Six years ago, Shifa al-Qudsi was plotting to strap on explosives under a maternity dress and blow herself up among Israelis. Now she says she wants to meet them.
Just released from prison at age 30, the former hairdresser insists she has no regrets, but says times have changed. “I hope to join a peace group,” she says. “I am ready to talk to Israelis, to get closer.”
Her startling transformation mirrors broader changes in Palestinian society in the West Bank, where enthusiasm for armed conflict against Israeli occupation has been eroding.
Al-Qudsi’s story also provides a glimpse of the motives of a suicide bomber and how easy it was at one time for militants to recruit young Palestinians — mostly men but also a few women — for 131 bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
For al-Qudsi, the personal appeared to intersect with the political. While she said she wanted to avenge the suffering inflicted on Palestinians by Israeli troops, her former employer said al-Qudsi also felt depressed and stigmatized by her divorce.
Interviewed recently in her parents’ home in the West Bank city of Tulkarem, al-Qudsi wore a tailored leather coat, pants, stiletto-heeled boots and a headscarf that seemed more a nod to social norms than a sign of religious piety. She appeared confident and optimistic.
One of 10 children, she married a cousin at 16, gave birth to a daughter, Diana, and divorced after two years when her husband took up with another woman. Returning to her parents’ home with her daughter, al-Qudsi started working at a beauty parlor.
Her former boss, Zahwa Zakallah, described her employees as a fun-loving group that would occasionally take day trips, including several to the beach at Netanya, an Israeli city 10 miles west of Tulkarem that would become al-Qudsi’s target.
Desire for revenge started in 2000
Life changed after the uprising broke out in 2000. As a wave of bombings and shootings by Palestinian militant groups crested, Israeli forces reoccupied West Bank towns in a major military offensive. Troops also ringed the headquarters of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, effectively putting him under house arrest.
Al-Qudsi said she was increasingly driven by a desire for revenge, and was particularly upset by Israel’s humiliation of Arafat, a Palestinian icon.
In early 2002, her 16-year-old brother, Mahmoud, was caught with a suicide belt and sentenced to 18 years in prison. And a 27-year-old West Bank paramedic became the first female suicide bomber, killing an elderly Israeli man in Jerusalem.
Al-Qudsi said she sought contact with the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent Fatah offshoot. She said she was told to reconsider and come back in a month. She persisted and was eventually accepted.
“I was waiting for the moment I could push the button and see the bodies flying,” she said.
Her handlers wanted to send her to the town of Hadera, but al-Qudsi said she insisted on Netanya because she knew her way around the town. She was fitted for a vest meant to hold 33 pounds of explosives under the maternity dress.
The plan was for her to be accompanied by a male bomber disguised as an Israeli medic who would detonate his explosives minutes after she did, in order to kill Israeli rescuers.
But informers tipped off the Israelis and al-Qudsi was arrested.
Troops barged into her parents’ home one night in April 2002 and drove her away. She said they beat her with fists and rifle butts until she reached the local army lockup. She quickly confessed, but spent 42 days being questioned about who else was involved in the plot.
In a plea bargain, an Israeli military court sentenced her to six years in prison.
Her lawyer, Khaled Dazuki, said the sentence was relatively light because no suicide belt was found. Dazuki believes the plan was in its early stages and his client wouldn’t have gone through with the attack.
Al-Qudsi described the Israeli prison as a warren of dirty, vermin-infested cells where guards sometimes tear-gassed troublesome inmates, including herself.
Now she has a job with a prisoners’ aid group, plans to study social work, and talks about her eagerness to tell ordinary Israelis her story and hear theirs.
She also struggles to explain her decision to become a bomber.
Asked how she could leave her young daughter motherless, she said, “God would have taken care of her.” Yet she also said the worst part of being in prison was being away from her child. She and Diana, now 13, are inseparable. The teenager says she’s thankful her mother is alive, wants nothing to do with politics, and dreams of going abroad to study law.
What made her change her mind after her arrest? She said that times are different now.
“I’m not sorry about what happened,” al-Qudsi said defiantly. She wanted the world to know about the suffering of the Palestinians under occupation, but said: “At the time, I didn’t think as a human being. I thought only of revenge.
“If I had thought it through better, I might not have made this decision.”