From the outbreak of the Aqsa intifada, Israeli security forces faced a new threat from Palestinian terrorist organizations, which started to use women to carry out suicide attacks on their behalf. According to Israeli security forces there were more than 20 cases in which women were involved in terror related activity against Israeli targets. The terrorist organizations behind the attacks aimed to exploit the advantages of dispatching females to carry out these attacks, using the assumption that a female was thought of as innocent and therefore would arouse less suspicion than a man. The use of a female also illustrated a tactical shift by Palestinian groups seeking to exploit the security forces' hesitation to search Muslim women. While checks on Palestinian men at roadblocks and elsewhere were rigorous, there were fewer checks done on woman, hence illustrating a gap in security, which the terrorists exploited[i].
The first example of such a case was on 27 January 2002, when Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, dispatched Wafa Idris, to carry out the first suicide attack by a female Palestinian on Israeli citizens. As a result of the attack, one Israeli elderly man, aged 81 was killed and over 100 people were injured, when the bomb that Idris was carrying exploded outside a shoe shop on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, Israel[ii]. Amongst the casualties was Mark Sokolov from New York, USA, who had also been injured in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center[iii]. To carry out the attack, Idris used a rucksack that contained a 10 kg (22lb) bomb. The bomb was made up of TNT explosives packed into pipes[iv].
On 31 January 2002, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades published a leaflet that claimed responsibility for the bombing[v]. They stated that the attack was in retaliation to Israel's military actions. Israel declared Idris a suicide bomber on 9 February 2002[vi].
As a result of the investigations, the Israeli authorities stated they believed that Idris was sent to commit this suicide attack by Mohammed Hababa, a Tanzim operative and ambulance driver for the Palestinian Red Crescent. Authorities also believed Munzar Noor, a resident of the town of Anabta near Tulkarm, who also worked for the Red Crescent in Ramallah, helped to plan the attack. Noor was questioned by the Palestinian security services[vii].
The Palestinian Authority condemned the attack and requested the Palestinian people to suspend attacks on Israeli targets. They also requested the United States to send its envoy back to the Middle East to help with the situation[viii].
As a consequence of the attack, Palestinian woman were inspired by Idris and for the first time felt that they were able to participate in military resistance against Israel. During the symbolic funeral of Wafa Idris, a Palestinian woman from Tulkarm, West Bank, stated, "This woman will not be the last. We will all booby-trap our bodies and blow ourselves up in the Jews' faces[ix]."
It was not certain whether or not Idris’s intentions were to blow herself up, or place the bomb and escape, but it was certain that her intentions were to kill as many Israeli civilians as she could[x]. Unlike other suicide bombers, Wafa had not left any “martyr videos” or messages[xi]. Her attack also signified the Palestinians’ growing desperation and willingness to utilize women for suicide attacks and a tactical shift by Palestinian militants to exploit Israeli security weaknesses. Women had been previously not been viewed as suspicious as their male counterparts when crossing borders, and therefore were not searched with as much scrutiny and intensity as men[xii].
Wafa Idris, also known as Wafa Idrees, Shahanaz Al-Amouri, Shnaz Amuri, and Wafa'a Ali Idris was a Palestinian Muslim, born in the West Bank on 01 January 1975. She came from a poor family. Her parents were refugees from Ramla, Israel, who took up residence in the Amari refugee camp, Ramallah. after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Since her father died when she was young, she lived in three rooms with her mother, a brother and his wife and five children. As a child she failed at school and eventually dropped out. However, later she became a nurse and began volunteering with the Red Crescent as a paramedic, in which she took great pride[xiii]. At 18 years old, she married a relative, who worked as a blacksmith, but he ultimately divorced her after his disappointment in her inability to conceive children[xiv].
Idris, trained as a nurse, volunteered at the Red Crescent Society, an affiliate of the International Red Cross. It was through this work that she witnessed injuries caused by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and she too was hit three times by Israeli rubber-coated steel bullets as she tended to the injured. She became angry at the situation and threatened revenge; she stated to family members that she wanted to become a martyr[xv]. After the attack, there were some speculations by some family members that she was motivated by her anger at seeing many Palestinians wounded and killed during the 16-month-old conflict with Israel[xvi].
Idris was praised as a nationalist and feminist hero by many Arab nations; however, her bombing created debate over whether Islam permits women to carry out suicide missions[xvii]. Idris's mother spoke out about the attack claiming that she was proud of her daughter and that she hopes other woman would copy her in the future. She described her daughter as a martyr and a “daughter of Palestine”, and speculated that Wafa might have become a suicide bomber as a result of all the injured people she tended to during the Intifada. Her sister-in-law stated that for several weeks prior to the attack, Idris had become withdrawn[xviii]. All three of Wafa’s brothers are Fatah members, and two expressed their pride in their sister’s bombing, particularly because of her gender. They were happy that their sister was the first female suicide bomber[xix].
Her sister-in-law recalled that Idris had become “withdrawn and morose” in the weeks before she carried out her attack. Another relative stated that Wafa was happy when other individuals carried out attacks against Israelis and told that relative that she had one day wanted to carry out a similar attack. According to a BBC correspondent, Wafa was already considered a heroine within Amari refuge camp, where she grew up. A pregnant woman from the camp stated that she would also carry out a suicide attack if given the opportunity[xx]. More and more wealthy and educated women have begun to speak about dying for the Palestinian cause[xxi]. Even the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, had a memorial built in one of Baghdad’s main squares to honor Wafa[xxii].
Wafa Idris did not fit the typical profile for a martyr, as she was both secular and westernized. Her friends and family described her as outwardly happy, however, that happiness might have been a mask for the loneliness and emotional turmoil she encountered[xxiii]. However, despite her apparent happiness and westernization, Idris was conditioned to militancy since the first Palestinian uprising against Israel. During that time she attended many protests, began her volunteer work as a paramedic, and became affliated with Arafat’s Fatah faction[xxiv]. Wafa’s mother, Wasfiyeh, continued to state that she was not aware of any ties Idris had to any Palestinian militant group, despite the fact that her three brothers were Fatah members. Her eldest brother, Khalil Idris, is a Fatah leader wanted by the Israelis and had previously spent 10 years in Israeli prison[xxv].
Wafa’s choice of location; the intersection of King George Street and Jaffa Road was the site of eight other bombings or shootings that killed 28 people, not including the attackers, in the last 16 months[xxvi].
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is a group of West Bank militias linked to former Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat’s Fatah organization. The organization became known at the beginning of the 2000 Palestinian al-Aqsa intifada as a militant offshoot of the Fatah party. Al-Aqsa had no central leadership although they were ideologically loyal to Palestinian Authority (PA) President and Fatah party head Yassir Arafat until his death in November 2004. The group's main aim was to attack Israeli military targets and settlers with hope of establishing a Palestinian state and driving out Israel from Gaza and the West Bank[xxvii]. The Martyrs Brigades was formed by Tanzim and other Fatah activists, in the Balata refugee section of Nablus, seeking to employ a more aggressive approach against Israel. Many of the group's founders were graduates of the first intifada in 1987. The Brigades’ infrastructure, funds, leadership, and operatives derived from Fatah Tanzim in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and its main powerbases were located in Nablus and Ramallah[xxviii]. The group mainly operates from within the Gaza Strip but the group also planed and conducted attacks inside Israel and the West Bank. The group also has members in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. According to the U.S. Department of State, the group has gained external aid from Iran, who exploited al-Aqsa’s lack of resources and formal leadership by providing funds and guidance to the members mostly through Hizballah facilitators[xxix].
Since their foundation, Fatah Tanzim and the Martyrs of al-Aqsa claimed responsibility for hundreds of terror attacks in which Israeli civilians were killed. Israeli authorities stated that since September 2000 the Fatah-linked groups have carried out more than 2,000 attacks and attempted attacks, including car bombings, shootings, kidnappings, and knife attacks. The Martyrs of al-Aqsa were involved in the vast majority of these attacks[xxx]. The members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades view the armed struggle as the only way to “liberate Palestine,” and considered terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians to be legitimate ways of serving their key national goals. The group claimed that they, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, did not seek Israel’s destruction, but rather were interested in a peace process that lead to Israel’s full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and provides for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. When the group founded it stated it would target the Israel Defense Force soldiers and settlers residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the organizations tactics changed and in early 2002 it began to target a series of terrorist attacks against civilians in Israeli cities[xxxi]. This included the introduction of the first female Palestinian suicide bomber, Wafa Idris, on 27 January 2002. One Israeli man, 81 was killed and 100 people were injured as a result of this attack[xxxii]. On 27 March 2002, the U.S. State Department designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization[xxxiii]. Israel, Canada, the EU and Japan also declared them a terrorist organization[xxxiv].
The ideology of the organization was illustrated in a poster that they published in the Palestinian newspaper "Al Hiya Al Jadida" soon after the group formed. The poster read: “The ten lean years of the peace process proved that the Zionist occupation which oppresses the heart of the Palestinian homeland and understands only the language of the gun, of fire, of the revolution and the bullets of the revolutionary fighters". Unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was at first, thought of as a secular, nationalist group, rather than an Islamic one. Therefore it was surprising when the group started carrying out suicide bombing attacks. Islamic motifs had been part of the “al-Aqsa” conflict from the beginning—the very name of the conflict was derived from the notion that Israel had plans to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. Religious motifs were used extensively by Arafat in his diatribes against “Israeli occupation of Muslim holy places.” Thus, having made Islam vs. Judaism a central tenet of the war, it was natural for Fatah to alter its own character to suit the rhetoric that had launched the conflict and kept it going[xxxv].
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades organizational structure was based on a loose network of cells in the main West Bank cities. These cells included “military units,” responsible for carrying out the attacks, and “security units” responsible for planning the attacks and overseeing the organization’s internal security. This included the kidnapping and killing of suspected collaborators. Due to its decentralized power structure, intelligence officials both in Israel and the US, have had difficulty identifying leaders of the organization[xxxvi]. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were not a “rogue militia” as Arafat had previously claimed. Rather its members and activities were financed by the Palestinian Authority, and its attacks were carried out with the knowledge and backing of Arafat’s inner circle. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades worked in close cooperation with other terrorist organizations operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and many of its attacks have been carried out together with Hamas and Palestinan Islamic Jihad (PIJ). This cooperation included sharing of information and technical know-how, as well as the formation of combination cells. During the Second Intifada, the group's ties weakened due to a growing rift between the movements’ leaders and the operational activists mainly due to arrests and eliminations of leading administrative officials of the Tanzim, whose activists were the most active terrorist element during the beginning of the intifada[xxxvii].
According to the Israeli army, Brig. Gen. Fouad Shoubaki, the Palestinian Authority’s chief financial officer for military operations, was also responsible for financing the activity of the al-Aqsa Brigades in the Bethlehem region, transferring monthly salaries to the organization’s activists in the area. As a result of a raid on Arafat's headquarters, a document was discovered addressed to Shoubaki’s office asking for money to build additional bombs, and to finance propaganda posters promoting suicide bombers[xxxviii]. Shoubaki was also involved in purchasing a cache of weapons stolen towards the end of the year 2000 from an IDF base in the area. These weapons were later used to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians in the vicinity of Jerusalem[xxxix]. In August 2001, Israeli authorities believed that Shoubaki visited Baghdad in order to coordinate positions with the Iraqi government, and in May 2001 he was present at a meeting in Moscow during which the draft for joint activities between Iran and the PA was agreed upon. Both Iraq and Iran grew increasingly involved in providing financial and military support to Palestinian groups since Arafat first declared the peace process at a dead end and returned to armed conflict. During the initial phase of the second intifada, then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein announced that he would increase the sum offered to families of suicide bombings from $10,000 to $25,000, in order to encourage more young men to “choose the path of martyrdom[xl].”
Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader in the West Bank, was also believed to be the head of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. He was arrested by Israeli forces in April 2002 for suspected involvement in the operation of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and for orchestrating terror attacks[xli]. Other elements of the Palestinian security apparatus also had significant influence on the Brigades and their activities. Many of the Brigades’ leaders were salaried members of the PA and its security forces. For example, Nasser Awais, a senior al-Aqsa commander, is a full-time employee of the Palestinian National Security Force. Mahmud Damrah, who was involved in organizing terror attacks perpetrated by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was at the same time a commander in the presidential Force 17 in Ramallah. Nasser Abu Hamid, a senior member and founder of the al-Aqsa Brigades, who was arrested during Operation Defensive Shield, described how the Brigades were founded and how they chose Marwan Bargouti as their leader. According to Hamid, senior PA security service officials initially entreated him and his militants to join their services. Tawfik Tirawi, the head of General Intelligence on the West Bank, proposed that Nasser integrate all Brigade members into General Intelligence, and offered to pay their salaries. However, Nasser ultimately decided to Barghouti, given their prior acquaintance and Nasser’s feeling that Barghouti would be better able to facilitate the group’s activities. Nasser described the considerable military and financial assistance that they received from the outset from Barghouti, via the latter’s nephew Ahmed Barghouti. Nasser also provided details on the participation of members of the PA security services in attacks in Israel. Several bombs were regularly kept in a jeep that had been permanently parked at the Force 17 roadblock in Ramallah for use in case of an IDF incursion into Ramallah. Nasser saw Marwan Barghouti as both a supreme commander and a friend. In his words, the two of them planned their ascent into the Palestinian leadership when Barghouti made it clear that Nasser would advance along with him. Barghouti promised to build a special residential neighborhood for Nasser and his men and their families in the future. Nasser said that he was Barghouti’s closest adviser and was aware of the latter’s military activities, including the transfer of funds and war materiel to those who perpetrated attacks and assisting in the transport of suicide bombers[xlii].
Although the organization had a lack of a central leadership, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were not a “rogue militia” as Arafat claimed in the past. Rather its members, activities and attacks were financed out of Palestinian Authority assets, and its attacks were carried out with the knowledge and backing of Arafat’s inner circle. Whist Arafat may not have determined the target and timing of each individual attack, he decided the overall agenda. In an interview with USA Today on 14 March 2002, Maslama Thabet, another leader of the Brigades, described the group as an integral part of Fatah. “The truth is, we are Fatah itself, but we don’t operate under the name Fatah. We are the armed wing of the organization. We receive our instructions from Fatah. Our commander is Yassir Arafat himself[xliii].” Other leaders of the al-Aqsa Brigades insisted that, even though they held Arafat in high esteem, they did not take their orders regarding individual attacks from him. This was similar to the “opposition” Islamist groups prior to the outbreak of hostilities. These organizations, while not directly controlled by Arafat, were still dependent upon his willingness to leave their military capabilities intact. The role of the Martyrs of al-Aqsa Brigades in rebuilding Fatah’s popularity raised questions about Arafat’s power to restrain it. Many argued that any attempt by the Palestinian leader to rein in the militants, when they were the key to his popularity, would lead to a mutiny against his rule or to his assassination[xliv].
The Fatah groups enjoyed the overwhelming support of Arafat’s constituency, and he invested a great deal in keeping them armed and active, even while his civilian infrastructure languished for lack of funds and attention. While the degree to which Arafat controlled Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades was still subject to debate, most analysts were in agreement that his control was much greater than he made it out to be[xlv].
Many al-Aqsa cells suspended anti-Israeli attacks as part of the broader unilateral Palestinian cease-fire agreement during 2005. Others did not, which highlighted the absence of central leadership or control[xlvi]. After the June 2007 Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip, al-Aqsa Martyrs cells in the territory, launched rocket attacks against Israel. However, the group’s attacks mostly diminished since the end of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in January 2009[xlvii].
_____________________________________________________________________* The Timeline Project is a new monthly report by ICT’s Database Team, offering an analysis of significant terrorist attacks that occured during the same month in the past. The report focused on the attack, profiles of the terrorist and the group, and provides a perspective on its historical ramifications.
For an in-depth analysis of women and suicide terrorism please view the following links:
Berko, Anat and Erez, Edna. “Gender, Palestinian Women, and Terrorism: Women's Liberation or Oppression?' Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. International Institute for Counter Terrorism website. Retrieved from http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/tabid/66/Articlsid/440/Default.aspx
Berko, Anat and Erez, Edna. “’Ordinary People’ and ‘Death Work’ – Palestinian Suicide Bombers as Victimizers and Victims.” Retrieved from International Institute for Counter Terrorism website. http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/tabid/66/Articlsid/441/Default.aspx
Beyler, Clara. “Female Suicide Bombers: An Update.” International Institute for Counter Terrorism website. http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/tabid/66/Articlsid/558/Default.aspx
Beyler, Clara. “Messengers of Death – Female Suicide Bombers.” International Institute for Counter Terrorism website. http://www.ict.org.il/Articles/tabid/66/Articlsid/94/Default.aspx
[i] The Telegraph. “ Woman suicide bomber shakes Israelis”. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[ii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Role of Palestinian Women in Suicide Terrorism”, January 2003
[iii] The Telegraph. “Woman suicide bomber shakes Israelis”, 28 January 2002 Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[iv] Guardian, “Death and the maidens”, 18 July 2003
[v] BBC, “Female bomber’s mother speaks out”, 30 January 2002, Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk
[vi] New York Times, “Israelis Declare Arab Woman Was in Fact a Suicide Bomber”, 9 February 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[vii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Use of ambulances and medical vehicles by Palestinian terrorist organizations”, 14 February 2002
[viii] The Telegraph. “Woman suicide bomber shakes Israelis”. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[ix] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “The Role of Palestinian Women in Suicide Terrorism”, 30 January 2003.
[x] New York Times, “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom',” 11 February 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xi] New York Times, “Israelis Declare Arab Woman Was in Fact a Suicide Bomber,” 9 February, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xii] The Telegraph, “Woman suicide bomber shakes Israelis,” 28 January, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[xiii] New York Times, “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom',” 11 February, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xiv] The Telegraph, “Woman suicide bomber shakes Israelis,” 28 January, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[xv] ibid, The Telegraph, 31 January 2002
[xvi] New York Times, “Arab Press Glorifies Bomber as Heroine,” 11 February 2002. Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xvii] ibid, NY Times, 11 February 2002.
[xviii] BBC News, “Female bombers mother speaks out,” 30 January, 2002, Retrieved at http://news.bbc.co.uk
[xix] New York Times, “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom',” 11 February 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xx] BBC News, “Female bombers mother speaks out,” 30 January, 2002, Retrieved at http://news.bbc.co.uk
[xxi] New York Times, “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom',” 11 February 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xxii] BBC News, “Female bombers mother speaks out,” 30 January, 2002, Retrieved at http://news.bbc.co.uk
[xxiii] The Telegraph, “Woman suicide bomber in quest for vengeance,” 31 January 2002, Retrieved at http://www.telegraph.co.uk
[xxiv] New York Times, “Israelis Declare Arab Woman Was in Fact a Suicide Bomber,” 9 February, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xxv] New York Times, “Arab Woman's Path to Unlikely 'Martyrdom',” 11 February 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xxvi] New York Times, “Israelis Declare Arab Woman Was in Fact a Suicide Bomber,” 9 February, 2002, Retrieved at http://www.nytimes.com
[xxvii] US department of State, "Country reports on Terrorism: Chapter 6 - List of Terrorist Organizations", 30 April 2008.
[xxviii] CDI, " In the spotlight: al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades", 10 June 2002.
[xxix] US Department of State, "Country reports on Terrorism: Chapter 6 - List of Terrorist Organizations", 5 August 2010.
[xxx] ICT, " The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 24 March 2002.
[xxxi] BBC, " Profile: Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades", 1 July 2003.
[xxxii] The Telegraph. "Woman suicide bomber in quest for vengeance", 31 January 2002.
[xxxiii] Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “Terrorism: Q&A: Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – Palestinian Nationalists,” 2 April 2008.
[xxxiv] US department of State, "Country reports on Terrorism: Chapter 6 - List of Terrorist Organizations", 30 April 2008.
[xxxv] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003
[xxxvi] Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), “Terrorism: Q&A: Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – Palestinian Nationalists,” 2 April 2008.
[xxxvii] Israel Securities Agency, " Terror Data and Trends,” retrieved 2010
[xxxviii] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003
[xxxix] ibid, 2003
[xl] ibid, 2003
[xli] BBC News, "Profile: Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades", 1 July 2003.
[xlii] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003.
[xliii] USA Today, "Terrorist says orders come from Arafat", 14 March 2002.
[xliv] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003.
[xlv] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003.
[xlvi] ICT, "The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - A political tool with an edge", 23 March 2003.
[xlvii] US department of State, 2006.