering the questions? Because the last question leads where? Who is a human being?"

In the half-light of his grocery, Issam Odeh considered his future. His store is bankrupt. His only hope for work now is driving a taxi.

"I loved my life before this all started," he said. "I pray day and night now that I can leave, move my children from this place, go to Europe, anywhere. . . . The reality now is pain.

"I said, one time, I am proud of my brother. I said it. My mind now is somewhere else."

The English major

When Dareen Abu Aisheh blew herself apart at an Israeli checkpoint, her father, Mohammed, likened her death to an act of God.

"No one wants to see a daughter die, but we cannot change God's will," the retired laborer said. "All I can do is accept this."

Her mother, Wafika Abu Aisheh, never did. Two months after Dareen's suicide, when a relative pointed out a leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who set up suicide missions for the military arm of Yasser Arafat's Fatah political group, Wafika charged over and demanded to know how he had manipulated her daughter to die.

"I was shaking. I was arguing," the mother of 10 said about the heated exchange that erupted at a social gathering in Nablus. "He kept saying, 'Don't blame me. She wanted to do it.'"

Dareen Abu Aisheh, 21, an English major at An-Najah University, was the only person killed Feb. 27, 2002, when she set off an explosion at a roadblock near the Israeli town of Maccabim. Three Israeli police who stopped her taxi from the West Bank were injured, and her Palestinian driver was shot and wounded in the aftermath. Abu Aisheh was headed to Tel Aviv but apparently panicked as police checked her documents. She blasted her body into pieces.

Years later, Abu Aisheh's deed stirs passions and debate among those who loved her.

"I'm furious with them. I curse them," her mother said about Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades' role in the attacks. She and other family members said they never viewed Dareen, even in the worst times of 2002, as anything more than idealistic about Palestinian independence.

The girl intensely debated the conflict--as all Palestinians do - -but she also wrote poems about resistance and taught Koran classes as a catharsis. "She was my flesh. Do you think I would have allowed her to kill herself in a thousand pieces? What mother--only an insane mother would want that for their child," Wafika said.

But Abu Aisheh's father and sisters describe her as an adult with strong convictions who made a choice based on how she saw Israelis control Palestinians.

"Israel has made us older faster," said 18-year-old sister Ikram. "We bear responsibility beyond our years. . . . What is happening on the ground here is more important than anything else."

Ikram, now a high school senior, said she will follow her sister to an-Najah University. But Ikram will study a different field-- architecture--and use her anger toward an ideal.

"They destroy," Ikram said about the Israeli incursion into Nablus in 2002. "And we will build.

"I decided: For every building that falls, save the bricks," she said. "I will learn an effective form of resistance that keeps giving and giving and building up society."

The young bomber's mother seems tortured most by the memories of her daughter's final hours--and the lies she told.

Dareen Abu Aisheh awoke early that cold February morning to pray. Her mother made coffee, returned to bed and heard Dareen rustle in. Her daughter, reading the Koran, snuggled next to her until about 8:30 a.m., when she left for school. By noon, for reasons the mother cannot explain, she began to feel "odd, like a fire inside" and tense about her daughter.

She went to visit her oldest son, Tawfik. His greeting was startling: "Where's Dareen?"

The mother said Dareen was at school. That's a lie, Tawfik said. She wasn't even in Nablus. She had just phoned from a checkpoint and told him cryptically: "Go stay with Mom."

The daughter phoned again, this time to her mother. "Where are you?" her mother said. "Don't make my heart ache."

Stop crying, Dareen told her, and "stay firm with God."

The line went dead.

Wafika and Tawfik Abu Aisheh tried in vain the next day to find out where she had gone. Mother and son were watching television the next night when the news flashed by. The mother, numb, switched from channel to channel to hear the reports. A Palestinian woman had set off an explosion at a checkpoint near Maccabim.

The mother barely needed to hear the name.

"What could I have done?" she said. "Who could I have called? Could I call the Palestinian Authority? Could I call the Israelis? . . . In every case, Dareen would have been taken from me."

Tempting the desperate

Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can agree on one thing: Suicide bombing tempts the most desperate.

Jihad Msemi, a strategist for Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who escaped an Israeli missile strike in 2002, maintains that suicide bombers never need to be persuaded or coerced to kill.

"I assure you, when a 20-year-old comes forward and wants to be a martyr, we discuss it," Msemi said. "We try to give them a gun and let them fight that way. But . . . most of the young people who want this are driven by emotions. It becomes uncontrollable. The suicide bomber seeks it--and keeps working on it. You know he'll do something, if just throw himself in front of a tank. That's when you say: Give him the suicide belt."

Even Israeli security sources who track such attacks find a kind of logic among the young killers. For the most part, as one security source said, the bombers are "normal people with mostly normal problems" and motivations.

"As Palestinians, they fight for a cause, and a cause to them that is just. Who can convince them that it's not right?" the Israeli security source said. "As long as the situation is bad, it can be exploited."

Fatima and Azzem Daraghmeh said they always tried to warn their children that the Palestinian militancy offered no future. Fatima, who finished six grades of school, said she and her husband encouraged the children to pursue education. Her daughter Hiba turned down two offers of marriage so she could earn a college degree.

One son, Bakr, went to vocational school in Nablus and found the militants there intoxicating. Soon Bakr and his mother were arguing over his late hours. She feared he was becoming a resistance fighter, one who believed guns and fury could end occupation.

"He was always talking Palestine. I said, 'Forget Palestine. I care about you,'" the mother said.

Hiba would play peacemaker to offset Bakr's impudence, but she, too, could baffle her mother. The pretty teen began wearing a full- length veil that covered all but her eyes. Her mother tried to tease her out of the extreme dress, seeing it as an expression of devotion to Islam but also shyness.

"Only donkeys are that covered," her mother would tell her. "Who's going to marry a girl they can't see?"

It all began unraveling in 2001 for the family. During a fractious march in Nablus, Bakr was shot by Israeli soldiers. He was recuperating at home in 2002 when Israeli soldiers arrested him on charges of planning a suicide bombing. He was later sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Hiba was inconsolable after that army raid on their house. Soldiers shredded the notebooks she needed for school exams, family members said. She cried about the chaos and told her parents she hated the Israelis.

Still, the parents said they never expected her, within a year's time, to seek deadly revenge.

"I sit here and try to figure it out and, sometimes, I think my head is going to explode," said Fatima Daraghmeh, 48, the mother of eight. "I don't have any answers to why they did this. To know, I'd have to be able to get into their hearts."

The Daraghmehs later discovered that they still might not know the depth of their children's deceit. Another daughter, Jihan, was arrested days after Hiba's suicide bombing. For months, Jihan was held by the Israelis. On July 27, 2004, she pleaded guilty to giving West Bank militants--the same Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades linked to her sister's bombing--the name of another woman willing to be a suicide bomber.

Jihan, 29, and a mother of five children, was sentenced to 13 months in jail. Several months later, given credit for time served, she was released. Jihan told her parents that, despite her plea in court, the Israelis exaggerated her ties and she's not involved with the resistance.

The Daraghmehs say they want to believe their daughter.