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I was a suicide bomber

Wearing tight pants and a tiny top that left her bellybutton exposed to disguise herself as a young Israeli woman, Arin Ahmed Shaebat got out of an old car in an open plaza in Rishon Lezion, an Israeli town of more than 200,000 residents, just south of Tel Aviv. She carried a heavy backpack.

It was May 22, 2002, and the Second Intifada — the Palestinian uprising — was gushing over the Land of Milk and Honey and claiming victims on both sides.

The Palestinian, who was 20 at the time, walked the opposite direction from 16-year-old Issa Badir, whose hair had been dyed blond to conceal his Arab background. Both carried black backpacks each containing more than 60 pounds of explosive and nails.

The two, who had been introduced only that day, came from the outskirts of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank with the aim to kill as many Jews as possible in a double suicide bombing attack.

Badir was to blow himself up first. Shaebat would have detonated herself when panicked survivors ran her way in the pedestrian mall where youngsters went to shop and elders to play cards.

But the sight of a mother carrying a baby triggered not a bomb, but a change of heart for the young woman.

"I saw a baby with his mother and I thought I don't have the right from God to finish that baby's life," Shaebat, now 27, said during an interview at her house in the Azza Refugee Camp, West Bank, last month. "I can't do the same thing that the Israeli soldiers do and we hate them for. I can't take other people's lives."

Badir had gone through with his mission, blowing himself up amid the domino and backgammon tables, killing a teenage boy and an elderly man and wounding dozens of others.

Later, Shaebat swung between remorse and relief.

"I had many, many mixed-up feelings," she said. "I thought about why I didn't do it, about the guy who was with me and exploded himself, about that baby."

One week later, Israel Defense Forces soldiers raided Shaebat's house and arrested her, acting on Palestinian intelligence information.

She spent seven years behind bars for planning an attack and was released in February 2009. She says that she was often beaten with "a special stick" and isolated regularly during her time in jail.

Shaebet, who speaks fluent English and some Hebrew, went to the edge of death and almost brought other people along with her.

What turned a young and educated woman into a human bomb ready to kill and to be killed?

"You see your people suffering humiliations and struggling to survive," she said. "I was thinking that I wanted to change the circumstances and that I had a message. We have to fight in order to live our lives in a dignified way."

Spring 2002 was marked by Operation Defensive Shield, a large-scale Israeli military action in the West Bank, aiming at suppressing the second Palestinian uprising and reducing suicide bombing attacks.

"No one could get out from his house. Every evening, you had to listen to the bullets between the Palestinians and the Israelis," she said. "Maybe, while you were at home, some bullets came through the window and through your mind and you died. Your life could have been over just in a moment.

"No one was safe, no one, and this is unfair. You didn't know what would have happened to you, if you would have stayed alive or if you would have died."

But her motivations for volunteering with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the Fatah affiliated military wing, weren't really about political or religious ideology. Hers was more a personal vengeance. At the time, she had recently lost her boyfriend, militant Jad Salem, 26, who died in an explosion.

The circumstances of his death are ambiguous. Israelis say he was killed while assembling a bomb. For Shaebat, it was another loved one departing her life.

Her dad had passed away when she was a baby. She says that some of her worst memories are of her mother remarrying and moving to Jordan. Shaebat was 10 years old when her mother left her in the care of relatives. Four years later, her grandfather, with whom she had been living, died.

Grieving and raging, Shaebat signed up for a ride out of the hell in which she was living. Then, events moved at hypervelocity.

Shaebat, who expected to undergo several months of preparation, was summoned to carry out an attack only four days after she had expressed her will.

"Congratulations," a militant told her as if she had just won the lottery. "We've chosen you. You are going to do a suicide bombing."

They instructed her how to detonate the bomb and showed her a map of the location of the planned attack. They told her she would become a heroine and that she would reunite with Salem in paradise.

Did her relatives know anything of her plans? "No," she said. "Of course not."

Before embarking on her suicide mission, Shaebat purified herself and prayed. Her final words were captured on video to be released to her family after her death.

She has no regrets about aborting the bombing. After she was caught, she expected to be imprisoned, just not for so long. When she emerged from prison after years out of her old world, she didn't know if the situation had become better or worse. "Everything is changing and continuing in a way or another," she said. "But you have to go forward."

Now, she is a business administration student at Bethlehem University, with one year left before graduation. After earning her degree, she hopes to work at a small company or even start a business on her own. She got married last fall. She wants to adjust to her new life and feel more stable before thinking about having kids.

Even though she nearly became a suicide bomber, she is not really political and just wants to get on with her life, though she is giving lectures at universities about her experience.

Oddly, considering what she almost did, she has an optimistic outlook on life. "If not," she said. "I will not survive a day."

Alessandra Da Pra is a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer. She is now a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem and can be reached at dapraalessandra@gmail.com.

I was a suicide bomber 01/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 3:46pm]
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