(photo credit: AP)
In the weeks after her son killed an elderly Israeli woman and wounded 38 others in the February 4 Dimona suicide bombing, Muhammad Hirbawi's mother turned her modest, second floor apartment in northwest Hebron into a makeshift public relations department, in tribute to her child.
At the front door, surrounded by her curious children, she received visitors by handing them Hamas flyers on which her son was pictured, smiling, beside his accomplice Shadi al-Zughayar, holding aloft a copy of the Koran.
Locals flocked to her home and that of Zughayar to pay their respects during the three days of mourning that followed their "martyrdom" in a bombing which killed Dr. Lyubov Razdolskya, 73, and left her husband of almost 50 years, Edward, critically wounded. He is now recovering.
The Dimona bombing was the first suicide attack to come from the West Bank since April 2006 and the first for which Hamas claimed responsibility since August 2004. Speaking soon after the bombing, Hebron locals, including one Fatah official, spoke of growing public anger at what they said was continued settlement expansion and IDF incursions into the Palestinian Authority controlled part of the town. Some implied this was a factor in the bombing. A February opinion poll conducted by the Ramallah-based Near East Consulting found 40 percent of the Hebron population saying they trust Hamas, a rise of 9% since August 2007.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, according to Fatah, the IDF ordered PA police to stay off the streets while they searched the Hirbawi household and arrested the bomber's father, Salim, and others. Dianne Roe, a member of the Christian Peacekeeping Team, a prominent NGO based in the town, said locals always dreaded to hear that suicide bombers had come from Hebron, since the IDF curfews that inevitably followed spelled restricted movement for days or weeks on end.
At the town's Fatah offices, a local leader, Kifa Ali-Weweh, did not condemn Hamas for the Dimona bombing, but instead extended an olive branch of reconciliation to the fundamentalists. Referring to a recent statement made by Hamas in Nablus, in which it expressed regret for the Gaza "coup" of June 2007, he said he hoped the Hebron faction of the movement would issue a similar text.
He also claimed that the IDF was undermining the PA's efforts to adequately police the city, saying that Israel was unwilling to share intelligence on crime and that IDF negligence had enabled criminals to take refuge in the IDF controlled part of town.
At the same time, however, Weweh said that the suicide bombing should not be taken as an indicator of resurgent extremism among locals and opposition to negotiations with Israel. Rather, he maintained, Hebronites were prepared to wait and see what would come out of the closed-door Israeli-PA contacts.
Another influential local party figure, in the same office, was more strident. He said Israel was not giving the PA a genuine opportunity to impose control in the city.
"Hebron is under PA control in name only," he said. "Last month 60 people were arrested [by the Israelis], 11 of them were children. The people are not persuaded by the [peace] process. [There is] just meeting, talking, handshaking, [and] prestige in front of the world. [On] prisoners, check points, and the wall [the West Bank security barrier], Israel did not give us anything. You can't feel something has changed, you can't see something has changed."
The IDF rejected these assertions. According to an IDF spokesperson, "The activities of the Palestinian Police in Judea and Samaria are coordinated with the IDF. Generally, the IDF enables most of the Palestinian Police's requests regarding the enforcement of law and order in the majority of the Palestinian territories in Judea and Samaria." The spokesman added, however, that "There are incidents, during IDF operations, which require the Palestinian Police to halt or reduce operations in a certain area. This is in order to prevent unnecessary encounters."
Brig.-Gen (Ret.) Shlomo Brom, of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, elaborated that IDF arrest operations were ongoing in Hebron, because of the deep-rooted support for Hamas, based on kinship, among the people there, and their conservative, religious nature.
Underlining the point, Hamas won all nine seats in the Hebron district in the Palestinian legislative elections of January 2006. All nine of the elected parliamentarians are currently detained in Israeli jails. Explaining the Israeli strategy, Brom said: "Against Hamas [Israel] has never accepted a distinction between political and terrorist activities. According to the understanding of the intelligence services, Hamas's political infrastructure upholds and finances its terrorist operations." By way of example, Brom cited the recent closing down of Hamas charities in Hebron. These kinds of operations were going on before the Dimona bombing, he said. But Israel invariably stepped up such activity after a bombing in the area of the bombers' origin.
Relating to the complaints about the failure to remove checkpoints and release Palestinian prisoners, Brom said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had been unable to implement any confidence-building measures in the town since the Annapolis conference last November because, aside from security concerns, his hands were also tied by internal coalition pressures.
Brom disputed the notion that Israeli actions in the Hebron area had helped fuel the suicide bombing. "The occupational regime is easier in Hebron than in Nablus [where PA police deployment has been widely publicized]," he said, adding that freedom of movement in Hebron was less restricted.
Brom saw the fact that the Dimona bombers came from Hebron as an expression of solidarity with the Hamas regime in Gaza and also a matter of strategic convenience based on the fact that the security barrier is far from complete in the Hebron Hills area, and therefore crossing into Israel is far simpler than further north. The fact that there had only been one attack from Hebron in recent years, Brom said, was evidence of the relative success of the IDF's tactics.
At Hebron University, where recent student council elections have been closely run affairs, several lecturers and students said they had friends and relatives who were Hamas members and that Hamas should be tolerated. One senior lecturer spoke favorably of Hamas governance as being free of corruption, but also said she feared a Hamas takeover of the West Bank, and complete power over the Palestinian territories, would see those territories being isolated in the same way as Iran.
This lecturer, who said she had moved into the city because IDF checkpoints had hindered her ability to get to work, said she still saw Fatah as representing the Palestinians' best hope for peace because it had the support of the world's power brokers.
Abayda, a female English student and supporter of Mustafa Barghouti, general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, described the Dimona bombers sympathetically as having being involved in "redemption operations." But she said her own "resistance" to occupation was that she continued to put up with checkpoints as an act of defiance, while other people had moved into the city.
Another lecturer, a Fatah member, said he was not surprised that the bombers had come from Hebron given Israeli settlement policies and what he termed the detention of students without fair trial for political activism. He doubted whether the PA could remain faithful to the negotiations.
Near East Consulting director Jamil Rabeh said Israeli military activity across the Palestinian territories always galvanized greater support for the Islamists, and that the escalated IDF activity in the area after the Dimona attack "could only lead to one or two [more] people [from the area] being psychologically ready to carry out [a suicide bombing]."
He also said, however, that in general, people did not support Hamas suicide bombings and cautioned that people's verbal frustration should not been taken as a sign that violence in the city was about to escalate.
"Gener0 ally, Palestinians strategically believe in peace and a peaceful coexistence with Israel which is mutually beneficial to both sides," he said.