Israel fears new enemy within

First Arab-Israeli joins Hamas ranks as suicide bomber

September 11, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ABU SNAN, Israel - Muhammed Saker Habashi became one of Israel's nightmares this week.

The 48-year-old cement salesman killed three people and himself in a suicide bombing Sunday in the coastal town of Nahariya. But he was unlike the bombers that Israel has known before. He was not a Palestinian militant from the West Bank. He was an Israeli - one of 1.1 million Israeli citizens who are also Arabs - and the first Arab-Israeli to carry out a suicide bombing.

He did not have to sneak past Israeli checkpoints to reach the crowded train platform where his bomb detonated, killing an elderly couple and a soldier, and injuring at least 85 others. He merely had to travel the eight miles from this Israeli village in the western Galilee.

His self-inflicted death for the Palestinian cause has Israeli officials deeply worried that a new group of militants will emerge, a group that is potentially more lethal because it is in fact Israeli.

"This attack sends a message that this is a borderless conflict," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

It was initially unclear whether Habashi had carried out the attack - his identification card was found near a dismembered body. But last night, Israeli television broadcast a videotape released by Hamas of the bearded Arab-Israeli holding a gun and wearing the green bandanna of the Islamic militant movement. For Israelis, it was chillingly similar to the videos young Palestinian suicide bombers have been leaving behind since the uprising began in the West Bank and Gaza Strip nearly a year ago.

He planned to carry out a suicide attack, Habashi said, to exact revenge "for all the Palestinians killed since 1948," when Israel was established.

Arab-Israelis are a usually hidden minority in the country that was founded as a Jewish homeland. They account for about one-sixth of Israel's population, but have been largely quiescent throughout the Palestinian uprising that began more than 11 months ago.

In the first days of the uprising, years of pent-up anger over discrimination combined with rage at authorities' heavy-handed use of force led to riots in Arab-Israeli towns. Israeli police killed 10 Arab-Israelis in subduing the protests - a death toll that horrified the Israeli press.

The suicide bombing in Nahariya occurred the day that Israeli Cabinet ministers debated plans to create a buffer zone between the West Bank and Israel. Sharon has approved a scaled-down buffer zone, a relatively narrow "no-man's land" in select areas.

"Fences and walls are not going to solve our problem," said Gold, noting that the train station attack undercut any argument for Israel unilaterally separating itself from Palestinians by building a wall. "The problem is on our side of the [border] as well."

Hours before the broadcast, Habashi's family gathered outside their two-story home in this town of about 6,700 to say that they did not believe that he could have been the bomber.

"We are sorry for all the casualties," said his sister Nihaya Habashi, 36. "This was an attack on Jews and Arabs. Any suicide is wrong. We are against all the bombings. We live here. I'm scared to take my children out. We are scared of terrorist attacks like everyone else."

Her sentiment, echoed by neighbors and family members, sharply distinguished Abu Snan from the hometowns of suicide bombers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There, a suicide bombing quickly becomes the subject of celebratory posters, and the coffin containing the bomber's remains is paraded through the streets.

There will not be a martyr's funeral in Abu Snan. Such a scene would not be allowed in Israel. But more than that, Habashi's family doesn't want one. Nihaya Habashi said she does not believe it when she hears Muslims talk of paradise for suicide bombers.

"The Koran tells us you go to hell," she said.

Living in Israel gives Arabs a perspective different from that of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Arab-Israelis have generally had a higher standard of living and more freedom and services as citizens of Israel. They complain of widespread discrimination, but enjoy a standing that Palestinians can only dream about.

"Those on the West Bank are oppressed," said Habashi's son-in-law, Samer Ghadban, 28. "We are not surprised when they do suicide bombings. We understand."

Habashi grew up secular; family members describe him as lazy in his early years and as someone who liked hashish. He turned to religion in his 20s and spent hours praying at the local mosque, where he became the prayer leader in 1996.

Four months ago, he ran for a city council seat on behalf of the local Islamic movement but received only 500 votes. The election was marred by clan violence, with several shootings and grenades thrown at candidate's cars. After that, police say, Habashi joined the radical Islamic group Hamas.

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