She volunteered as a medic, became Palestinian bomber

Mideast violence, death turned unlikely woman into militant, family says

January 31, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMARI REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank - She had red hair that flowed over her shoulders, wore pantsuits and spent Fridays volunteering as a medic, charging into violent clashes to care for Palestinian protesters shot by Israeli soldiers.

The days spent on the front lines, and her being wounded at least twice during clashes, turned Wafa Idris into a Palestinian militant, her family and co-workers said yesterday. And Sunday, when the 28-year-old carried a bomb into Jerusalem, triggering a blast that killed her and an elderly Israeli and wounded more than 100 others, she marked a dangerous new phenomenon in a conflict already driven by extremists.

"I was not expecting my daughter to do what she has done," said Tzafiya Idris, 60, as relatives gathered yesterday to mourn in a friend's crowded living room. "This is something I am proud of. I wish every girl could do what my daughter has done. She is the daughter of Palestine."

Her daughter belonged to two distinct minorities. She was one of the few female Palestinian medics, and she was among an even smaller number of women to have carried out a bombing against Israel. Her action is troubling both for Israel and for the Red Crescent Society, the Palestinian branch of the Red Cross whose job it is to save lives, not take them.

Because of her action, Israel's security establishment might have to widen its list of potential terror suspects to include women. Until now, they have been able to cross Israeli army checkpoints with relative ease and raised little concern.

The Red Crescent Society has to worry about the stigma of one of its volunteers being a perpetrator of violence and of the psychological impact on crews who have treated more than 17,000 casualties in the past 16 months.

"Our focus is to treat victims of conflict, Israeli or Palestinian," said the Red Crescent's emergency response coordinator, Hossam K. Sharkawi. "What has happened is a first for us, and we are trying to come to grips with it and address it."

Idris' transformation from savior to killer, he said, "is because of the nature of the conflict, its ugliness and the radicalization of society."

It is not known whether Idris was carrying out a suicide attack. Israeli police believe she intended to plant the bomb and escape. The bomb weighed 22 pounds - double the amount of explosive used in a suicide attack last August that killed 15 people at a Sbarro's pizzeria in Jerusalem.

Other Palestinian women have played important roles in past attacks, including a woman caught last August in the Tel Aviv bus station with a bomb concealed in a box of laundry detergent. But none has committed suicide.

The Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah political faction, claimed responsibility for Idris' attack but did not say whether she had intended to kill herself. The group usually carries out shootings, not suicide bombings.

Women's participation in terror attacks is apparently accepted by all Palestinian militant groups. Hamas leaders said yesterday that women are a welcome part of its struggle against Israel.

In Jerusalem, officials have responded to the latest series of bombings by planning for new checkpoints on three sides of the city. The measures would establish a de facto border between Israeli suburbs in the West Bank and adjoining areas under Palestinian control. Some roads leading into Jerusalem would be severed by dirt mounds or trenches.

It is unclear how Idris entered Israel during a time of heightened security. Witnesses said she arrived on Jaffa Road by bus, went into a shoestore and walked out moments before the bomb exploded. Israeli television reported that she wore her Red Crescent uniform.

Her identity remained a mystery for several days. It was the Palestinian Authority rather than a militant organization that identified Idris yesterday as the bomber.

Only then did the Aqsa Brigades announce that she had been a member. Idris' family learned that she was the bomber when her name was announced on a television news program.

She seemed an unlikely person for such a venture. As a child in the 1980s, she was taken out of school by her mother to prevent her joining rock-throwing youths in the first Palestinian uprising.

At 15, Idris left school again, this time to marry. Her baby miscarried, and she was no longer able to conceive. Shamed in a society where it is unusual for a couple not to have a family, she initiated a divorce and moved into a small room in her mother's house.

She shunned religion and did not talk politics, her family said yesterday, even though her three elder brothers were active in Arafat's Fatah organization. She dressed the part of a modern woman, refusing to cover her hair as is the custom, and instead let it flow over her shoulders. She wore slacks. And she trained to become a medic.

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