STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF ISLAM
Killing in the name of God
Poverty, hate turn a Palestinian youth into ready recruit as suicide bomberBy Storer H. Rowley
October 3, 2004
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- No one in Ismail Maasawabi's family knew his secret.
The son of an aluminum and glass-shop worker, Maasawabi loved his family, had a lively sense of humor and studied hard in college to become an art teacher.
But Maasawabi also held a dire ambition. He wanted to be something that passes as a hero in this part of the world: a suicide bomber.
And on June 22, 2001, he got his wish. Leaving home that day during final exams, Maasawabi climbed into a jeep wired with explosives. Instead of going to class, he headed for a nearby Jewish settlement, where at age 22 he became a human bomb with all of its tragic consequences.
"He went out that day like any young man," said his father, Basheer, who was stunned to learn of his son's ambition and even more shocked when he heard of his fate. "I was out when I heard the loudspeakers of the mosque announcing, `We give you good news. The virgins of paradise are happily receiving the new groom, the martyr Ismail Maasawabi.'"
That a young man full of promise would willingly take his life to kill others is not, unfortunately, all that rare in this blood-soaked patch of sand and citrus groves along the Mediterranean.
Hardly a week passes without news of a similar death somewhere in the Middle East. And the "martyrs" seem to get younger by the day. One recent survey said that more than one in four children in Gaza want to be "martyrs."
But Maasawabi differs from many of the others in one respect. His case provides a rare glimpse into the psychology of the suicide bomber, a twisted blend of religious piety and victimization that has become the new face of Muslim extremism, a force behind attacks on America and its allies around the world.
The details of Maasawabi's story are not easy to come by. Even asking his neighbors how and why a young man makes the transition from a devout Muslim to a radical Islamic suicide bomber can bring accusations that the inquisitor must have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency, or worse.
He lived in a world of poverty, despair and ignorance where myths are spun from the yarn of rumor, forming a cloak of conspiracy and distortion that blankets the Arab world and makes truth as elusive as peace.
Maasawabi embraced Islam firmly just as the religion became hopelessly entwined with the Palestinian resistance and Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that has grown into the most popular political group in the Gaza Strip. Hamas garners support through its social services, a hard line against Israel and a shrewd application of Islam to legitimize its message and offer hope to the masses.
What was once a nationalistic movement for statehood has become for many Palestinians a religious call to arms. Moderates battle militants in an ideological war in which Hamas has gained the upper hand with a polemic interpretation of the Koran that lures passionate young men inexorably toward violence.
But interviews with his family and others near his Gaza home, a "martyr's will" and a letter he wrote to his family show that Maasawabi was not simply some poor Palestinian youth who didn't know better.
He was smart, loyal and not all that different from many of his Gaza peers, a new generation chafing under a yoke of alienation and humiliation imposed by parties it sees as the villains--Israel and its ally, the United States.
Indeed, Maasawabi's decision to commit an act abhorrent to many Muslims flowed from his education and his radical interpretation of religion. However misguided and immoral Maasawabi's act might seem to others, he believed he was in the service of a higher cause, one blessed by his Islamic elders and Allah.
His fate is a tragic chapter in the struggle for the soul of Islam, compounding the tragedy of those he killed, two young Israeli soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I lost the most precious thing on this Earth," said Maasawabi's father, Basheer, interviewed in his humble second-floor apartment here.
He recalled how he thought his son was off to his exams on that fateful day in 2001.
"I had great hope that he would finish his studies, get a job and help me through life," the 47-year-old father recalled, adding that he had wished Ismail well on his final exams as he left the family home for the last time.
"His answer was, `Father, Inshallah [God willing], you will be happy. You will see a bigger certificate that will make you proud and the whole family proud.'"
The Arabic word his son used for "certificate" also connotes martyrdom.
Ismail Maasawabi was born Jan. 8, 1979, to Basheer and Rawda, in the Shejaiyeh section of Gaza City, a district that years later would become a stronghold for the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas.
Skinny as a child, with light brown hair and honey-colored eyes, he was the third of the couple's nine children, four boys and five girls. He grew up in a devoutly religious household. As a boy, Ismail had a peaceful outlook and a kind demeanor.
He adored animals, especially his sister's cat, Mishmish. He would sit for hours in the shade of the olive trees beside his family's humble house--drawing, looking at trees and watching insects and birds. He especially loved watering the garden and savored the smell of water in the sand.
Maasawabi was a good student, and from his earliest days his teachers, imams and friends on the streets of Gaza impressed upon him the proud cultural heritage of the Muslim.
At prayers and in the pages of time-honored books, Maasawabi discovered that his faith, Islam, once dominated much of the world, extending from Asia to Spain. Muslim scholars followed Islamic troops, spreading their advanced and refined skills in the arts and sciences. Islamic scholars, he would learn, not only enhanced the knowledge base of the ancient Greeks and Persians, they also incorporated the use and production of writing paper from China and reigned supreme in an era in which they viewed Europeans as non-believing barbarians.
As young Maasawabi trudged to school each day, though, he saw on every street corner of Gaza City a far different world, one that was a distant echo of Islamic glory. Gaza and all of its troubles were the new reality.
A barren slice of land and Mediterranean coastline about 24 miles long, Gaza sits between Egypt and biblical Palestine. The Gaza Strip was part of British mandatory Palestine and was occupied by Egyptian troops in the 1948 Middle East war, when Israel declared its independence. Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1994, Israel partially ceded control of the Gaza Strip to Palestinians, yet even today the area remains under the ironclad control of the Israeli army.
Just over twice the size of Washington, D.C., the Gaza Strip is home to more than 1.3 million Palestinians, plus some 8,000 Israeli settlers who have moved there and claimed land that both they and the Palestinians say is their birthright.
As a community, Gaza is like few places on Earth. It is desperately poor, with a dearth of natural resources. About 923,000 of Gaza's Arabs are registered refugees, including many displaced by Israel's 1948 War of Independence. More than half live in eight United Nations-administered refugee "camps," a euphemism for slums, some of the most squalid and densely populated areas in the world.
Studies by the UN and local and international government agencies read like an economic indictment: unemployment -- more than 50 percent; poverty -- 75 percent; malnutrition levels -- comparable to Zimbabwe and the Congo; anxiety -- a third of children under 15 wet their beds at night and suffer from depression.
Decades of war and tension between Israel and the Palestinians plus factional infighting have made the current scene in Gaza grim, but the situation Maasawabi faced as a youngster was already desperate.
He grew up among the cinder-block houses that line unpaved, trash-strewn streets and narrow, rutted dirt alleyways. Refuse and raw sewage covered areas where he and other children played.
He lived in a world where a donkey cart can share a crowded traffic lane with a Mercedes, and scarce resources forced his people into a reliance on Israel and the UN for jobs, food and housing.
Worst of all and invisible to the naked eye: An aura of shame, defeat and betrayal loomed over Gaza like a brooding cloud, a haze of spite created by years of Palestinian infighting and Israeli military incursions, border closings, house demolitions and crackdowns on militants.
"In the Arab mentality, we feel ashamed of ourselves because we are defeated," said Dr. Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist and chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
Sarraj abhors the fact that young men like Maasawabi are lost to suicide bombing, but he understands why it happens. "In the Arab way," he says, "it is better to die in dignity than live in defeat."
The "martyr's will" Maasawabi's family received from Hamas representatives after his death shows how the shame of Gaza and the woeful conditions experienced by many Muslims had a huge impact on him.
"I swear that the heart is crying for what happened to this nation," he said in the document. "We are very sad that this nation today is humiliated after it was honored, is weakened after it was the most powerful and became ignorant after it was full of knowledge and science . . . and came to be as the tail of the human caravan after it had been leading the caravan."
One would never have sensed his anger, though, as he marched to classes in his formative years. On the surface, Maasawabi's bleak surroundings didn't seem to dim his enthusiasm for life as a teenager or for the activities that swirled around the mosque, a major social center for him and his peers.
He enjoyed the things that attract most boys. He loved soccer, became a good swimmer, lifted weights. His father recalled with pride how Ismail did odd jobs to earn money, including selling lemon ice cream, saving enough to buy a motor scooter and a very small boat.
Maasawabi had always been religious, his father said. As a youngster, he prayed five times a day, did charity work at the mosque and cared for the poor. Later, he kept a tape of the Koran in his pocket to play for others.
His father recalled a sculpture of glass and metal that Ismail built when he was about 15. It took him a week, and he was so proud he wanted to sell it. But his sister accidentally destroyed it. Ismail turned red with anger, but he didn't scream or cry. Holding his feelings inside, his father said, Ismail merely remarked, "On God, the compensation"--meaning he expected that Allah would do something better for him in the future.
But it is hard for a child to remain a child in Gaza, a magnetic field of militancy that started to enter his consciousness at an early age.
Maasawabi was 8 when the first barrage of stones hit Israeli troops in a spontaneous revolt that came to be known as the intifada. It was triggered on Dec. 8, 1987, when several Palestinians were killed or injured as an Israeli truck crashed into two cars carrying Gaza workers, most of them from the Jabaliya refugee camp.
News traveled quickly to Jabaliya, and Palestinians there took to the streets in anger, marking the formal start of the uprising. There were even rumors that the crash was deliberate, revenge for the stabbing death of an Israeli in Gaza the day before.
Seething after 20 years of Israeli occupation and subjugation, youths rose up, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank, catching everyone by surprise in an insurrection that would last until the signing of the Oslo peace accords in September 1993.
Maasawabi's father had long supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group, which promotes the worldwide spread of Islam and the creation of Islamic states ruled by Islamic law.
The Brotherhood had won the devotion of many Arabs by eagerly embracing the Arab cause at the heart of decades of Mideast strife--the fight against Israeli independence in 1948 and the desire of Palestinians for a state of their own on land they believe has been taken from them by Israeli occupiers. When the first intifada erupted, members of the Brotherhood helped found Hamas, a political movement with a religious ideology, to play a leading role in the uprising.
As the intifada spread, young Maasawabi took to the streets like many Palestinian youths, throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. His father remembers one day when Ismail, about 10 at the time, was in a crowd of children. He was behaving peacefully, but some of the other children in the group were hurling stones at an Israeli patrol. He was arrested by the soldiers and didn't try to escape. He told his father later that it was better to be arrested standing his ground than running away. He didn't want to run, he said, "because I wasn't scared."
The day-to-day street fighting created a potent image that dominated headlines and newscasts across the Middle East--kids with rocks and Molotov cocktails fighting an Israeli military armed with rifles, tanks and jets, some supplied by the United States.
Israeli policies have contributed to the bleakness in Gaza. For decades, Israeli governments have seized Palestinian lands, where they built Jewish settlements. They have jailed and assassinated Palestinian leaders and militants, bulldozed entire neighborhoods, killed innocents and strangled the Gaza economy with frequent border closings--actions that often came in response to violence but wreaked havoc and hardship on those denied access to their livelihoods.
Some 3,000 Palestinians and about 1,000 Israelis have been killed since the latest intifada erupted Sept. 28, 2000, when right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon visited a holy site in Jerusalem sacred to Muslims and Jews. Arabs said they were insulted by his visit to Al Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary (Haram ash-Sharif).
Besides the carnage in the current wave of fighting, border closings have cost some 75,000 Palestinians jobs in Israel, according to U.S. government officials monitoring the situation, a loss that affects 750,000 in the region. Total income lost since September 2000 is $2.4 billion, or more than half the annual gross domestic product of the Palestinian territories at the start of the intifada.
But even Palestinian radicals agree that more than Israel is to blame for these conditions. Also culpable are inept, corrupt, secular Arab governments with weak leaders who created the vacuum that radical organizations such as Hamas have eagerly filled.
Before his death, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza, pointed to the inability of secular regimes in the Arab world to improve conditions for their citizens as a reason that Islamic groups need to take control.
"The secular regimes, not just in Palestine but all over the Arab world, have proven their failure economically, politically, culturally, administratively, socially and militarily," said Rantisi, interviewed in 2003. He became the top Hamas leader in Gaza earlier this year and was assassinated weeks later by the Israeli government.
Despite Rantisi's radicalism, few could argue with his assessment of the Arab world--22 governments and 280 million people ranging from oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Yemen and the Palestinian territories.
Annual per capita economic growth from 1980 to 2000 in the 22 averaged just 0.5 percent, the lowest outside sub-Saharan Africa, according to a UN Arab development report in 2002. Even though many of them rest on a sea of oil, the report said the value of the combined mismanaged economies of the 22 lands in 1999 didn't even equal that of Spain. Dead last in all of the rankings: the Palestinian territories, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Things might have improved since the late 1990s, but not by much.
Some aid does flow into the territories. But much of it goes to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, which Palestinians increasingly view as corrupt and mismanaged--a big factor in the current round of unrest threatening Arafat's hold on power. Palestinians say they see little of that money or help trickling down to the people.
Struggle for liberation
You don't have to wander far from Maasawabi's home to see why many Palestinians view Hamas and the radical Islamists as a better alternative.
On the eve of last year's Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the needy file into the spacious office of Sheik Hassan Ahmad in a drab Gaza City building to claim their holiday stipends.
One by one, Palestinian widows and orphans step up to the bearded sheik, who, after a brief check of his lists, reaches into a white envelope and produces bunches of bills to distribute. The sums range from 100 Israeli shekels, about $22, to more than 2,000 shekels, about $440--a fortune in a place where the poorest live on an estimated $1.32 a day.
"When the Palestinian Authority receives money, we don't even smell it," says Jamal Yassin, a 30-year-old Gazan who came to get aid from the sheik's Islamic Society. "But the societies put it all in our pocket. They always give us everything they get, immediately."
Not far away, the Islamic Center, another community benevolence association, supports some 3,000 people, including families of prisoners and people killed and wounded in the current conflict. "We offer the services of the clinic, social services, food . . . assistance and instruments for the poor who are disabled and money for the unemployed," says Motasem Dalloul, 23, a spokesman for the center.
Founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1973, the center is on a shabby street in Gaza about 7 miles from Maasawabi's home. It offers its services free of charge or for a nominal fee.
But the message of charity is not the only one found there. A sign posted outside the Islamic Center has offered this hateful ideology: "Killing the Jews is a prayer that makes us closer to Allah."
Gaza's radical Islamic clerics combine their social largess with a potent brand of anti-Israeli rhetoric that glorifies violence and presents youths such as Maasawabi with something they value as much as food and water--a sense of resistance, a feeling that they are fighting back.
Brian Barber, a developmental social psychologist at the University of Tennessee who has researched Gaza for a book on youth activists in the intifada, explained the Palestinian outlook.
"The people are exhausted psychologically and physically because of their failure to achieve . . . basic economic opportunity, human rights and the dignity of self," he said. "The people finally stopped trusting those who led them to believe it would improve--Arafat and the secular leaders."
Dim prospects for peace enhance Hamas' ability to sustain violence and lure Maasawabi and other young Palestinians to its ranks.
The near collapse of a moderate Palestinian movement seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict and modernization of their society means there is no force countering the radicals.
"The most dangerous thing I see is when you politicize religion," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, head of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in Jerusalem.
"How do we [moderates] develop a movement, `Not In My Name?' These angry people can hijack Islam and use my Palestinian struggle," he said.
"Gaza is governed by Islamists, and that's why Sharon . . . [sends troops] to Gaza to chop off the heads of these people," Abdul Hadi said, referring to Israeli military crackdowns on Islamic groups.
Of the suicide attacks, he said: "This killing is creating a new culture in our society. The Israelis call it a culture of revenge, of suicide or homicide bombers. We call it a culture of sacrifice, or martyrdom. It is, in fact, a little of both."
Islam does not naturally move toward this type of fundamentalism, anger and thirst for revenge. Those things have to be deliberately taught, and Gaza had become the perfect classroom.
From fiery sermons in overflowing mosques to the radical rhetoric of militant leaders in Islamic schools, youth groups, clinics and charities, the message has been to marry the personal struggle (jihad) of all Muslims to serve God with a political agenda to liberate Palestine.
No one really knows the true strength of the militants behind the bombings. But it's glaringly apparent that the radicals have an impact in Gaza that goes far beyond their numbers. When a "martyr" dies, militants transform the funeral into a social rally. Posters of the bomber's face adorn the streets. The bomber's name is blared from loudspeakers of mosques, the family elevated to celebrity status.
Support for bombings
Even those with hopes for peace often rally to support the bombers and their missions. In a June poll, more than 6 of 10 Palestinians surveyed by the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center supported suicide bombing operations against Israeli civilians, though in an earlier poll many felt that a cease-fire with Israel was in their personal interest.
Those findings are not incompatible. Support for Hamas usually grows during periods of heightened tension with Israel. Palestinians traditionally lean toward the secular nationalist movement led by Arafat and the PLO, but recent polls indicate Hamas has edged ahead of Arafat's Fatah faction in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas is aiming for a leadership role in any government formed after Sharon's planned Israeli withdrawal from the strip next year.
Hamas adopted suicide bombing as a political weapon about a decade ago, calling its bombers shuhada, or martyrs. The Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah is said to have pioneered the tactic in Lebanon during the 1980s, most memorably against U.S. and other targets in Beirut.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for more than half of about 135 suicide attacks against Israel since the latest intifada started in September 2000 that have killed at least 447 Israelis, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
The Koran is filled with passages promising paradise to those who die in the service of Allah. In the hands of Hamas, those verses have helped build a pool of would-be suicide bombers who dwell more on the paradise they expect in the next life than the hell they endure in this one.
But Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University, said most mainstream Islamic scholars are adamant that there is no religious underpinning for suicide bombing.
"Suicide by any orthodox interpretation of Islam is completely unacceptable," he said. "I know of nobody who would argue otherwise. The sheiks who then justify it, I don't know how they do that.
"It is an un-Islamic act to commit suicide. It's also unacceptable to kill civilians. There is a phrase in the Koran, something like, `He who has harmed an innocent person, it is as if he has harmed the whole world.' That's not a vague precept, that's the word of God, and anyone who would argue that would have to say the Koran is wrong."
Even so, Barber, the psychologist, says support among young adults for militancy and suicide has as much to do with empowerment of the individual as hopelessness or religiosity.
"That's the tragedy," Barber said. "The only way you can feel empowered is to die. That's the ultimate expression of despair."
Nowhere is the allure of the extremists stronger than among young people like Maasawabi. No longer are "martyrs" defined merely by the profile of the recent past--the unemployed, ill-educated, poor, young, single men seeking their reward of beautiful black-eyed virgins in paradise and the favor of Allah. Also joining the ranks are Maasawabi and others like him--educated, often well-off young men and women with otherwise promising futures.
By the time Sharon paid his visit to Al Aqsa Mosque compound, Maasawabi had graduated from a local high school north of the Shati refugee camp and had enrolled in Al Aqsa University.
Founded as a secular university with a modern campus, the university in Gaza City's center had a program where Maasawabi could pursue his art studies. On a campus lined with trees, walkways and benches, and in nearby cafes, young men and women met and mingled. But Maasawabi never had a girlfriend, his father said.
"He had nothing to do with his life but to study and read the Koran," Basheer Maasawabi recalled. "He had to be the best because God wants Muslims to be the best."
Maasawabi's religious devotion seemed to intensify after he entered the university, his father said. He started praying more than the five times a day that Islam requires, fasted for long periods, handed out tapes of lectures on Islam and made notebooks advising others how to be good Muslims.
He started painting pictures of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, participated in the prayer circle at the nearby Abdullah Ibn Omar Mosque and started teaching younger men lessons.
"He was very glued to the mosque," his father said, "but I never knew that he was with Hamas. He used to support all the Islamic factions."
From Maasawabi's last letters emerges the portrait of a young man who could no longer derive value, comfort or meaning in everyday life, who believed he could serve God only by taking up weapons and jihad against his enemies.
By most accounts, no one really had to recruit Maasawabi for his mission. One friend said he longed to be a "martyr," and his letters suggest he was more than willing to join the ranks of the shuhada.
"It was my duty to carry my weapon and join the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades [the military wing of Hamas] to make the Jews taste the sorrow, the pain and the destruction--exactly like they are forcing our people to taste death every day," Maasawabi wrote just before his death.
Warning issued on Arafat
The sun rose at 5:34 on June 22, 2001. Off in Israel, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was welcoming U.S. envoy William Burns to the region, warning him that Arafat had not arrested any of the militant leaders planning attacks on Israel.
Indeed, that very morning, a roadside bomb had been detonated near an Israeli army unit patrolling a stretch of road close to the settlement of Netzarim in the central Gaza Strip. No one was wounded, but the blast could be heard for miles.
To the north in Gaza City, Maasawabi rose early as always to attend morning prayers. It was his favorite time of day. He returned home and put on a new galabiyeh, or robe, for Friday midday prayers.
Afterward, back home again, he showered and put on new clothes--jeans and a nice blue checked shirt--before going out in the afternoon. His father thought he was heading out to meet friends.
Before his mission, Maasawabi wrote some of his last thoughts to his family in elegant Arabic script.
"My family, my beloved generous friends, my kindhearted mother, my kind father, my brothers and sisters, I am writing these words as I prepare to leave on a trip of no return. I am not coming back to this cheap life, which is not worth, according to Allah, even the wing of a fly. This life is only a shadow that will soon disappear.
"Martyrdom for the sake of Allah is not a strange or a new thing," he said in writings later delivered by Hamas to his family, "but it is the wish I had since my childhood, and I've been waiting for it with all my being. . . . How many times have I prayed to Allah to give it to me? I won't be lazy in sacrificing parts of my body, my blood and my soul to Allah."
Maasawabi went to his death believing he would see his family again. "My beloved family," he wrote, "I do know that being away from you is hard, but you should know there will be a great reunion between us and a great meeting that God will gather us to in very comfortable seats in paradise."
He addressed each family member and implored that they take pride in his action.
" . . . Mother, all you have to do is be patient and be happy. Ululate instead of crying. Get on your knees and thank God for what he offered you when he chose your son as a martyr. . . . My father, my great good-hearted and unlimited-hearted father, please forgive me. . . . I want you to be happy now seeing your son is getting martyrdom, the greatest diploma."
He asked his brothers to take care of his mother and father and to avoid sinful acts. "Mohammed, Ahmad, Mahmoud, you are the men of the future," he wrote. "Be good to your mother, help my father in his work. . . . Be glued to the mosque. . . . Stay away from bad people. And don't sin. Read the Koran and fast as much as you can.
"Nisreen, Assma'a, Khadeeja, Asia, Reem," he wrote to his sisters, "I found nothing but happiness, good things, generosity and shiny smiles on your faces. . . . My dear sisters, leaving this life, we will meet by the will of Allah. We will live forever under the throne of Allah. Be patient and thank Allah and live by his destiny."
Shortly before 5 p.m. in the northern Gaza Strip, along Shikma beach near the Jewish settlement of Dugit, Israeli soldiers spotted a jeep with yellow Israeli license plates stuck in the sand. The driver was wearing a kippa, the yarmulke many religious Jews and settlers wear in Israel. A few Palestinians stood outside a house nearby. They and a Palestinian woman on the rooftop of another building beckoned for the soldiers' assistance, indicating the jeep was stuck, according to Israeli authorities.
As two of the soldiers came near, Ismail Maasawabi, the man in the kippa, cried out and pushed a button, detonating an explosive charge in the jeep, obliterating the vehicle and killing himself. Palestinians nearby opened fire on the soldiers before fleeing, along with the Palestinian woman, who apparently was part of the mission, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Deadlier attack envisioned
Maasawabi likely was aiming for a much larger and more deadly attack on citizens deep inside Dugit, but Israeli authorities say he was prevented from passing through a roadblock. He and his comrades on the mission apparently then came up with an alternative plan that involved the soldiers.
"My soul chose to be but a candle for the nation of Islam, but at the same time sharp nails of fire against the enemies of Allah," Maasawabi wrote in his martyr's will, "because leaving Muslims on Earth massacred, and to stand wringing our hands from a distance, just doing this will not make us take one single step to stop the unfairness, will not help our people."
Hamas buried Maasawabi's remains with full honors. Islamic radicals blared his name from speakers in the mosque; Hamas released a video that showed Maasawabi holding a Kalashnikov rifle standing in front of green Hamas flags. "I am one among hundreds of martyrs in waiting who are waiting to meet God, and who are able to reach the Zionists wherever they are," he said on the video.
Maasawabi killed Israelis on that day at Dugit, two of them from Israel's Givati Brigade--Sgt. Aviv Iszak of Kfar Saba, and Sgt. Ofir Kit of Jerusalem. Both had families that loved them, both felt committed to their cause.
Fifteen minutes before the bombing, Kit had phoned his parents, telling his father that he was not afraid to die for his country, if necessary. Then he told his family he had to hang up because his friend, Aviv, needed assistance. He joined his fellow soldier to help a jeep stuck in the sand. It would be the last thing the soldiers ever did. They were both 19 years old.
Maasawabi's father described a second video, this one taken by the Hamas team accompanying Maasawabi on the mission. Portions of it were broadcast on television. He said it shows the incident unfold and includes his son's last words.
"I rely on God," he is heard crying out before the explosion, the father said.
In the warrens and alleyways of Gaza City, Maasawabi's suicide operation drew the requisite share of praise and honor. Even today his mother and father view his end as a "sacrifice" or act of "jihad."
In the larger world, though, where suicide bombings are a tragic but increasingly common ploy, Maasawabi's death seemed like a primal scream in an echo chamber. The wire services carried only brief stories on the incident.
Tribune foreign correspondent Joel Greenberg and Muhammad al Waheidi contributed to this report.
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Gaza Strip and West Bank
Population: Gaza Strip, 1.3 million; West Bank, 2.3 million (both not including Israeli settlers)
Annual population growth: Gaza Strip 3.8%; West Bank 3.2% (U.S.: 0.9%)
Percent Muslim: Gaza Strip, 99%; West Bank, 75% (both mostly Sunni)
Industries: Cement, textiles, soap
Agriculture: Olives, citrus fruits, vegetables, beef, dairy products
Poverty rate: Gaza Strip, 75%; West Bank, 60%
Sources: CIA World Factbook, World Bank
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune