Dusk was settling over the Old City, reaching into its labyrinthine alleys and shrouding its holy sites as Yigal and Ronit Shahaf made their way slowly toward the Damascus Gate. The young couple, chatting in Hebrew with two friends, paid little heed to the dwindling crowds or the shopkeepers closing for the day.
Nearby, four young Palestinians, three men and a woman, waited. When the Israelis paused in front of a jewelry shop near the Via Dolorosa, one of the men ran toward them, aimed a pistol at the back of Yigal Shahaf’s head and fired one shot.
As chaos broke out, the gunman fled, handing his weapon to one of his comrades, who gave it to the woman, a college student who had just joined the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The woman, Rula abu Duhou, 19, paid with nine years in prison for her participation in the slaying of an innocent Israeli civilian. And still today, freed by a controversial amnesty, she is unrepentant.
“I’m not sorry for it,” Abu Duhou said recently, her dark eyes direct, as relatives and friends streamed into her family’s comfortable West Bank home to celebrate her release. “On the contrary, I’m proud. And I wish I could do more for my country.”
Such tough talk underscores the fundamental question raised across the Middle East by the Feb. 11 release of Abu Duhou and 30 other female Palestinian prisoners.
Are Palestinians who killed innocent Israelis criminals?
Palestinians have greeted Abu Duhou and the others as heroes, but Israelis, almost uniformly, have reviled them as terrorists.
The story of Rula abu Duhou, now 28, is that of a generation of young Palestinian women. Born one year after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, she grew up in a charged political atmosphere. As a 9-year-old, she asked her Palestinian teacher why, if Palestine was a country, it was forbidden to fly its flag. As a college student, she joined countless demonstrations, shouting angry slogans against the Israeli occupation.
The path she took, from protest to violence to prison, in many ways was inevitable, according to Abu Duhou and her friends, a natural response to the oppressive presence of the Israeli army on Palestinian territory and the daily humiliations of roadblocks and identity checks.
But such statements bring renewed pain to Shahaf’s widow.
Ronit Shahaf, who saw her wounded husband crumple to the ground and begged him, weeping, to live, said she cannot understand the decision to kill a civilian in pursuit of a political goal, or the willingness of a woman to participate in such violence. She was shocked to see Abu Duhou on Israeli television immediately after leaving prison, declaring that she would continue her activity against Israel.
“I hoped that she [would feel that she] had made a mistake,” said Shahaf, who has remarried and runs a consulting business. “It’s so awful to destroy a life. I don’t want revenge, but I don’t want other people to have this kind of life. I hope she will decide to stop it.”
There are few issues that so fundamentally divide Palestinians and Israelis as the subject of the Palestinian prisoners, both the women released recently and the thousands of men who remain in Israeli jails.
Palestinians across the political spectrum view Abu Duhou and those released with her as patriots in the battle for a homeland, soldiers who deserve to be freed at the war’s end. Many believe that they are heroes whose acts of resistance, especially during the 1987-93 uprising known as the intifada, helped propel Israel to the bargaining table.
“These are women who resisted occupation,” said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, a Palestinian Cabinet minister who attended an official welcome for the freed prisoners in the West Bank city of Ramallah. “There is an inadvertent blindness, or a willful blindness, in people wanting to see Palestinians as different from other resistance groups. They were fighting for freedom, and it’s about time they were released.”
“They struggled for our rights,” said Mahmoud Manasrah, whose daughter Nariman was among the released prisoners.
Even the most leftist Israelis, though, seemed to cringe at the release of the women, especially those, such as Abu Duhou, who were implicated in the killing or attempted killing of Jews. But freedom for such women was seen by many Israelis as a necessary but repugnant step to push the peace process forward.
Amnon Rubenstein, leader of the center-left Shinui party in the Meretz coalition, no doubt spoke for many Israelis in saying he viewed the release with a “heavy heart” and feared the consequences.
That the women are part of the Palestinian political mainstream was evident almost immediately throughout Ramallah, the unofficial capital of President Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
It was there in the plethora of official receptions and welcomes, there in the banners hung overhead (“Our freed women prisoners are our pride,” read one erected by the city), and there in the hundreds of well-wishers who trooped to the former prisoners’ homes.
Two days after her release, Abu Duhou, dressed in a gray sweatsuit, black socks and no shoes, sat curled into a plastic chair in an alley outside her home, trying to give an interview. But every few minutes, she was interrupted, first by a young woman holding a baby, then by a pair of well-dressed matrons who left lipstick on her cheeks, then by a deferential group of men--"comrades,” her sister said.
It was all a little overwhelming, Abu Duhou admitted, from the flood of reporters and visitors to the suggestions from her mother and sisters that she should brush her hair and put on her shoes.
“There are a lot of expectations,” she said wearily, as yet another group greeted her and passed into the house. “Everyone has received us with such love and warmth and I want to be nice from my heart, but it’s really difficult.”
She looked quizzically at the cordless telephone another sister had carried out to her in the alley. “What do I do with this?” she asked.
The youngest child of a Ramallah businessman and his wife, Abu Duhou is descended from one of the city’s seven major clans. She grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances. Although her father died when she was a teenager, she was financially and emotionally secure, the much-loved baby of her six older brothers and sisters, who took her along to political and social gatherings.
The family has been successful. One brother works as a chemical engineer in Sydney, Australia, while a sister is an education professor in Melbourne. Another sister runs a women’s health center in Ramallah, and two more brothers own a restaurant and catering business in the city.
As a child, Abu Duhou was a bright and articulate girl. She soaked up the political passions of the adults, who talked of curfews and crackdowns, of the war in Lebanon, of the arrest of friends and the imprisonment of others.
Antoinette Ashwal, who taught science to third-graders at Ramallah’s Aziz Shaheen Girls School, remembers Abu Duhou asking why Palestinians did not have a flag or national anthem. She asked too about the Israeli soldiers who patrolled the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank communities, the teacher said.
“ ‘Why should we fear the soldiers? Are they going to shoot us?’ ” Ashwal recalled her saying. But unlike other girls, the teacher said, Abu Duhou didn’t seem afraid of the soldiers. She began to take part in protests, joining older students in denouncing the occupation and calling for the return of the land to Palestinians.
“When you live under occupation, you eat, sleep and wake up under occupation,” Abu Duhou said. “When you go out, you see the soldiers. When you go to school, you learn what the Israelis want you to learn. When you open your atlas, you see Europe, Asia, the United States. But [when you look at] your country, you see Israel.”
Increasingly self-confident and outspoken, Abu Duhou became a leader at her high school, Al Ahlia College, a Catholic school near her home. Her Arabic teacher, Wadi Azer, called her “Rula Arab,” after the strong female character in a popular poem.
At 16, she entered Bethlehem University, aiming for a degree in social work and social psychology. She told her then-fiance, Khalil Shatara, that she would complete a doctorate by the time she turned 24.
But she also grew increasingly political. She was elected to the student senate and began organizing demonstrations and lectures. But she wanted to do more.
She joined the PFLP, a radical PLO faction based in Damascus, Syria, whose leftist ideology appealed to her and whose longtime leader, George Habash, was a Christian, like her.
It was 1987, a few months before the beginning of the intifada, and six years before the signing of the first peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Abu Duhou grew silent recently when asked to speak of the “operation” that killed Shahaf, a 24-year-old student who had been married three months. She refused, politely, to explain her motivation or anything else about the attack.
“Really, I don’t like to talk about this,” she said. “I did something for my country. I fought against the occupation, and it doesn’t matter in the details.”
Friends and relatives said they were somewhat surprised to learn of her involvement in violent activity. “She always spoke in normal ways, of loving Ramallah and Palestine,” said former fiance Shatara, a U.S. citizen who now lives in Ramallah and owns a dental supply company. “Nothing crossed my mind about anything else.”
On Jan. 22, 1988, Abu Duhou was arrested and later tried on five charges ranging from her role in Shahaf’s shooting to her membership in an illegal organization. Her attorney, Jawad Bulous, was unsuccessful in his argument that she was not aware of her comrades’ intentions. But he won her a 25-year sentence, instead of the life term requested by the prosecutor.
Her male partners in the attack are serving life sentences.
In 1992, after her conviction and facing a long prison sentence with no prospect of release, Abu Duhou ended her relationship with Shatara, urging him to get married and start a family.
In prison, Abu Duhou, who speaks fluent English, spent her time learning Hebrew and trying to keep her mind active in discussion groups with the other Palestinian women.
She and the other prisoners formed fast friendships. And when Israel, in October 1995, offered to release all but five--those, including Abu Duhou, with “blood on their hands"--the rest refused to go, a gesture of solidarity she says she will never forget.
During the years in prison, Abu Duhou also tried to keep up with political news and the evolving peace process. She often worried that Arafat was giving too much for the sake of peace, even though she knew that she and other prisoners could be beneficiaries of a successful deal.
Since her release, she has found herself confused by the patchwork of political sovereignty in the West Bank, where Palestinians now control the cities and the large villages, but Israelis hold sway over most of the land. She is frustrated that she, along with most Palestinians, can no longer easily travel to Gaza, other West Bank cities or to Jerusalem as she could before her arrest.
Some Palestinians have said that Abu Duhou and others of those released, particularly Abir el Waheidi--an Arafat supporter who was implicated in the death of an Israeli settler--should run for political office or accept positions in the Palestinian government.
Abu Duhou, though, said she hopes to return to college, to finish the social work degree interrupted by her arrest. But she also plans to pressure the Palestinian leadership to stiffen its resolve as it enters final negotiations with the Israelis. Those talks, scheduled to begin this month, will involve debate over sensitive issues such as refugees, settlements and Jerusalem.
She says she does not know yet whether acts like hers are still necessary. She did, as a condition of her release, sign a document renouncing violence.
“One thing is for sure,” she said recently. “What is happening will not lead us to real freedom and a real, independent state, and everybody knows it.”
“If there is no real peace that brings us to a real independent state, sooner or later--and not because I want it, because I don’t want it--something will happen,” she said.
Some friends say they hope that as she adjusts to life outside prison, Abu Duhou will temper her words.
But Jamileh abu Duhou says that may be difficult for her sister: “Everybody keeps asking if Rula will stop struggling now. But sometimes to struggle to make peace is harder than revolution. We have to see what she can do.”
Muhammed El-Hasan of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.