Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Women Who Would Die for Allah: In Gaza, a Young Man Dies, but His Sisters Do Not Weep, They Rejoice. and They Insist That They, Too, Can Become Suicide Bombers

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Women Who Would Die for Allah: In Gaza, a Young Man Dies, but His Sisters Do Not Weep, They Rejoice. and They Insist That They, Too, Can Become Suicide Bombers

Article excerpt

Death is a carefully orchestrated affair in Gaza. We went to the funeral of 28-year-old Osama Helless, who was killed by Israeli forces when he shot dead an Israeli settler. The Islamic resistance group Hamas had taken control of the funeral -- after all, Osama had become theirs when he went on the "operation".

The "shahid" or martyr -- a status awarded to anyone who dies attacking Israel -- was a handsome young man. He had avoided getting married, despite the constant haranguing of his aunts, who would have arranged a match. He was extremely popular in his neighbourhood, in his mosque and at university.

Osama had set out on his mission without a word to his family, but he knew there would be no return. Hamas has been winning Palestinian hearts and minds since the new intifada began 15 months ago -- claiming 1,125 lives to date -- and there is no shortage of young men offering themselves as recruits. Whereas five years ago only 20 per cent of Palestinians approved of suicide attacks, recent polls have shown that more than 70 per cent support them now.

The concept of martyrdom becomes clearer in the Gaza Strip. Three- Three-quarters of the 1.2 million population live in refugee camps. Families of 14,16 or 20 are often squeezed into two-room hovels. With the new uprising, things have gone rapidly downhill. No one can travel to day jobs in Israel, and the internal economy has collapsed. The UN feeds 80 per cent of the population and two-thirds are out of work. Essentials cost the same as in Israel, but Gazans earn 18 times less.

Hamas had set up a shahid tent for the men at the side of the Helless family home, and sprayed the walls with heroic Islamic graffiti. Activists were busy painting murals of Osama's face all over Gaza's slums and townships. children wrote his name in ball-point pen on their arms. A group of kids followed us everywhere: "We want to be shahids," they told us with smiles.

Over three days, thousands called to pay their respects, among them Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. An honour. But it struck me that Osama's father, unable to show his sadness, had become a bystander at his own son's funeral.

The women aren't part of the public event -- it's not the custom. They congregate in the house, away from the men. About 40 women were gathered in the main room, sitting on Persian carpets on the floor. I was in Gaza for Channel 4's Unreported World, working with the director and cameraman Rodrigo Vazquez. Before he was allowed to enter the house, we had to warn the women so that they could fix their veils and put on their public faces.

Gaza is more traditional than the West Bank, and its women are reluctant to speak to journalists. In this case, however, they wanted to talk about Osama's life. He was a hero now. I offered my condolences -- a faux pas. "We don't consider this is a time for sadness," explained Osama's younger sister, Reham. "This is a time for joy and happiness. Because we are sure that our brother is now having all the pleasure of heaven. We should be pleased for him, not sad."

I asked the women to describe him. He was kind, generous and funny. He had a degree in economics and political science. He was always a gentleman to women...

But he had killed an Israeli mother of four, I felt I had to point out. How could Osama's mother stand it?

"They kill our children," she replied.

Reham took me upstairs to her brother's bedroom. It was an ordinary room, with books, a prayer mat, a portable television. A coffee cup still satby the bedside. Like the other women, Reham wore along black gown and a white veil. Standing by the window, she looked like a nun, a St Teresa of Avila figure. She told me that Osama had saved money to pay off outstanding university fees. At the last moment, he'd spent the money on a Kalashnikov. How did she feel about his choice?

"We know what Palestine needs from us," said Reham. …

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