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Plight of a bomber's mother
Parent of Palestinian suicide attacker has become resigned to life as an endless cycle of killing. TIMOTHY APPLEBY tells her story

Monday, March 25, 2002

The Lost City of David

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  • ABU DIS, WEST BANK -- Fatima Halabiyeh does not conceal the pride that is commonly worn by the parents of a suicide bomber. Her son, Nabil, she says, "is a martyr in the eyes of God and our religion . . . I feel good about it."

    But in Mrs. Halabiyeh's own eyes, there is nothing to be seen but sorrow. And toward the end of the interview, for a brief moment, the mask of steely fortitude seems to slip, and the mother appears.

    "If I had known what Nabil was going to do, I would have stopped him for sure. Even if it meant not liberating Palestine. He was the eldest of my [six] sons and nothing can replace him."

    Equally irreplaceable, of course, are the 10 Israelis who died Dec. 1, after 24-year-old Nabil and his 25-year-old cousin Osama Bahar strapped on belts packed with explosives and nails and together headed for the bright lights of West Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda mall.

    Witnesses later described a scene from hell. It was a Saturday night, the mall was crowded and so scores more Jews, mostly young people, were injured and mutilated when the two terrorists blew themselves up. Then, as rescuers flooded the scene, Mr. Halabiyeh's rented car exploded as well.

    How does his mother perceive those many victims?

    "Let them die," she replied. "We Palestinians are dying every day because of this Israeli occupation. They kill, we kill -- it's a cycle."

    The violence that has consumed Mrs. Halabiyeh's life is not, in her mind, unconnected to the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, and the U.S. response.

    "Certainly we were all pleased," she said of the attacks on New York and Washington. "Not because we wanted those people to suffer, but because we were glad to see America weakened. America is the perpetrator of everything that happens here."

    Nestled in foothills just south of Jerusalem, Abu Dis is a town of 15,000, a stronghold of Yasser Arafat's Fatah group and home to the Palestinian Legislative Council. But now the community has two new heroes: the cousins, Nabil and Osama, whose faces, superimposed on a backdrop of Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock, adorn local streets and shops.

    Before his suicide mission, Nabil was a plasterer by trade. He also worked as a security guard at the nearby Garden of Gethsemane, chief breadwinner among the six brothers since their father died of a heart attack several years ago. Family and friends remember him as a star athlete, deeply religious. He had never been arrested.

    Both he and Osama may have been spurred on by the shooting death in October of another cousin, during a clash with the Israeli army in Abu Dis.

    "The situation is what led Nabil to do this," said his brother, Yazan, 23. "He was a strong believer in jihad [holy war] and so he took a short cut to heaven. The American people should pay close attention to what is happening."

    Surrounded by family and supporters, offering dates and sweet tea, Mrs. Halabiyeh, 42, seems just as militant.

    She knows that her house, perched on the edge of Abu Dis, is under close Israeli watch. During one of their many visits -- the first just hours after her son's suicide attack -- Israeli soldiers carefully measured it. She knows there's a good chance they will destroy it.

    And she knows there is little the Palestinian Authority can do to protect her. All she has received from Mr. Arafat's organization, a couple of weeks after her son's death, is a haj trip to Mecca. Iraq's Saddam Hussein recently announced that he will be paying $25,000 (U.S.) to the families of all Palestinian "martyrs," up from $10,000. But Mrs. Halabiyeh has seen none of it.

    Until the reprisals come, she seems resigned to more grief, perhaps prompting her parting remark, as the mask of hatred again briefly slips:

    "All we can do is hope the days ahead will be better and bring peace," said the anguished mother of a young man who will forever be portrayed as both hero and mass murderer. "Not just for us, but for the Israelis, too. Because they are just as much the victims in all this as us."

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