Byline: Joshua Hammer
It was a typical Friday afternoon in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood of southern Jerusalem. At the Supersol market, the Sabbath rush was underway; shoppers pushed their carts past shelves stripped bare of bread and matzos for the weeklong Passover holiday. A line had formed at the delicatessen counter in the back, where Sivan Peretz wrapped chicken breasts and salmon steaks and made small talk with his customers. A middle-aged security guard stood poised inside the supermarket entrance, carefully searching bags. At 1:49 p.m., 17-year-old Rachel Levy--petite, with flowing hair and a girlish gap between her teeth--stepped off the bus from her nearby apartment block and strolled toward the market on a quick trip to buy red pepper and herbs for a fish dinner with her mother and two brothers. At the same moment, another girl--strikingly attractive, with intense hazel eyes--walked toward the store's glass double doors. The teenagers met at the entrance, brushing past each other as the guard reached out to grab the hazel-eyed girl, whose outfit may have aroused suspicion. "Wait!" the guard cried. A split second later, a powerful explosion tore through the supermarket, gutting shelves and sending bodies flying. When the smoke cleared and the screaming stopped, the two teenage girls and the guard lay dead, three more victims of the madness of martyrdom.
Ayat al-Akhras and Rachel Levy never knew each other, but they grew up less than four miles apart. One had spent her life locked within the grim confines of the Dehaishe refugee camp outside Bethlehem, a densely packed slum whose 12,000 residents lived in poverty and frustration. The other dwelled in the shadow of a sleek shopping mall filled with cinemas, cafes and boutiques. In their different worlds, the girls were typical teenagers. Ayat was deeply politicized by the rage, gunfire, violent death and fervently anti-Israeli messages that surrounded her. Rachel did her best to shut out the violence and pretend that Israel was a normal country. In another time and another place, they could have been schoolmates, even friends. But the intifada cast them in the role of adversaries and, ultimately, executioner and victim. "When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl," President George W. Bush said as he announced plans to dispatch Colin Powell to the region in an attempt to stop the bloodletting, "the future itself is dying."
For the most part, the world has been accustomed to one kind of suicide bomber--the angry Islamic male driven by visions of paradise who martyrs himself as he kills infidels. Since September 2000, 170 Israelis have been killed by more than 60 Palestinian suicide bombers, prompting a full-scale invasion of the West Bank last week. Now the story of Ayat al-Akhras may signal a new and terrifying phase in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere: the spread of suicide bombing to all levels of society. There was something about staring into the almost-twin faces of the bomber and her victim last week that moved the seemingly unending tale of strife in the region to a deeper and even more unsettling place: to women and children as weapons as well as casualties of war. Martyrdom--or, depending on your point of view, murder--is becoming mainstream. As Powell's mission goes forward (page 33), the world hopes for a resolution, or at least an end to the terrible violence of recent weeks. But the forces that pushed Ayat to become a human bomb will take far longer to defuse.
Ayat al-Akhras grew up hearing stories of Israeli aggression and Palestinian flight. Both her mother, Khadra Kattous, and her father, Muhammad al-Akhras, grew up in a tent camp in the Gaza Strip, where their parents had fled from Arab villages near Tel Aviv at the end of the 1948 war. After Israel occupied Gaza in 1967, Muhammad migrated to the Dehaishe camp near Bethlehem, a maze of cinder-block buildings, refuse-strewn alleyways and open sewers. …