A Woman's Touch

For the first time that anyone can remember, a Palestinian woman appears to have carried out a suicide attack, killing herself and an 81-year-old man and wounding 150 others in a crowded Jerusalem shopping street on Sunday.

Unconfirmed accounts report that the woman's name was Shinaz Amuri, from the occupied West Bank town of Nablus. Amuri, if that was her name, was said to have been 20-years old, possibly a student. She was seen walking into a shoe store, carrying a heavy bag.

"Do you need help?" A shop saleswoman is said to have asked her. "She signaled that she didn't need help," reports the Los Angeles Times.

Maybe she didn't -- alone, twenty, that young girl, with what turns out to have been more than ten kilos of explosives. Maybe she didn't need help, but I do and maybe she gave me some.

I've grown numb to this story of misguided martyr-murderers. Day after day, another bomber, more Israelis and more Palestinians dead. At last count, more than 30 Palestinian men have blown themselves up in the 16 months of this latest Intifada. They've killed dozens of Israelis, left countless more with wounds that may or may not heal.

We're used to mad, bad, ruthless, MALE terrorists. They are subhuman, "cowards" or "evil ones" we're told, beneath contempt. The young male terrorist -- irrational brute, macho-maniac -- is easy to despise. His action defies our understanding, we're told. Indeed, we are led to believe that right-thinking people should not waste our time trying to understand them.

Traditional thinking associates women, on the other hand, with nurturing and caring. In taking up arms, women destroy traditional gender-roles. But could they also stir us to think?

The news of a woman suicide bomber did rattle my numbness. I thought of my own self, age 20. I can remember my own skin, stomach, hair, my own desire to change the world. Did she mean to explode herself? Why did she carry the explosives in a bag rather than strap them to her skin with tape? What did she tell her mother when she walked out of her door?

All we know is that her body parts were found scattered in the street, along with those of the octogenarian Pinchus Toktaly, who worked as a tour guide at the Western Wall.

As I heard the news, I tried to remember Nablus, a battered stone town with an ancient soap factory. I visited the place with my friends from MADRE, almost exactly ten years ago. The soap makers poured locally-produced olive oil into vast vats that stretched across the pungent factory floors. They stamped the massive sheet of soap with the maker's mark, then cut the soap into clumsy blocks, and wrapped each individually in rough papers colored blue and red and green. Soap-making was one of the few local industries on the West Bank, we were told. I don't know if they still make soap in Nablus now.

I thought of a young Palestinian I met on another trip a few years later, a young woman who had been born, as had her mother, in a fifty-year old "temporary" shelter in Daheisha refugee camp in Bethlehem. My acquaintance worked in a sexually-integrated youth center that was struggling to survive against Islamist pressure. (As Yasser Arafat faltered, the strength of Hamas grew.)

She was learning computer skills she hoped to use someday, if the Israelis would give her a permit to commute to a job a few miles away. She dreamt of getting a visa to come visit relatives in the US. In her black headscarf she shadowed me for a day, only wanting to talk about one thing: how she could become a journalist.

The official U.S. response to the latest round of killing is clear: George W. Bush says he's "very disappointed" with Arafat and is threatening to stop talking with him. The Israeli National Security Council, desperate to protect innocent Israelis from further terrorist attacks, is discussing plans to "envelope Jerusalem" by building an enormous wall.

After Sunday's bombing, the Israeli daily Haaretz editorialized that, "Since September 11, the American attitude -- and the world's attitude -- to [terrorism] has changed. There is no longer any readiness to understand it as the weapon of the weak in a conflict, or as a weapon in the hands of a national liberation movement."

There may be no readiness to try to understand why killers kill, but surely, there's a reason? No wall, no silence will stop these people. Seeing them as people might. Real people: not just brutish, stereotyped young men, but women, too.


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