Last weekend, following the Friday suicide of Ayat Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian girl who blew herself up at the entrance to a Jerusalem supermarket, the BBC broadcast a small segment of the video tape she had recorded beforehand. There was a flash of dark eyes and long black hair, a checkered head scarf. A few words in Arabic could be heard—and then the BBC switched to another set of pictures.
By now, we’ve all seen excerpts from such videos. They have a weird formality about them and a stage-managed feel that somehow fails to evoke much emotion on the part of the viewers. After Ayat Akhras appeared on screen, however, it was hard to focus on the rest of the news.
The New York Times interviewed Ayat Akhras’ family. The Christian Science Monitor interviewed her 14-year-old neighbor, a girl who expressed “envy” of Akhras. The mother of Wafa Idris, the first female suicide bomber, told the BBC she was “proud” of her daughter.
In part, it was the shock of seeing a girl’s face behind the keffiyeh, although rationally there was no reason to be surprised by a female martyr, as they are plentiful enough in Western cultural history. The Catholic Church has a host of martyred female saints—Joan of Arc among them—and women terrorists fought with Italy’s Red Brigades, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang, and America’s Weathermen, among many others. In the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, woman combatants are hardly exceptional either: The Israeli army itself has female soldiers.
Yet Ayat Akhras, the third Palestinian woman to die carrying out a suicide attack, was still unusual. She fit none of the standard descriptions of “typical” suicide bombers. Not only was she not male, she was not overtly religious, not estranged from her family, not openly associated with any radical groups. She can hardly be described as a woman without a future. She was young, she was a good student, and she was engaged to be married —all of which is why her death reveals a great deal about the changing nature of the Palestinian terror campaign.
At the most pedestrian level, her death tells us something about the effects that Israel’s border policy is having on the terrorist organizations inside the territories. Up to a point, the Israeli checkpoints work. Since the middle of the 1990s, it has been almost impossible for unmarried men under the age of 40 to get legitimate permits to cross the border into Israel, for any reason at all. Terrorist groups have therefore begun to look further afield for potential volunteers. They’ve had some success among Israeli Arabs—and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the group that armed Akhras, claims to have set up a special unit to train female suicide bombers. “We have 200 young women from the Bethlehem area alone ready to sacrifice themselves for the homeland,” an Al-Aqsa leader told the Guardian last week.
Yet the use of women—young women—isn’t entirely a matter of terrorist tactics either. There is a public relations game at work, too. By sending someone like Akhras into a supermarket to set off a bomb, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade—or its backers—are knowingly breaking down whatever frail, lingering barriers remain between combatants and noncombatants, terrorists and innocent civilians in the Middle East. The war has come to this: Women and children are now killing women and children. One of the two Israelis who died following Akhras’ suicide attack was a teen-ager, a year younger than her.
The message for Israel, and the rest of the world, is clear: Terrorism is not just a fringe phenomenon. Terrorists are not just strange young men whispering in dark rooms. Terrorists are high-school students, terrorists are women—and terrorists are all around you. No one—not the old man on the bicycle or the young girl walking to school—can be discounted. All Palestinians are potential terrorists, and terrorism will never go away. Whether or not all of this is actually true is immaterial: The point is to make the Israelis think it is, and thus give up, withdraw, quit the Middle East—or else undertake a massive and potentially disastrous military operation of the sort that may have begun this week.
Finally, Akhras’ death also underlines, again, something that we already knew but don’t always focus on. Unlike many of the members of al-Qaida, the Palestinian groups that plan and carry out terrorist attacks are not all composed of religious fanatics. The people who are killing themselves in the name of the Palestinian cause are not necessarily doing so because they believe they will be granted entrance to paradise or because God will reward them with a succession of beautiful virgins. Nor are those in charge of this war madmen gripped by holy ecstasy or by a burning desire to see all their female relatives locked behind black veils. This is a political war, not a religious war, and the suicide bombings are being carefully planned and executed as a part of a precise political strategy. The men who sent a young girl into a supermarket carrying explosives knew what they were doing—as did she.