Defense Minister Benjamín Ben Eliezer
|While her co-bomber exploded himself in Rishon Letzion,
Arin Ahmed was to wait nearby for the panicky people who would flee toward
her, then detonate her bomb. Like Rasan who was to blow himself up in Tel
Aviv, she never went through with her mission. Last week, the two were
paid a visit in jail by none other than Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer.
By Vered Levy-Barzilai.
A young female Palestinian terrorist sits in a detention room opposite the Israeli defense minister and cries. "What will happen to me now?" she asks him. "What will become of me? What will my future be? Am I going to rot in prison for 20 years for something I didn't do?" Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's expression reveals nothing.
She wanted to be a shaheed [martyr], to blow herself up on an Israeli street and kill as many Jews as possible. The bomb was already strapped to her body. But on the way to the attack, she had a change of heart and returned home. Now the defense minister has come to ask her why: Why did she say yes at first - and why did she say no later? She looks into his eyes, searching for a hint of compassion.
"You've heard the story of my life," she says, her lips trembling. "It wasn't easy. But that wasn't the direction I was heading in. It was a momentary stumble. Yes, I faltered. But when the decisive moment came, I backed out. Please tell me, Mr. Minister, what will become of me?"
Ben-Eliezer sat there silently and kept looking at her. If something was going on inside him, it didn't show on his face. He cast a fleeting glance at the Shin Bet security services personnel in the room, and then his gaze returned to the young woman. "Kul wahad wanasibuhu," he said to her in Arabic. To each his fate.
Arin Ahmed was studying communications and computer programming at Bethlehem University. She speaks fluent English and a little Hebrew. Born 20 years ago in Beit Sahur, outside of Bethlehem, she is an articulate and intelligent young woman. Her father died when she was still a baby. For reasons that are not totally clear, her mother abandoned her and moved to Amman, Jordan, where she still lives. Arin was left in the care of relatives. Her aunts and uncles raised her and saw to her education. On March 8 of this year, she experienced another loss: Tanzim militant Jad Salem, her boyfriend of a year and a half, was killed. According to the Palestinians, he was killed by Israeli Defense Forces gunfire. The Shin Bet says: "He was apparently killed while attempting to prepare a car bomb."
Arin decided to avenge the death of her beloved by carrying out a suicide bombing. She conveyed a message to this effect to a senior Tanzim militant. On May 22, Tanzim activists Ali Yusef Mughrabi and Mahmoud Salem picked her up and took her to prepare for a suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion. They introduced her to a 16-year-old boy, Issam Badir, from Beit Jala. They were supposed to carry out the attack together. Mahmoud Salem instructed Badir to blow himself up amid the backgammon tables on the open plaza. Arin was supposed to wait on the other side of the street for the people who weren't killed or injured in the first explosion to run in a panic toward where she was standing. The expectation was that she would soon be surrounded by a large crowd. Then she was to choose the right moment and blow herself up.
The explosives were packed into black knapsacks, each weighing 35 kilograms. The bomb was light and easy to detonate, Mahmoud Salem told her. A switch coming out the back of the knapsack was connected to wires that activate the bomb. Arin said that she had already written a farewell letter to her family. She purified herself and prayed. Ali Mughrabi captured her final words on video. They explained to her that she had to pass for a young Israeli woman, and so she was asked to wear Western-style dress - tight pants and a midriff top. She did as she was told.
Then they met with Ibrahim Sarahne, Mahmoud's cousin, who explained how to get to the site chosen for the attack and described the place for them in great detail. Sarahne transported them nearby. When they arrived, Sarahne gave Arin and Issam precise instructions via cell phone: where exactly to stand so as to have the most lethal effect. They got out of the car with their knapsacks and headed for opposite sides of the street, as instructed. Arin stood in her position for about 10 minutes. Then she suddenly left the spot, returned to the parked car and told Sarahne that she had changed her mind and didn't want to go through with the bombing.
Her dispatchers were furious. They tried to convince her to carry out the mission to which she had committed herself. They reminded her of the lofty status she would achieve and of the great honor awaiting her in Paradise. Arin watched as the teenager ran and blew himself up right before her eyes. She again told her handlers that she wouldn't go through with it, and they brought her back to Bethlehem. The Tanzim men were enraged that she had backed out. Arin would later tell her interrogators that the Tanzim subsequently tried to enlist her for another suicide bombing on the Jerusalem pedestrian mall, but she refused.
On May 29, acting on information obtained in the interrogation of Ibrahim Sarahne, Israel Defense Forces soldiers arrived at Arin Ahmed's home in Beit Sahur and arrested her.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer decided several weeks ago that he wished to meet face to face with suicide bombers who had failed to carry out their plans. He asked the Shin Bet to arrange such a meeting for him. The Shin Bet chose to have him meet Arin Ahmed and another failed suicide bomber, Rasan Stiti from Jenin. Stiti was enlisted by the Islamic Jihad about six months ago. As part of his training for a suicide mission, he was sent to Ramallah where he was enlisted by intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi. He also attended high school in Ramallah, where he proved to be a bright student and got excellent grades.
During his time in the city, Stiti met Chris Awis, a captain in the Palestinian intelligence service there. Awis was a high-ranking Fatah suspect (who turned himself in to IDF forces during Operation Defensive Shield) and he was the one who persuaded Stiti to go on a suicide mission in Tel Aviv. Stiti first spent a month studying religion at a local mosque. Immediately afterward, he set off to carry out the bombing.
En route, he noticed combat helicopters hovering over his route and suspected that they were following him, so he decided to postpone the mission. A few days later, he made a second attempt, but this time the road was blocked and he had to turn back. The third time, he was stopped by members of Palestinian intelligence. And then, finally, he was arrested by the IDF during Operation Defensive Shield.
The meeting took place last week on Sunday at 2 P.M., in the detention room in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem. Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer was accompanied by his military secretary, Brigadier General Mike Herzog. He came straight from a cabinet meeting, dressed in a dark suit, light shirt and tie. The two men entered the room where the Shin Bet personnel were waiting. Rasan Stiti was led in first, in handcuffs. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He is very thin, with black hair and a short beard. His eyes had a glassy look. The little room was too narrow to comfortably accommodate all those present. They took their places around the table: Ben-Eliezer and Herzog on one side, and the terrorist, flanked by Shin Bet men, on the other.
After being given some brief biographical information about the young man, Ben-Eliezer addressed the terrorist in Arabic: "Who sent you?"
Stiti: "The Islamic Jihad."
Ben-Eliezer: "What did you want to happen?"
Stiti: "For Jews to be killed and to die as a shaheed."
Ben-Eliezer: "Now explain to me why you decided to commit suicide."
Stiti: "No, that's not it. That's not right. I didn't go to commit suicide. I went to die a martyr's death. I wanted to get the reward. I spent a month in the mosque. I learned there how important it is to be a shaheed. It is the loftiest objective. It's very important for the Palestinian people, nationally and religiously. It's the biggest and most holy thing you can do. And then you receive all the rewards in Paradise."
Ben-Eliezer: "You knew that you would kill innocent people - women and children. Do you hate the Jews that much?"
Stiti: "No, not at all. I don't hate Jews. That's not it. I just wanted to take part in my people's war of national liberation. It's a holy war for the liberation of occupied Palestine. That's what I was thinking all the time."
Ben-Eliezer: "But in the place you were supposed to blow yourself up, you would see with your own eyes the people whom you were about to kill. Did you ever ask yourself: Why them? What have they done? Why do they deserve to die?"
Stiti: "I wouldn't have seen that. We don't see them at all. What's before my eyes is [becoming] a shaheed. Everything is for the sake of the commandment. That's what I was told. The shaheed is on a very high level and everyone respects him. I wanted to participate in the liberation of my people, to fulfill the sacred commandment, to be a source of pride to my people and my friends."
Ben-Eliezer: "You have parents, brothers, sisters, family, friends. Did you think about them?"
Ben-Eliezer: "Did they know?"
Stiti: "Yes. My parents begged me not to do it. My father told me that I'd be very sorry if I dared to go ahead, but it didn't convince me. What they told me at the mosque was more powerful. They told me to just think about the commandment and the reward, up above, in Paradise, with the virgins that would be waiting for me and all the honor I would receive."
Ben-Eliezer: "And you were prepared to break your father's heart? Your mother's heart?"
Stiti is silent and looks down.
Ben-Eliezer: "Look at me."
Stiti looks up, but remains silent.
Ben-Eliezer: "And what about you? Didn't you have any regrets about taking your own life? You're young, you're just starting out. You're a good student. You could have gone on to university, become something. Did you care about dying?"
Stiti: "No. Because they explained to me that life here is just a pathway to life in the next world. The loss of life here is not such a big thing. Here it's just preparation. The next world is the true life, for the holy ones who are worthy of reaching there."
Ben-Eliezer: "You mean the shaheeds, the ones who committed suicide bombings?"
Stiti: "Yes, right."
Ben-Eliezer: "If Yasser Arafat called for a halt to suicide bombings, would it have any effect on you?"
Stiti: "No. It's a religious imperative from Allah. It has nothing to do with whether Arafat says yes or no. Allah supersedes everyone." He thinks for a moment and continues: "But maybe if he did call for it to stop, we might think twice about it."
Ben-Eliezer: "If I let you go right now, would you go out to commit another attack?"
Stiti (looking down): "I don't think so. I made a mistake. Now I just want to go back to normal life. I want to study."
Ben-Eliezer: "Do you know whom you're talking to right now?"
Stiti: "Of course, I know. You're the defense minister. I see you on television every day."
Rasan Stiti is led out of the room. Arin Ahmed is brought in. Brigadier General Herzog comments later that there was a very big contrast between the strength that she projected and the fear projected by Stiti. He sat slouched in his seat and averted his gaze for most of the session, not daring to look Ben-Eliezer in the eye. Ahmed, in contrast, sat upright and looked straight ahead. He was stiff. She was very expressive. He spoke only Arabic. She sometimes switched to fluent English and occasionally used a few words of Hebrew.
He never revealed his emotions, and expressed neither sorrow nor remorse. He was expressionless and spoke in a cold, monotonous tone, as if he were reciting slogans. The gut feeling of the others in the room was that Stiti was not being truthful, especially when he said that he would not be interested in attempting another bombing. Ahmed, on the other hand, seemed much more sincere and they tended to believe her. She sounded genuine, did not try to hide anything and was even bold enough to make a direct appeal to the minister sitting opposite her.
"Natural intelligence" and "a winning smile" were two of the phrases used by Ben-Eliezer and Herzog in describing her. Ahmed impressed them as a young woman with a charismatic personality.
Arin Ahmed was not handcuffed when she was led in to meet Ben-Eliezer. She sat at the table dressed in long pants and a gray sweater - a tall, full-figured young woman with long black hair and dark eyes.
Ben-Eliezer: "Explain to me why you wanted to commit a suicide bombing in Israel. Was it for religious reasons?"
Ahmed: "No, it was something personal. I was in distress. I was depressed."
Ben-Eliezer: "Why did you want to commit suicide?"
Ahmed: "You [Israelis] killed my friend."
Ben-Eliezer: "Was he a close friend of yours?"
Ahmed: "Yes. We were friends for a year and a half."
Ben-Eliezer: "Did you live together?"
Ahmed: "No, of course not. There's no such thing in our society. But we were friends. And he was killed."
Ben-Eliezer: "So what did you want to happen? Did you want to kill innocent Jews in order to avenge his death?"
Ahmed: "I don't know what I wanted. I was very hurt and angry. I have friends from the university who are active in the Tanzim. We get together a lot and go out together. We were sitting together one evening and they were talking about how they wanted to organize a reprisal action against all the military actions and everything that Israel had done to them in the last months. I sat and listened. I thought about Jad. And all of a sudden, I said to them, you know what? I'm going to do a suicide bombing. That was it. A moment earlier, I hadn't thought of anything like that. This was on a Friday. Afterward, I went home. I spoke with someone in the Tanzim and told him that I wanted to do it."
Ben-Eliezer: "And what happened then?"
Ahmed: "I thought they would take me to start preparing for it, that they would train me and teach me about weapons, something like that. I was sure it was a process that took several months. Then, suddenly, four days later, some Tanzim militants came and told me: We've chosen you. Congratulations. You're going to do a suicide bombing. Then some more senior people came. I was in shock. I never imagined it could happen so fast.
"But they didn't let me think about it too much. They pressured me and persuaded me. They told me: You'll gain a very special status among the women suicide bombers. You'll be a real heroine. It's for Jad's memory. You'll be reunited with him in heaven. You'll be with him in Paradise. They pushed me. They encouraged me. I did whatever they told me. They explained everything to Issam and me. This all happened very fast and then we set out."
Ben-Eliezer: "Did your family know?"
Ahmed: "No. I left on the day I wrote my farewell letter."
Ben-Eliezer: "And you didn't feel bad about what it would do to them?"
Ahmed: "I was only thinking about my boyfriend."
Ben-Eliezer: "And what happened then? Why did you change your mind?"
Ahmed: "I got out of the car. The place wasn't exactly like I'd seen on the map. I saw a lot of people, mothers with children, teenage boys and girls. I remembered an Israeli girl my age whom I used to be in touch with. I suddenly understood what I was about to do and I said to myself: How can I do such a thing? I changed my mind. Issam also had second thoughts, but they managed to convince him to go ahead. I saw him go and blow himself up.
"I decided that I wasn't going to do it. They were very angry at me. They yelled at me the whole way back. And they also tried to send me to carry out another attack in Jerusalem. But I'd already changed my mind and given up the whole idea. I stayed at home, until your forces came and arrested me."
Ben-Eliezer: "And now what?"
Ahmed: "And now I'm here. It was a mistake. It's wrong to kill people and children. Doing something like that is forbidden. There's no way I would do it. And the fact is, I didn't do it."
Ben-Eliezer: "If you're released, what will you do?"
Ahmed: "I'd leave this place immediately. I'd go to live in Jordan with my mother. I would draw a line across the past and never come back here. Yes, I faltered. But it was a momentary stumble. That's not me. I was swept up into this thing, but I came to my senses. In Jordan, with my mother and sisters, I would continue studying. I'd get a degree at the university. I'd never go near anything like this again. I'd continue my life normally."
At this point, Ben-Eliezer says good-bye and signals that the conversation has ended. Ahmed bursts out crying: "Please, Mr. Minister. Wait a minute. There's something else I want to tell you."
Ben-Eliezer turns around to listen.
Ahmed: "I'm finished with this. I swear it. Please, let me out of here. I want to ask you to transfer me to my family in Jordan."
He listens, but doesn't say anything. She sighs. "What will become of me? I have no future. I don't want my whole life to be ruined because of this. I'm at the beginning of life. I didn't do anything. Don't forget that. I didn't do it. I changed my mind. Please, let me out."
"To each his fate," Ben-Eliezer says, and then he leaves the room.
Last Thursday afternoon, in his office at the Defense Ministry, Ben-Eliezer says that from now on, he intends to keep interviewing other potential suicide bombers. He says his decision derives from the fact that the phenomenon is the main problem that the defense establishment has to contend with. "This is an efficient, quick, cheap and highly lethal kind of weapon that is very hard to overcome," the defense minister says. "That's why I wanted to meet them face to face."
There are professionals in the Shin Bet whose job it is to do this. Why was it important to you to meet them yourself?
"If I'm fighting against something, I need to get to know it personally. I want to know as much as I can about it. I know tanks and airplanes and artillery. But I don't know the person who turns himself into a bomb. I have never met a living, breathing death machine. Those who were caught on the way or changed their mind can provide this opportunity."
Do you think you'll learn something that you didn't know before?
"First of all, I wanted to have the contact. There's a difference between reading a written report about someone, and sitting across from him and talking to him. I wanted to go more in depth, to plumb their souls. To look them in the eye. To see if they look me in the eye. I wanted to see their expression when I asked them `Why?' and it was important to me to speak to them face to face: to see how I would feel, to try to understand directly what causes a young man or woman in their teens to throw everything away, to go out and murder innocent people, to commit suicide. After all, it's total craziness. It's a satanic, monstrous act. I had to sit down across from this thing."
And what did you learn?
"I felt different things in the meeting with him and the meeting with her. And I learned different things from both cases. The young man projected coldness and alienation. He sat there very stiffly. I didn't hear any genuine remorse from him. He said he wouldn't do it again, but I didn't believe him. He lied. When I left the room, I said to the people there, `If he goes free, he'll immediately run to do it again.'
"His eyes were constantly darting to the side. He recited the brainwashing they did to him, nothing more. He was not impressive. I couldn't discern the burning hatred or the distress he spoke of. It sounded more like someone with a weak character whom the surrounding system had homed in on, caught and trained for the assignment. He seemed like a spineless young man, nothing special."
Maybe he was paralyzed by fear when he was sitting there facing you.
"No, not at all. The conversation was relaxed. I asked them to take off his handcuffs, but they wouldn't. He had nothing to fear. On the contrary, he was apathetic, inexpressive. He annoyed me. He recited and recited, like a mantra, one slogan after another."
What new and relevant information did this meeting provide?
"That the environmental factor is the key - not the socioeconomic situation, or whether they're working or unemployed, or the years of oppression and built-up frustration, or whether they're educated or not. These parameters have weight, but it is marginal. Above all, it has to do with the person's character and how susceptible he or she is to pressure and persuasion. There's an entire system with its sights set on this satanic aim. It operates entirely in order to produce human bombs. As soon as they identified him as suitable, they trapped him like a fish in a net. These suicide bombers aren't created out of nowhere. They aren't born like that. The Islamic Jihad and the Tanzim and Hamas find them. It's the most cynical and cruel exploitation of human lives, of young people's lives especially. The weak, like him, are caught."
You don't think it has anything to do with the misery of their life and their ongoing frustration?
"Listen well: No. Look, there are plenty of people in the same situation who haven't done what these two planned to do. Why?"
But there are still hundreds and possibly thousands of potential suicide bombers. Aren't these people who feel they've lost all reason for living?
"In my opinion, there is no common denominator. Sometimes, it's a random, momentary thing. Sometimes there's more of a religious background to it. Some of them say, `I die, therefore I exist.' They think a heroic death will give meaning to their existence. Today he's a nobody, but when he becomes a shaheed, the whole world will hear about him. Some are mainly brainwashed with a religious message. And some come to it in an unpredictable way, like the young woman."
How did the meeting with her go?
"It wasn't easy. She wasn't cold and aloof like the young man. She showed emotion. She didn't sit across from me like a block of ice. She spoke, she was quiet, she smiled, she cried. She's an intelligent young woman and she took part in a flowing conversation."
How did you feel when you were sitting there facing her?
"To be honest, I felt sorry for her. I admit it. I thought she was pitiable. I found it hard to fathom how a girl like her, an educated young woman with her whole future ahead of her could have ended up in such a situation, ready to commit such an inhuman act. On the other hand, the fact that she did not go through with it and the way she expressed remorse touched me. I admit that I felt compassion for her."
Isn't there something unseemly about a defense minister choosing to sit down with someone who almost killed innocent civilians and giving her a platform, and even feeling such empathy toward her?
"Listen well. This meeting was held in the context of `Know thine enemy.' None of the rest interests me. I don't worry about whether or not there will be criticism when I make my judgment. To me, this is an important meeting that is supplying valuable information."
What do you think ought to be done with her?
"I don't know. And I'm not the one who has to decide. I tend to believe that if she is released, she will get as far away from here as possible and try to start a new life."
There's no guarantee that her anguish over her boyfriend's death won't well up again and inspire her to return to carry out another terror attack.
"True. We have no guarantee of that."
She was just a hairbreadth away from blowing herself up and killing innocent Israeli civilians.
"True, and you don't have to remind me of that. I haven't forgotten that for a moment. But you start the encounter sitting across from a satanic killing machine and then she tells you her life story and smiles and cries, and you remember that this is a 20-year-old girl. And you also feel sorry for her. My gut feeling was that she was telling the truth. She almost did a monstrous thing but, in the end, she didn't. Of course, I haven't changed my opinion about the severity of the phenomenon or about the severity of the fact that she was a willing participant in it until the very last moment. And she also didn't prevent the terror attack. But she did manage to move me. And all her testimony about how they enlisted her reinforced what we assumed before."
Something that we didn't know before?
"Of course, we had earlier evidence. But this was important documentation and her case is not unique. Here you have a girl who suddenly blurted something out. I'm almost certain that she herself didn't really mean it. But as soon as the words were said, they pounced on her. Here you can see how this machine works. That's why I say that the environment is the No. 1 factor, the environmental pressure. This is not a religious young woman. This is not an ignorant young woman. This is not a young woman with nothing to look forward to in life. On the contrary. She is talented and educated and has her future ahead of her."
This is a girl whose heart has been broken. Her beloved was killed. More than a few young women throughout the world have committed suicide or tried to after losing their beloved.
"That's not the case here, I'm telling you. They home in on a person like a spider and spin a web around him. As soon as she said she wanted to commit suicide, the whole thing took on tremendous momentum and went totally out of her control. They came at her from every direction. Out of inertia, she kept going further and further with it until the zero hour arrived. That's why I maintain that the environment exploits fragile personalities and gets them swept up in a current."
In an article published recently in Ha'aretz about the origins of the shaheed, professors and experts on Islam were interviewed. Most felt that the common denominator among suicide bombers was the lack of a horizon, a lack of hope, that they were people who had lost faith in life.
"Certainly, there is misery. Certainly, there is frustration. Certainly, they feel hopelessness. But then, at the moment of crisis, someone from one of these death organizations comes and seduces them. Notice, when I asked her, `and now what?' - she burst into tears. Why? Because now she understands the craziness that she was sucked into. Because now it's clear to her that she wants life and not death. Now her life is very precious to her. She is pleading for her life."
And how does all this insight and analysis help us? The terror attacks are continuing all the time.
"Eighty-six percent of terror attacks are foiled and prevented. Also, understanding the enemy is always helpful, knowing the behind-the-scenes mechanisms. The enemy is not just Rasan Stiti and Arin Ahmed. It's mainly who sends them. Here we have a female terrorist who came to her senses at the critical moment. She realized that they had sold her a virtual world that doesn't exist at all and that she was about to die. Then she went home. Now she's talking and others are listening. This is significant.
"Secondly, it shows that once they're on this satanic conveyor belt, they don't have a moment to think about the price they're going to pay. In most cases, it's a lost cause by this point. Before they manage to think about for whom and what they're dying, they're already dead, along with all their innocent victims."
And how does all this help us?
"We're interested in the moment that comes before. I have a lot of information on the table. My objective is to prevent suicide bombings. That's what Operation Defensive Shield was for. That's what all the other operations are for. But, unfortunately, while the IDF is carrying out these necessary actions, the operations themselves become a hothouse that produces more and more new suicide bombers. The military actions kindle the frustration, hatred and despair and are the incubator for the terror to come. The religious and political environment immediately exploits this effect and dispatches the new suicide bombers and the pattern is repeated."
You are the defense minister of the State of Israel and you're basically saying that we're trapped in an endless vicious circle - that there's no solution, that we have no horizon to look toward and no hope that this terrible situation will end.
"It is a terribly vicious and evil circle, but I do see hope. There are sparks of light coming from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The world is starting to realize that this struggle is no longer local. There is talk that the world will eventually cause Yasser Arafat to move aside. Then others will sit opposite us. And then, in a political process, new hope for both peoples will open up. With Arafat, it won't happen. It will happen with someone else.
"When there is new hope, these organizations that are so indifferent to human life, that try to sell a virtual world to potential suicide bombers, will have a harder time doing their work. As soon as the Palestinians have a new dream of a truly better life, of a normal life, the whole bit about the virgins in Paradise and all the other nonsense they've sold them will lose its magic. I believe that then, young people like Arin Ahmed and even Rasan Stiti will say no to anyone who tries to convince them to choose death over life."
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