AL-AYDA REFUGEE CAMP, Bethlehem — We enter al-Ayda refugee camp on foot. We’re on the northern edge of Bethlehem, close to the security barrier and Rachel’s Tomb. Graffiti on one of the walls proclaims this “the State of al-Ayda refugee camp,” underlining its separation from the rest of the world.
There are posters on the walls every few meters showing the “martyr” Abed al-Hamid Abu Srour, 19, who carried out last Monday’s suicide bombing on the No. 12 bus in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. Twenty Israelis were injured, one of them critically — a 15-year-old Israeli girl, Eden Dadon. Abu Srour was the only fatality.
The posters show a good-looking youngster wearing a bright Giorgio Armani shirt. Most of the posters here do not carry the symbols of any Palestinian organization — a kind of retort, perhaps, to posters issued by Hamas that announced the bomber was one of them.
When you enter the mourning tent at al-Ayda’s youth center, however, Hamas posters are everywhere. Green Hamas flags, too, along with the yellow flags of Fatah. “The heroic martyr” is immortalized here along with other famous “martyrs.” Among them is Hamas’s bombmaker, “the Engineer,” Yahya Ayyash.
Our visit Sunday coincides with the broadcast by Hamas of a short video clip showing Abu Srour in Hamas uniform reading a text during a visit to the mourning tent for a relative, Srour Abu Srour, who was killed here in the camp a few months ago. The release of the video clip is very deliberate. Immediately after Abed was identified as the suicide bomber, and the mourning tent was opened, masked Hamas activists arrived but were thrown out by family members who resented that Hamas was coopting the scene to claim that the bomber acted on its behalf.
The next day, the masked Hamas men came back, this time to the area where the women were sitting, and kissed Azhar, Abu Srour’s mother, on the head, before hurriedly exiting. That same night some of them were arrested by Palestinian Authority security forces. Still, Hamas persisted in highlighting Abu Srour’s affiliation. The former Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, telephoned from Gaza, and his words were broadcast live by loudspeaker in the mourning tent. The clip of Abu Srour in Hamas uniform, therefore, is intended to hammer home the message that, yes, this young man, in his expensive clothes, from a well-to-do and respected family, was most certainly a member of the Islamist organization. The matter of “credit” is of great importance when it comes to suicide bombings.
At least two Palestinians from this camp, jailed Hamas activists, were among 1,027 Palestinian prisoners freed by Israel in the 2011 exchange that saw Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released from five years of Hamas captivity in Gaza. The two were deported to Gaza. From the Strip, Hamas’s military wing runs its “West Bank Unit,” seeking relentlessly to recruit activists and set up a new infrastructure in the West Bank. When Hamas made the announcement that Abu Srour was one of its men, hundreds of young men in this camp held celebratory marches, declaring their support of Hamas, and elderly women threw candies in every direction.
If I’d known that’s what he intended to do…
Sunday afternoon saw Hamad, the father of the “martyr,” resting in a home not far from the mourning tent. With him were his daughters and his wife, Azhar.
“On the day it happened, I didn’t think for a minute that he was responsible,” says Azhar Abu Srour. “Not for a second did I imagine that it was my Abed; he’s so not that.
“He was the kind of kid who would tell me a whole story, and finish it, and I’d be sure it was true. And it would turn out he’d made up the whole thing. That would happen a lot,” she says. “I’d tell him, ‘You should be an actor.’ He was such a kid. Two days before the event, his father said to me, ‘When is this son of yours going to grow up?’ A kid. His thinking was simple, childish.”
Still, she goes on, “I’m an educator” — she’s a teacher at a school in Bethlehem — “and I saw that he was very influenced by everything that was going on around him.”
As she speaks, Abu Srour’s mother is holding his two-year-old sister and sitting next to her husband with other relatives around them, many wearing shirts bearing a picture of the “martyr.” Azhar Abu Srour is a little different from what you would expect in a refugee camp like this — sitting in the same room as the men, dressed in modern clothing, her head uncovered. Her father was killed in 1981 in an Israel Air Force bombing of a position of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Lebanon. She herself was born in Syria and moved to Bethlehem in the early 1990s.
On the day of the bombing, she says, “hours passed, and I called him again and again. His phone was off, but that had happened plenty of times before.” When Israeli media reported that the most seriously injured person had not been identified and was the suspected bomber, the father began to suspect something.
Hamad takes up the story. “The next day, I went of my own accord to the offices of our security apparatus, and filled in a form saying my son was missing. I myself reported on his disappearance. The Israelis didn’t know. They were confused. I provided the information that he had disappeared. And later on, I identified his body.
“I’m telling you,” he insists, “there’s something in this story that doesn’t sit right. My son? Abed? That he would do this? He lived with me. We lived openly. There was no aggression or violence in him. Everybody around him liked him. I had my eye on him all the time. I would always ask him, ‘Where are you going, when are you coming home?’ I still can’t believe that this happened. This doesn’t represent Abed’s personality. I can’t believe that he could do a thing like this. I can’t get my head around it.”
Except Azhar Abu Srour has said that her son always admired the notorious Gaza bombmaker Ayyash, who was killed by Israel in 1996. “Every young man has a model and my son took Yahya Ayyash as a model because he hurt those Israelis who hurt us every day,” she told NPR. And also that he “always felt he should take revenge for his grandfather’s death.”
Asked about Hamas’s announcement that Abu Srour was one of its members, Hamad tries to avoid the subject. “Ask Hamas about that,” he says. “But if I’d known that that’s what he intended to do, I would have cuffed him” — he raises his two hands and mimics handcuffing them — “and hidden him under the ground… I never educated him to this. But you know whose fault it is? You Israelis. You led a whole generation to this. You and your government.”
Is he concerned now that Israel will demolish the family home, as a deterrent to future acts of terrorism? “Please, let them come,” he says. “We’ll build 20 houses in two months. I’ve lost something much more valuable than a house. I lost my son. What do I care now about a house? You Jews have to understand. Abed al-Hamid did not come from an impoverished family. He came from a well-to-do family. He had his own car. A family with property and money. Every Palestinian household would welcome us today. If they destroy our home, we will build a much grander one. This is a cultured family, with manners, with dignity. With an education that opposed violence. I’d urged him to go study anywhere he wanted, in Europe, in the Arab world. But today’s younger generation is different. If my father had said something, we would all bow our heads and do as we were told. Today’s youngsters do what they want to do.
“You, the Israelis, need to ask yourselves, what caused a kid like this — and he was a kid — to want to carry out an act like this?” Hamad goes on. “Again, I tell you, Israel is to blame. Israel caused this generation to act in this way. This generation has no future, no work. You pressure them, and harm them, and give them no hope. You made this young generation what it is, and the next generation, today’s little kids, will be even more dangerous, and yet here you are, a Jew, and we welcome you with respect. So stop thinking that we are the violent Palestinians.”
He continues: “I’m against hurting anybody, whoever he is. Every child and every man has the right to live. And I’m telling you again, if I’d had known that he was planning to do this, I would have stopped him.”
I hate the fact that I have a president like Abbas
Is it possible that Abu Srour’s whole family — father, mother, brothers and sisters — knew nothing of his Hamas activities, as they claim? What’s being said here seems distant from the mood and tone of the mourning tent, the cries of praise that the old women let loose when the masked Hamas activists came in and kissed the mother’s head. There’s a gulf between what’s being said publicly for the television cameras, the Arabic channels, and what is being said and done here in the private rooms among the family, this well-to-do family that managed to get out of the refugee camp and move to relatively upscale Beit Jala. There’s even an Israeli visiting here, an American-born Israeli Jew who knew Abu Srour and other members of the family.
“I have no problem with the Jews,” both the mother and father say. But their son has just become the first suicide bomber in years.
And then Azhar, Abu Srour’s mother, says, “It was an act of self-defense. True, I, as a Palestinian, as an enlightened person, I might perhaps have acted differently, by means of the pen, by means of the written word. But everybody has his own way of resistance.
And when it’s pointed out that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has condemned the bombing, she replies, “For me, Abu Mazen does not represent the Palestinian people. When I hear him speak, it makes me hate the fact that I’m a Palestinian because I have a president like that. When your prime minister supports the soldier who shot dead a Palestinian in Hebron, and my president condemns our actions, what am I supposed to think of him?”
At which point the father mutters cynically, “Yallah, Lakalboosh” — off to jail — as though he’s expecting the PA’s security forces to come at any moment and arrest them.
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