A portrait of madmen
By FLORE DE PRENEUF
ABU DIS, West Bank -- Osama Bahar and Nabil Halabiyeh were best friends. They played soccer together in their teens at a club in Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb east of Jerusalem. They practiced karate together three times a week after work. They even met for prayers at Jerusalem's grand al-Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, although Nabil was not as devout a Muslim as Osama.
On a Saturday two weeks ago, they chose to die -- and kill -- together.
Osama, 24, and Nabil, 25, detonated their belts of explosives almost simultaneously, standing about 50 yards apart in a crowded pedestrian area in downtown Jerusalem. It was 11:30 p.m., and the streets were full of young Israelis sipping drinks at the terraces of outdoor cafes, strolling with friends and talking on their mobile phones. The double blasts, which were followed a half-hour later by the explosion of a booby-trapped car parked nearby, killed 10 Israelis -- the youngest was 14, the oldest 21. Scores of others were wounded, some critically, by the explosions, carefully planned to hurt as many people as possible. Hamas, a radical Islamic organization, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Two of the victims, Golan Turjeman and Assaf Avitan, both 15, were also childhood buddies.
Israeli soldiers searched Osama and Nabil's houses at dawn the next morning and during a second raid on the next day, Monday. They arrested Osama's five brothers and Nabil's three oldest brothers, presumably for interrogation by the Shin Bet, the Israeli security service.
Three days after the explosions, on a Tuesday, Osama and Nabil's families had not yet received the dead bodies. But the condolence calls were already under way as dozens of men, relatives, and friends sat on plastic chairs in the stark, cold interiors of their respective houses. Their descriptions of Osama and Nabil's lives provide no easy explanations for the murderous attacks the two chose to carry out -- just a glimpse into an increasingly common and devastatingly bitter Palestinian state of mind.
"Every Palestinian feels that if he doesn't become a martyr, he can be killed at any moment at home," said Abdullah Halabiyeh, 32, a neighbor and distant cousin who knew Nabil well. "If the choice is between dying at home or on Jaffa Street (West Jerusalem's busy main artery), you choose to die on Jaffa Street."
In the same matter-of-fact voice, Abdullah described what Nabil was like: An outgoing local hero whose room was a collection of posters of famous sportsmen, karate medals and personal trophies he earned as a star midfielder for the Abu Dis soccer club. A popular, gregarious young man who was not particularly religious and could stay up to all hours of the night watching World Cup games on television. "His life was sport," said Abdullah. "He started playing soccer as soon as he learned to walk."
Hardly an obvious candidate for suicide.
His best friend, Osama, was his mirror opposite and seemed better suited for the role. He was intensely religious. He was shy and reclusive. He didn't say much.
"He was righteous and more religious than any of his brothers," said his father, Mohammed Bahar, 51. From the age of 6 or 7, Osama went to pray at the mosque as often as he could and, during this Ramadan season, he made sure to pray every night after breaking the daily fast.
"He was calm to the point that if you asked him a question that necessitated only a one-word answer, he would only give you that one word," said Ziad Bahar, a first cousin. Other than Nabil, Osama had few friends. "He spent his time between home, work, and the mosque," said Ziad.
In addition to listening to religious sermons, four years in Israeli prisons also shaped Osama's world view: He was jailed after the first intifada for taking part in illegal activities and membership in Hamas.
Nabil was a better soccer player than Osama, but then, Osama was better at karate than Nabil. In short, Osama and Nabil were ordinary Palestinians -- not people determined by birth or status to explode in Israel's face on a monstrous Saturday night.
"They had a normal life in Abu Dis," said Abdullah. Unlike many other Palestinians, Nabil, a plasterer, and Osama, a guard at a local bank, did not lose their jobs in this intifada. Nabil may have been annoyed by the fact that, since October, all soccer tournaments had been canceled because players could not move freely around the West Bank. But the frustration pales in comparison to the hardships endured by thousands of Palestinians who are prevented from going to work in Israel, have lost all income and are stranded in their villages by a military siege.
"Nothing extraordinary happened to Nabil," said Abdullah. "He grew up during the first intifada. He went through the same bad treatment as all other Palestinians -- the routine humiliation at army checkpoints, for example. Then he grew up and saw the better life Israelis lead, a special life of luxury, and he started asking questions: "Why are they living a better life than us? Why are they treating us so poorly?' We all ask these questions."
Nabil was probably not motivated to kill Israelis by religion. "He wasn't an extremist, he wasn't particularly religious and he wasn't intolerant," said Abdullah. He worked sometimes as a guard for various churches in Jerusalem and Bethany, for example. "What really prepared him for this operation was the occupation. It's a fertile ground for such actions and it will encourage hundreds of others to do the same thing."
The eldest of six brothers, Nabil managed to support his family when his father died of diabetes 10 years ago. He earned about $400 a month as a plasterer and for the past two years collected an extra $200 by working as a security guard for the Palestinian general intelligence agency. In a sign that there may have been more than soccer on his mind, Nabil quit the security job in September, foregoing a third of his income, because of political considerations.
"His conscience objected to what was going on in the streets (a crackdown on Islamic terrorist groups by the Palestinian Authority after Sept. 11). He did not want to be in a position where he would be asked to spy on his brothers and his friends," said Abdullah.
For Mohammed, Osama's father, the attack was "building up over time with everything Osama saw on television: the killing of children, the mutilated bodies of assassinated people. Watching all this for an extensive period of time produced this reaction, a reaction of hatred." Although he did not say much when the family gathered for a daily dose of televised misery, "Osama was very sensitive," said Mohammed, torn between pride and sadness for the loss of his son.
Would he have prevented Osama from going to blow himself up had he known in advance about his plan? "I don't know, it's a difficult question," he answers. Ziad, Osama's cousin, jumps in lest Palestinians appear cold and brutal: "I'm sure the emotions of a father would have prevailed."
But nothing is less sure. Suicide bombings that kill and maim innocent Israeli civilians are seen as an acceptable means of struggle by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians who equate them with the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers. The fact that the Israeli army does not hit Palestinian civilians on purpose, at least not officially, makes no difference to them. Recent polls show that close to 80 percent of Palestinian respondents support suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.
"Religiously, we're not allowed to kill civilians, women, children, unarmed people -- we're even prohibited from cutting a tree," said Abdullah. "But there's a verse in the Koran that says: punish the way you are punished."
As a sign of the prestige such suicide operations enjoy even in mainstream media controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which purports to fight terrorism and has repeatedly outlawed Hamas' military activities, the sports page of Al-Quds newspaper published an obituary for Nabil Halabiyeh. The caption read: "Halabiyeh joins the martyrs of the sports movement."
Terrorism has become a routine element of the conflict, something that many Palestinians see as their best weapon against Israeli indifference. In the days that preceded the killings by Osama and Nabil, five Palestinian children had been killed. Abdullah said he was expecting a Palestinian retaliation. "We were looking forward to hearing breaking news from al-Jezeera and hearing about some bomb in Tel Aviv for example," he said. "But the real surprise for us was that Osama and Nabil were the news item. There was no indication that they would get to this point. They were not deprived of anything. Since then, their status has become heroic in the eyes of the population of Abu Dis."
Like most Palestinians, the visitors in Nabil's house know little about the circumstances of the attack: who was killed, civilians or soldiers, young or old. One heard on CNN that the victims were all younger than 20, but otherwise no one would know. Palestinian media rarely divulge details about Israeli casualties. (The opposite is also true: the identity of Palestinian victims barely registers in the Israeli press.) "I don't know about the details," said Abdullah with a shrug. "In fact, we're not concerned with this. We as Palestinians are subject to Israeli state terror and Osama and Nabil sought to avenge this. They did not care who they killed or how they killed."
It's impossible to guess at the specific details of the suicide bombing. Osama may have received explosives from Hamas the night before. And Nabil may have been recruited by Osama several months ago. After all, at the karate club where Osama was Nabil's teacher or on trips to Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, they would have had plenty of time to discuss the specifics of the operation.
Except for Hamas and maybe the Shin Bet, no one knows for sure. And, in some ways, it doesn't matter. Osama and Nabil were ordinary guys, according to their families. When Abdullah saw Nabil heading out in his car an hour before the attack, Nabil looked absolutely normal. "He said he was going to visit a friend."
-- Flore de Preneuf is a St. Petersburg Times correspondent based in Jerusalem.
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