How Two Lives Met In Death
Special report: Suicide bombings have driven the conflict in the Mideast to new and dangerous levels. This is the story of two teens whose paths tragically intersected: an innocent Israeli and the Palestinian girl who became a walking weapon of terror.
By Joshua Hammer
April 15 issue
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.
EXECUTIONER AND VICTIM
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, 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. Khadra moved there as well, and three years later the couple were married. Muhammad found a job as a supervisor with an Israeli construction firm at the settlement of Betar Ilit, building houses for Jews as they expanded their hold on the territories. He built himself a three-story concrete house in an alley in Dehaishe, and there raised his 11 children, four boys and seven girls, alongside thousands of other families of the Palestinian dispossessed. Earning a steady paycheck, al-Akhras was able to provide his family with a better life than most. Many of Dehaishe's residents took a dim view of his working for Israelis, but they also recognized that he needed to provide for his family.
When the first intifada erupted in 1987, the camp became a hotbed of militancy. Local youths fought street battles with the occupying Army; dozens were killed and injured. The oldest child in the al-Akhras family, Samir, was jailed twice for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. And Ayat--the brightest of their children, according to her parent--became infected by politics. An outstanding student in love with the written word, she wanted to become a journalist "to communicate to the world about the Palestinian cause," says her mother. Fiercely opinionated, Ayat dominated conversations at family gatherings: "She would stick to her arguments even if everybody else argued the opposite."
DEATH CANCELS A WEDDING
But she had a softer side, too. She covered the walls of her tiny bedroom with posters of pop singers from Iraq and Egypt. Every Ramadan, she traveled with her mother across the Green Line to pray at the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, virtually the only excursions she made outside the camp. Her life was bounded by her home, her public girls' school, the small local mosque she attended on holidays and the outdoor market in Bethlehem where she shopped with her mother and sisters. Shortly after she turned 15, she met a slim young man named Shadi Abu Laban, who had put aside his college plans to earn a living working as a tile layer. Ayat and Shadi became inseparable. Last year they got engaged, with a traditional wedding and feast planned for July. Ayat insisted they hold the party in the alley in front of her home--an all-day festival of food, dancing and music that would be open to everyone in the neighborhood. She planned to enroll at Bethlehem University in September to pursue a journalism degree.
Rachel Levy's childhood was more moneyed, but it wasn't easy. As an infant she moved with her parents from Israel to California's Silicon Valley, where her mother, Avigail, joined the family electronics business and her father, Amos, worked in the furniture trade. A family illness took them back to Israel eight years later. The marriage collapsed, and Avigail moved the kids--Rachel and her brothers, Guy, now 22, and Kobi, 7--to a small apartment in the Ramat Sharett quarter of southern Jerusalem, a series of drab high-rises in the shadow of the Jerusalem shopping mall. Rachel had a tough time making the transition from the United States. She considered Israelis brash; she preferred speaking English. But after a trip back to the United States last summer, she returned convinced that Israel was where she belonged, telling her mother, "I feel at home here."
She finally adapted to the rhythms of teenage life. She fretted about the gap between her teeth and agonized about her weight. Like many teenage girls, she filled her diary with poetry about love and death--including long passages from the Song of Songs and the Book of Psalms. To stay trim, she worked out every day and usually ate the same meal when she went out: a salad, a Diet Pepsi, a lollipop and a pickle. She listened to the music of Pink Floyd and Christina Aguilera, liked "Pretty Woman" and "Titanic," and socialized at the Jerusalem mall. Though the Palestinian uprising had cast a pall over that life--a suicide bomber killed three people in a downtown cafe where Rachel and her friends hung out--she remained apolitical and unconcerned, caught up in teenage passions. "She wasn't afraid of bombs," says a friend. " 'Aren't you afraid to go [out]?' I would ask her. And she said, 'No, why would I be?'"
Across the Green Line in declared, the second inconvenience had erupted. After the collapse of peace talks at Camp David and Aries Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, declared had become one of the hotbeds of the uprising that began in September 2000. Eat al-Akhras was in the middle of it. Masked militants often marched through the neighborhood after the funerals of suicide bombers and guerrillas killed by Israeli troops, firing their automatic rifles in the air. Night after night, Ayat spent hours glued to news reports on Al-Jazeera and Al Manar, the television network of Lebanon's Hizbullah movement. Then the uprising touched her personally: her brother was shot and wounded by Israeli troops. Three cousins, all members of Hamas, were killed in the Gaza Strip--a place that Ayat and her immediate family, lacking permits, were unable to visit. Ayat's family recoiled at the group's suicide bombings of civilians, but like most people in Dehaishe, her parents say they were strong supporters of the Tanzim guerrillas who killed Jewish settlers and soldiers in the territories; they considered those to be legitimate targets. When Mahmud Mughrabi, a close family friend and a member of Fatah, was shot dead while planting a roadside bomb near a Jewish settlement, the al-Akhras family hung a poster of the militant in their living room. "I made the frame myself," Ayat's mother says with pride.
GENDER RESTRICTIONS AND MARTYRDOM
Like many Palestinian girls her age--even smart, ambitious ones--Ayat was eventually drawn to the cult of martyrdom. For the first year of the intifada, suicide bombings were the exclusive province of Islamic radicals, who accepted only male recruits and motivated them with promises of virgins and paradise. Women could not become suicide bombers, the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders maintained, because a woman traveling out of the home without a makram--her husband, brother or father--constituted a breach of Islamic law. The rule was ironclad, though Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin did allow that "we will start using women when we have run out of men."
But as the violence intensified, Palestinian nationalism became as strong a motivation for martyrdom as Islamic radicalism. Last winter the secular Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades embraced suicide bombings as well, believing that such tactics would inflict far more pain on the Israelis than guerrilla warfare would, hastening an end to the occupation. They even started a unit for female recruits. Wafa Idriss, a divorced 26-year-old ambulance worker from a Ramallah refugee camp, became the first female suicide bomber, blowing herself up in central Jerusalem in January and killing an elderly Jewish man. Dareen Abu Ish, a student at Nablus University who was considered brilliant by her classmates, tried in vain to join Hamas earlier this year. After she was rejected, she joined the Al Aqsa brigades, and detonated herself at a checkpoint near Jerusalem in February, killing a policeman.
Many girls in the Dehaishe camp rejoiced that women were now playing a role in throwing off Israeli occupation. Even the youngest children were affected. "Since last Christmas, the girls don't want dolls anymore," says Vivian Khakis, a professor of psychology at Bethlehem University. "All they want are guns and tanks."
Eat's anger peaked when the Israel Defense Forces rolled into declared in early March. On the evening of March 8, neighbor Gsa Zakari Faraj and his daughter were playing with Legos when he was shot through the window by Israeli troops. Ayat's brother Samir and a cousin tried to carry the mortally wounded man to a nearby hospital, but he died in their arms. "When Ayat saw me and our cousin carrying Isa past the doorway, she screamed out in pain, and I told her to get back inside," says Samir.
Faraj's death had a powerful impact on Ayat. Shortly afterward, her friends believe, she either sought out or was approached by the Al Aqsa brigades' suicide unit. "You send out signals at school or mosque, and those in charge of suicide attacks gather information about the candidates," says a teacher in the camp, explaining that stating admiration for martyrs or a willingness to die for the cause is often enough to alert the operatives. "At that very moment everything becomes secret. [Once recruited,] the would-be martyr might then tell her friends, 'I was just kidding when I made those statements.'" Experts say Ayat's self-discipline and intelligence made her a natural candidate for the brigades. They say she probably needed little psychological preparation for her task, which helps explain why she didn't vary her daily routine in the weeks before her death.
SEETHING AT ARAB LEADERS
As the appointed hour grew near, though, she made little attempt to conceal her hatred of Israel, or what she saw as Arab passivity. Watching the Arab summit on TV with her parents last month, she seethed at the failure of Arab leaders to rush to the defense of Palestine. Days before her operation, she met in a secret location with at least one accomplice from Al Aqsa, who videotaped her final message and dropped it off with a local TV station in Bethlehem after her attack. Backlit, with her head wrapped in the black-and-white checked kaffiyeh of the Fatah movement, she reads from a prepared statement in a strong monotone: "I say to the Arab leaders, 'Stop sleeping. Stop failing to fulfill your duty. Shame on the Arab armies who are sitting and watching the girls of Palestine fighting while they are asleep.'"
Rachel Levy spent the days before Passover in ebullient spirits. A photography project that she had labored on for weeks--water scenes around Jerusalem--went on display at her high school, winning rave reviews from teachers, classmates and parents. "She became far more outgoing after that," says her mother. "I think the success of her exhibit gave her a lot of confidence in herself." On the first night of Passover, the family gathered at Avigail's brother's house in the settlement of Pisgat Zeev on the eastern edge of Jerusalem. At 10:30 somebody switched on the television--and the family, horrified, watched the scenes of the devastating suicide attack in Netanya. "Racheli became sad, worried, said she wanted to go home," her mother recalls. "We left. But the next day, Racheli was herself again. She looked radiant."
She spent Thursday night, March 28, at the Jerusalem mall with her older brother and his girlfriend, returning home in the wee hours. After sleeping in, she and her mother drank coffee in the kitchen and discussed the family's Friday-evening meal. "Racheli said she would like a change, fish instead of chicken, but we didn't have all the ingredients," her mother says. "We were missing parsley, kousbara [coriander] and red pepper. I told Racheli to go down to the local store to pick up those items, but she insisted on going to the supermarket in Kiryat Hayovel. I said, 'OK, go, but be quick. It's late.'"
On Thursday night, Ayat's fiance dropped by her house as usual, spending an hour having tea and talking with her family before returning home. Muhammad al-Akhras remained awake until 4 a.m., watching live TV coverage of another suicide operation: a Palestinian gunman had entered the Jewish settlement of Eilon Moreh, killing a family of four and barricading himself inside their house for hours before being shot dead by Israeli troops. His daughter, he said, stayed up through the night as well, apparently studying in her room. Palestinian schools are normally closed on Fridays, but the students in Dehaishe had lost two weeks during the Israeli Army's March incursion, and makeup classes had been scheduled for that morning. At 7:30 a.m., Ayat gathered her books and hustled out the door to class. "She said, 'Please wish me well on my test today,'" her mother remembers. "Then she waved goodbye." At the end of classes that morning, Ayat's closest friend, Shukruk, was struck by her parting words. "She said, 'I'm going to pray in Al Aqsa; I won't see you anymore.' I asked her, 'Are you going to do something, are you going to do some operation?' But she said, 'No, no.'"
CROSSING THE GREEN LINE
Ayat followed a route along footpaths and through fields, skirting Israeli military checkpoints and crossing unnoticed into Jerusalem. Palestinian sources believe that an accomplice was waiting for her in a car on the other side of the Green Line. There she received her belt of explosives and was driven to a dropoff point near the Supersol market in Kiryat Hayovel. She was so composed before her act that she shooed away two Palestinian women selling herbs and scallions in front of the supermarket. Then she walked purposefully toward the door, where the security guard may have attempted to block her path. At that moment Rachel Levy brushed by Ayat. Ayat pressed the detonator, blowing herself in one direction and Rachel in the other. Their bodies were found on opposite ends of the entrance to the Supersol market.
Avigail Levy knew that something was wrong when she heard sirens near her apartment. She immediately phoned her sister, who switched on the radio and relayed the report of a bomb at the Supersol market. Avigail screamed, "My daughter is there!" and rushed with her son to the scene. Hours later she identified her daughter's remains at the morgue. "Her body was mangled, but her face was perfect, untouched," she said, sitting in her cramped living room last week. Undisturbed since the bombing, the shelves in Rachel's bedroom provide a poignant snapshot of a teenage girl's life: Tommy Girl perfume, Clique makeup, Victoria's Secret fruit body lotions, stuffed dolls and tiny blue trolls from her childhood that she'd refused to throw away. A picture taped to the wall was drawn by her adored brother Kobi the day she died, showing a sad person and two flowers. "To Rachel, I love you," reads the childish scrawl. "I wish you were alive. I want you to live." Composed yet in deep mourning for her only daughter, Avigail Levy says she strongly supports Ariel Sharon's massive military occupation of the West Bank. "I don't want revenge," she insists. "But I want the government to make it clear that if another family sends their child to be killed, they will suffer. This is the only way for them to understand--when they feel what we feel."
Muhammad al-Akhras heard about the attack on Palestinian television. He received confirmation that his daughter was the suicide bomber when about a dozen militiamen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades stood outside his house and fired their guns in the air in salute. Though convention calls for the father of a martyr to express pride in the act, al-Akhras seemed as overwhelmed by grief as Avigail Levy as he sat in his tiny family room a few hours later. "Words cannot express the pain I feel," he mumbled, staring down at a studio photograph of his daughter taken in front of a fake cityscape of lower Manhattan, the Twin Towers above her head. As he spoke, relatives carried out the prostrate body of another daughter, who had fainted from shock a few moments before. In a garage across the alley, a stream of visitors, from local Hamas leaders to the mayor of Bethlehem, dropped by to express their condolences. They sipped strong Arabic coffee and warmed themselves in the freezing rain by huddling around a wood fire burning in a metal drum. Ayat's fiance seemed as uncomprehending as her father about her suicide attack. "If she had just told me what she was planning, I would have stopped her," he said softly. "May God forgive her for what she has done." Other members of her family insisted that they regarded suicide bombings as morally wrong, but explained that Israeli brutality had left Palestinians no other choice. "Sharon has killed hope in our life," said Ayat's cousin Mutlak Qassas. "Today Ayat went to send him a message with her blood and her body."
Muhammad al-Akhras knew he would have to keep the mourning period short. Hundreds of Israeli tanks were already massing at the entry points to Bethlehem, and he was worried the troops would exact retribution on the men of his family. He said that he had received no offers of financial support from either the Palestinian Authority or the Iraqi government, which has paid as much as $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. He wasn't sure whether he would accept such an offer, though he conceded that he might have no other choice: as the father of a suicide bomber, he was all but certain that he would be fired by his Israeli employers. His sons had already left the camp on their own and found their way to different hiding places. "Nobody should have to experience this kind of loss," al-Akhras said. Yet taped to the windshield of his car was a black-and-white poster of Ayat draped in a flowing kaffiyeh and brandishing a pistol--the same picture that had begun to appear in the alleys of Dehaishe, inspiring new martyrs to the cause.
With Joanna Chen in Ramat Sharett and Samir Zedan in Dehaishe
2002 Newsweek, Inc.