Ordinary terrorists

Osama Bahar and Nabil Halabiyeh played soccer and practiced karate together. On Saturday, the best friends blew up themselves and 10 young Israelis. An exclusive portrait of two unlikely mass killers.

Published December 5, 2001 8:26PM (EST)

Osama Bahar and Nabil Halabiyeh were best friends. In their teens, they played soccer together at a club in Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb east of Jerusalem. They practiced karate together three times a week after work. They even met for prayers at Jerusalem's grand Al-Aksa mosque during Ramadan, although 25-year-old Nabil was not as devout a Muslim as 24-year-old Osama.

Last Saturday night they chose to die -- and kill -- together. They detonated their belts of explosives almost simultaneously, standing about 10 yards apart in a crowded pedestrian area in downtown Jerusalem. It was 11:30 p.m. and the streets were full of young Israelis sipping drinks at the terraces of outdoor cafes, strolling with friends and talking on their mobile phones. The double blasts, which were followed a half-hour later by the explosion of a booby-trapped car parked nearby, killed 10 Israelis -- the youngest 14, the oldest 21. (One pair of victims, Golan Turjeman and Assaf Avitan, both 15, were also childhood buddies.) Scores of others were wounded, some critically, by the explosions, carefully planned to hurt as many people as possible. Hamas, a radical Islamic organization, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Israeli soldiers searched Osama and Nabil's houses at dawn the next morning and during a second raid on Monday. They arrested Osama's five brothers and Nabil's three oldest brothers (two pre-teen brothers were allowed to stay home), presumably for interrogation by the Shin Bet, the Israeli security services.

On Tuesday, Osama and Nabil's families had not received the dead bodies yet. "Forget about it for now," the Israeli authorities told them. Dozens of men -- friends, relatives, neighbors, notables from Abu Dis, some in traditional Arab headdress -- came and went on condolence calls, sitting on plastic chairs in the stark, cold interiors of the dead men's respective houses. Since it was still Ramadan, there was no coffee served (the usual drink at wakes). Nor were there candies to celebrate's Osama's martyrdom.

The descriptions various relatives and neighbors offered of Osama and Nabil's lives provide no easy explanations for the murderous attacks the two chose to carry out -- just a glimpse into an increasingly common and devastatingly bitter Palestinian state of mind.

"Every Palestinian feels that if he doesn't become a martyr, he can be killed at any moment at home. If the choice is between dying at home or on Jaffa Street [West Jerusalem's busy main artery], you choose to die on Jaffa Street," calmly said Abdullah Halabiyeh, 32, a neighbor and distant cousin who knew Nabil well.

In the same matter-of-fact voice, Abdullah, along with a stream of visitors coming in and out of Nabil's spare, slightly dilapidated house, described what Nabil was like: an outgoing local hero whose room was adorned with a collection of posters of famous sportsmen, karate medals and personal trophies he earned as a star midfielder for the Abu Dis soccer club. He was a popular, gregarious young man who was not particularly religious and could stay up till all hours of the night watching World Cup games on television. "His life was sport," said Abdullah. "He started playing soccer as soon as he learned to walk." Hardly an obvious candidate for suicide.

His best friend Osama, in a way, was his mirror opposite and better fit the profile of a suicide bomber as we imagine such villains in the West. He was an intensely pious Muslim. He was shy and reclusive. He didn't say much.

"He was righteous and more religious than any of his brothers," said his father, Mohammed Bahar, 51. From the age of 6 or 7, Osama went to pray at the mosque (an old mosque, just around the corner from his house), as often as he could, and during this Ramadan season he made sure to pray every night after breaking the daily fast.

"He was calm to the point that if you asked him a question that necessitated only a one-word answer, he would only give you that one word," said Ziad Bahar, a first cousin. Osama was not engaged, and apart from Nabil, he had few friends. "He spent his time between home, work and the mosque," said Ziad, 30.

Osama's worldview was probably also shaped by his time in Israeli prisons: He was jailed for four years after the first intifada, for taking part in illegal activities and membership in Hamas.

But in a recent photograph of Osama and Nabil, the roles seem reversed. Osama, the one who could be dismissed as a religious fanatic, is the clean-shaven one smiling at the camera in a polo shirt that says "USA," while Nabil, who was much less religious than Osama, looks somewhat sullen and wears a beard (or rather the fashionable goatee of a soccer player). Nabil was a better soccer player than Osama, but then, Osama was better at karate than Nabil. In short, these were two ordinary Palestinians -- not people one might deem determined by birth and status to explode in Israel's face on a monstrous Saturday night.

"They had a normal life in Abu Dis," said Abdullah. Unlike many other Palestinians, Nabil, a plasterer, and Osama, a guard at a local bank, had not lost their jobs in this intifada. There have been no soccer tournaments since last October because players cannot move freely around the West Bank anymore, a fact that would have annoyed Nabil but was a minor vexation compared with the suffering of thousands of Palestinians prevented from going to work in Israel and stranded in towns far from Jerusalem by the military siege Israel has clamped down on the West Bank for the past 14 months.

"Nothing extraordinary happened to Nabil," said Abdullah. "He grew up during the first intifada. He went through the same bad treatment as all other Palestinians -- the routine humiliation at army checkpoints, for example. Then he grew up and saw the better life Israelis lead, a special life of luxury, and he started asking questions: 'Why are they living a better life than us? Why are they treating us so bad?' We all ask these questions. We used to discuss this all the time."

Nabil was probably not motivated by religion, said Abdullah. "He wasn't an extremist, he wasn't particularly religious and he wasn't intolerant." He worked sometimes as a guard for various churches in Jerusalem and Bethany, for example. "What really prepared him for this operation was the occupation. It's a fertile ground for such actions, and it will encourage hundreds of others to do the same thing."

The eldest of five children, Nabil managed to support his family when his father died of diabetes 10 years ago. He made about $400 a month as a plasterer and for the past two years collected an extra $200 by working as a security guard for the Palestinian general intelligence agency. In a sign that there may have been more than soccer on his mind, Nabil quit the security job in September, forgoing a third of his income, because of political considerations. "His conscience objected to what was going on in the streets [a crackdown on Islamic terrorist groups by the Palestinian Authority after Sept. 11]. He did not want to be in a position where he would be asked to spy on his brothers and his friends," said Abdullah.

Mohammed, Osama's father, said the attack was probably a "sudden action." But, he added, it was "building up over time with everything Osama saw on television: the killing of children, the mutilated bodies of assassinated people. Watching all this for an extensive period of time produced this reaction, a reaction of hatred." Although his son did not say much when the family sat in front of the television taking in the images of Palestinian suffering that Palestinian and Arab channels aired relentlessly, "Osama was very sensitive," said Mohammed.

The father looked tired and sad, but could not express too much grief in public. "I feel both pride and sadness," he said. "Pride because as a martyr he will go directly to heaven and he sacrificed his life for Palestine but sad as a father for the loss of a son."

Would he have prevented Osama from going to blow himself up had he known in advance about his plan? "I don't know, its a difficult question," he answers. Perhaps not wanting Palestinians to appear cold and brutal, Ziad, Osama's cousin, jumps in: "I'm sure the emotions of a father would have prevailed."

But nothing is less sure. Suicide bombings that kill and maim innocent Israeli civilians are seen as an acceptable means of struggle by an overwhelming majority of Palestinians, who equate them with the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers. (The fact that the Israeli army does not hit Palestinian civilians on purpose, at least not officially, makes no difference to them.) Recent polls show that close to 80 percent of Palestinian respondents support suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

"Religiously, we're not allowed to kill civilians, women, children, unarmed people -- we're even prohibited from cutting a tree," said Abdullah. "But there's a verse in the Quran that says: Punish the way you are punished. When we see them killing our children ... Mohammed al-Durra, Fares Udeh ..." he said, listing the names of famous young victims.

In a sign of the prestige enjoyed by suicide operations even in mainstream media controlled by the Palestinian Authority (which purports to be acting against terrorism and regularly outlaws Hamas), the sports page of Al-Quds newspaper carried a glowing obituary for Nabil Halabiyeh on Tuesday. "Halabiyeh joins the martyrs of the sports movement," the caption under his photograph read. "He was an excellent player, an excellent midfielder and contributed to bringing the Abu Dis Club into the premier league."

Terrorism has become a routine element of the conflict, which Palestinians see as their best weapon against Israeli indifference. "Under the circumstances, any Palestinian could do it," said Abdullah. "People believe that such actions will force Israelis to recognize that Palestinians exist. Nothing else can convince them to give us our rights."

Many Palestinians refuse to see that actions like Saturday's might be counterproductive, even though the weekend's terror attacks brought about a harsh Israeli reaction that has set back the Palestinian quest for statehood. The way they see it, terrorist attacks follow a logic of tit-for-tat. When I asked Osama's cousin Ziad if he thought Saturday's bombing might have been detrimental in fact to the Palestinian cause, he answered that the bombing was simply a reaction to Israeli provocations. "After Sept. 11, all Palestinian factions agreed to a cease-fire, but before the visit by Zinni [America's envoy], the Israelis killed five children and Abu Hanoud," he said. "Sharon was inviting such a reaction. It's not us who are doing this, Israel is provoking us."

Following that same grim logic, Abdullah said that after those Palestinian deaths, "We were in fact looking forward to such an operation. We were looking forward to hearing breaking news from Al-Jezeera and hearing about some bomb in Tel Aviv, for example. We felt that there was a need for a Palestinian reaction and were slightly worried that nothing was happening. But the real surprise for us was that Osama and Nabil were the news item. There was no indication that they would get to this point. They were not deprived of anything. Since then, their status has become heroic in the eyes of the population of Abu Dis."

Like most Palestinians, the visitors in Nabil's house know little about the circumstances of Saturday night's attack: who was killed, whether they were civilians or soldiers, young or old. One heard that the victims were all under 20 years old on CNN, but otherwise no one would know -- Palestinian media rarely carries details about Israeli casualties. (The opposite is also true: Palestinian dead barely register in the Israeli press.) "I don't know about the details," said Abdullah with a shrug. "In fact, we're not concerned with this. We as Palestinians are subject to Israeli state terror and Osama and Nabil sought to avenge this. They did not care who they killed or how they killed."

It's impossible to guess at the specific details of the operation. Osama may have received explosives from Hamas the night before (he disappeared after dinner Friday). And Nabil may have been recruited by Osama several months ago. After all, at the karate club (where Osama was Nabil's teacher) or on trips to Jerusalem's Al-Aksa mosque, they would have had plenty of time to discuss the specifics of the operation.

No one knows (except Hamas and maybe the Shin Bet) and in some ways it doesn't matter. Osama and Nabil were ordinary guys, according to their families. When Abdullah saw Nabil heading out in his car an hour before the attack, Nabil looked absolutely normal. "He said he was going to visit a friend."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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