A Martyr's Bloody Way to Heaven

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To prepare for the happiest--and last--day of his life, Majdi abu Wardeh, 19, left the home of concrete blocks that he shared with his parents and nine brothers and sisters in this ramshackle refugee camp.

Awaiting him, he knew, was spiritual and physical bliss beyond his imagination, an exalted status next to God and, among other delights, a heavenly marriage to 72 virgins with hauntingly beautiful eyes. Awaiting his family, he was sure, was a lifetime of honor and respect.

But first he had a job to do. He traveled north to Ramallah for his final training. Then, on Feb. 25, a Sunday morning two days later, Abu Wardeh squeezed onto the crowded No. 18 bus in downtown Jerusalem. He would have been wearing his finest clothes, as martyrs do, and, beneath them, a sturdy vest packed with dynamite.

Minutes later, he exploded, killing himself and 25 others.

"Of course, we are all proud of what he did," Nasim Abdelrazik, 19, one of Abu Wardeh's best friends, said coolly this week. "Given the chance, we'd do the same."

In the past three years, at least 25 young Palestinians--four in the past two weeks--have made the journey to martyrdom, blowing up themselves and mostly Jewish bystanders for a promised trip to paradise. And few doubt that there are dozens if not hundreds more willing to follow their example, carrying out missions so simple, impossible to stop and hugely disruptive to the Middle East peace process.

Trapped in this new wave of bombings, Israelis as well as many Palestinians remain frightened and baffled by the phenomenon. Who are these suicide bombers? And why, in numbers unprecedented even in the modern history of Islamic fundamentalism, are so many young men willing to blow themselves up?

Abu Wardeh was typical of those willing to carry out the suicide missions. They have been men, 18 to 26 years old, from large, poor families in communities with high unemployment, according to security experts.

They attend mosque and have strong, though not rabid, Islamic beliefs. And they are supporters, though rarely leaders, of one of the two main radical Islamic movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

These bombers came of age during the intifada, the bloody Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some had relatives or close friends killed, injured or widowed by Israeli security forces. While most of the bombers were previously unknown to the police, all have known the punishing presence of the Israeli army and the day-to-day humiliation of roadblocks and identity checks.

For such young men, overwhelmed by hopelessness and hatred, and certain of paradise in a life beyond, death carries a seductive, glamorous appeal.

Abu Wardeh lived his short life in the Al Fawar refugee camp, a few miles south of Hebron and an hour's drive from Jerusalem. The camp was created at the base of a rocky slope to house Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes when Israel was formed in 1948.

Today, almost 50 years later, 6,000 people are still here, living in a jumble of concrete homes on narrow alleys and rutted streets that surround the sandstone minaret of a mosque. Many homes still do not have electricity or running water, and garbage is dumped in open pits. Fewer than two dozen people here have permits to work in Israel's more prosperous cities.

The camp, like other refugee settlements in the West Bank, has long been a hotbed of anti-Israeli sentiment. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has brought no change, no improvement in daily life, and, though the camp is technically under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli troops operate here freely.

"The young men still feel as if they are strangers in the area," said Mohammed abu Awad, a father of 11 who knew the bomber. "The situation is summed up in one question: 'What can you expect from our young guys who have no work, no land and no future?' They know they will never get out of here alive."

Support for martyrs, as Hamas calls its suicide bombers, is starkly evident here. Some residents carry a photograph of one or another shahid, or martyr, in lockets or in their billfolds--just as Muslims elsewhere do for martyred, fallen war heroes. "We believe they are fighting for our rights," one resident explained.

The graffiti on one wall in town reads: "News for the Jews: The 'Engineer' is not dead." Yehiya Ayash, the master bomb maker for Hamas known as "the Engineer," was assassinated early this year, probably by Israeli security forces. Hamas said the recent bomb attacks were designed to avenge his death.

Abu Wardeh was handsome, with combed-back black hair and an angelic, boyish face. The son of a teacher at the local U.N.-run school, he had finished high school, a notable achievement in this camp, and was on the verge of completing a vocational school course in Hebron, where he was learning to lay floor tiles.

Among friends and relatives, he was regarded as a levelheaded youth. "He was just an ordinary guy," said a family friend. "We didn't expect him to do something big."

A week before the bombing, he got into trouble at school for placing a firecracker under the desk of a teacher. The teacher threatened to expel him, but Abu Wardeh's friend Abdelrazik, also a student, persuaded the instructor to reconsider. "I guarantee he'll be good in class," Abdelrazik told him; the two friends later shared a laugh over the incident.

Abu Wardeh was brought into the suicide mission by a cousin, Mohammed abu Wardeh, a student at the U.N.-run Teachers Training College in Ramallah. (The cousin was arrested, convicted and sentenced this week to life in prison with hard labor.)

The new recruit was joined by another prospective martyr: Ibrahim Sarahne, 26, a friend and a Hamas member in the camp. Sarahne, a tall, slender man, also came from a large, devout family. His father had died years before and his mother once worked as a janitor in an Israeli hospital but was forced to quit due to a heart ailment, friends and relatives say.

When his mother lost her job, Sarahne left Hebron University, where he was studying Islam, and went to work as a clerk in a spice store in Hebron to support the family. He had been arrested several times for Hamas activity but had never been charged, the Israelis say.

Majdi abu Wardeh and Ibrahim Sarahne shared a passion for the Palestinian cause and a strong desire to be martyrs for Islam. Without telling their families, they both accepted the invitation of Abu Wardeh's cousin. Abu Wardeh told his family he was taking a job in Ramallah and left after an argument with his father, who insisted that he finish his vocational studies. Sarahne said he was going on a trip to the Dead Sea.

According to the cousin now in custody, they were outfitted for their attack over the last weekend in February and briefed by a high Hamas official, who has not been apprehended. Abu Wardeh was driven to downtown Jerusalem and Sarahne was taken to a hitchhiking post used by Israeli soldiers near Ashkelon. The men had instructions to blow themselves up at the same time, about 7 a.m.

Sarahne's bomb killed himself and one soldier. Abu Wardeh's laid waste to a city bus; among his 25 victims were two Americans.

Whether the two men were, in fact, true martyrs is a subject of debate among scholars of Islam, which has no central authority determining the practice of the faith. While they agree on the exalted position of the martyr in the afterlife, Muslims also believe strongly that suicide is prohibited by the Koran, their holy book. The overwhelming majority of scholars denounce the killing of innocent civilians, and only the most radical, such as those associated with Hamas, preach that a suicide bombing qualifies for martyrdom.

"These people believe they live in a state of war, a global war being waged against Islam by Western imperialism and Zionism," explained Reuven Paz, a Hamas expert at Haifa University. "In that context, they have an obligation and a religious duty to fight. And anyone killed in that fight is a martyr, not a suicide.

"These are not usually desperate people," Paz added. "They do it with an open consciousness. And they believe that someone who reaches paradise at an early age, having all the glory of being killed in battle against the forces of evil, will receive the highest reward a Muslim can get."

The rewards of that martyrdom were well understood by Abu Wardeh and Sarahne. Islamic writings and the Koran describe paradise as a place full of wonderful fruits and vegetables as well as beautiful virgins, called houris for their wide eyes. And while ordinary Muslims must make their case with the angels in paradise, the faithful believe that martyrs ascend directly to a preferred position close to God.

For the families too there are benefits. Many Muslims believe that a martyr can bring 70 of his friends and relatives into heaven, no questions asked. And, in the Palestinian community, families of martyrs are treated as honored citizens, worthy of great respect.

In Palestinian communities, the death of a martyr has in the past been routinely celebrated with a "wedding" party, where the bitter coffee of traditional Islamic mourning is replaced by the sweet coffee, cakes and candies of happy occasions and where a grieving mother gamely smiles through a tear-streaked face.

These celebrations play another important role in society, namely to encourage future suicide bombers. Because of that, the Israeli government has recently banned the festivities, evicted families of bombers from their homes, arrested dozens of relatives and sealed off the houses. For two years, the government also has refused to release the bodies of suicide bombers to families for burial.

This week, the Israeli government announced plans to destroy the houses of the recent suicide bombers as well as those of others who have carried out bombings in the past, arguing that such actions deter future bombers and prevent militants from mythologizing the bombers' deeds. The families of three bombers connected with a bus bombing last summer already have appealed to authorities in Israel to prevent the destruction of their homes.

The family homes here of Abu Wardeh and Sarahne have been sealed; beige-colored metal plates cover the windows, and the front doors were blowtorched shut. Their parents, most of their siblings and other relatives have been detained.

Eventually, the houses of the two men will be demolished, the Israeli authorities say, and if family members are released, they will be prohibited from rebuilding on the same spot.

For now, the camp is under a strict curfew. Israeli troops clomp through the streets, barking at residents bold enough to stick their heads out their windows. And yet the actions of Abu Wardeh and Sarahne are widely admired.

"You have to have a lot of courage and a strong belief to become a martyr," explained Johad Taha, Sarahne's uncle. "When the Israelis say this is a camp of terrorists, we are proud. It's difficult to show our feelings but, inside, we feel these men are martyrs. We hold the 'wedding' celebration in our heart."

The collective punishment of towns that produce suicide bombers strikes many Palestinians as unfair. "This camp was already a prison," one resident said, ruefully. "Now it's a prison within a prison."

They point out that the Israeli government took no such steps against Kiryat Arba, a nearby settlement of right-wing Jews, when one resident, Baruch Goldstein, entered a Hebron mosque two years ago and massacred about 30 Palestinians at prayer. Nor did the Israelis destroy the home of Yigal Amir, the Israeli who killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin last year.

"It's not fair to seal and destroy houses here when they don't do it in Israel," said Abu Awad. "When you do that to people, you can't be surprised when they rise up against you."

And somewhere here, it seems certain, a young admirer of Abu Wardeh and Sarahne is watching the clampdown, listening to his neighbors praise the bombers and contemplating a decision to talab a-shahad, to seek martyrdom by sacrificing his own life.

"Not everyone deals with this situation rationally," Abu Awad said. "And this place is a ticking time bomb."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Bombers' Toll

In the past two weeks, four bombers have killed themselves and 57 others in Israel, earning praise from Palestinian militants while upsetting efforts for peace in the Middle East.

* Feb. 25--Two Palestinian suicide bombers blow up a bus in Jerusalem and a soldiers' hitchhiking post in the coastal city of Ashkelon, killing 23 Israelis, two Americans and a Palestinian, and wounding more than 80 people. The extremist Islamic group Hamas claims responsibility.

* March 3--A bus bomb in Jerusalem kills at least 19 people, including the suicide bomber, and wounds 10 others. Hamas claims responsibility.

* March 4--A suicide bomber blows himself up outside a Tel Aviv shopping center, killing at least 13 people and wounding more than 100. Hamas claims responsibility, but the bomber is from Islamic Jihad, another extremist Islamic group.

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