"Shahida – Brides of Allah"

An Israeli View of Female Palestinian Terrorists

Over a period of two years, the Israeli director Natalie Assouline visited Palestinian women who were imprisoned after failed suicide attacks in Israel. The result is a moving film full of contradictions; Igal Avidan has seen it

​​Young Palestinian women in an Israeli prison. They pray to Allah and wear tightly tied headscarves, but they pose for a group photo and emphasize their femininity. You feel compassion for them when they talk wistfully about their children, whom they can only see through the bars.

When the 30-year-old Kahira is finally allowed to hug her four children in one scene, tears well up in the viewer's eyes – although he knows that this mother is a murderer.

The Israeli director Natalie Assouline portrays female Palestinian terrorists in her film debut. Nevertheless, she always allows the audience to feel the tension between sympathy and condemnation. The impressive documentary film is titled Shahida – "martyrs for Allah" in Arabic – and these prisoners do see themselves as martyrs. That is part of their self-deception.

A mother with a heart – and a bomb

Eight female Palestinians have taken part in suicide campaigns during recent years, killing 42 Israelis and injuring 386. One hundred twenty Palestinian women were arrested for their involvement in terrorist attacks. Since 2002, more and more Palestinian women have assumed the traditional role of men as living bombs.

Terrorist organizations know that women are less rigorously checked at the border. As a result, the pregnant Manal was able to help plant a bomb in an Israeli elementary school. That is also how Kahira managed to drive a Palestinian into the center of Jerusalem, where he blew himself up, taking three Israelis with him.

Yet the woman with the beautiful eyes and full lips is angry that an Israeli newspaper described her as a terrorist and, what is more, published a bad photo of her. "I'm humane, I have a heart, I have feelings; after all, I'm a mother," she emphasizes.

A bomb for the hospital

Particularly shocking is the story of Waffa, a resident of the Jabalia Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. On her 19th birthday, she was baking a cake when a bottle of gas exploded. She was taken to Israel's Soroka Hospital with severe burns. According to her own account, she was treated very well by the doctors there for six months.

Then why did she return and try to blow herself up in this hospital, of all places, Assouline asks. The 22-year-old Waffa smiles self-consciously, looks around in silence, then speaks. Her statements are the exact opposite of what she said earlier.

"I already told you, the doctors weren't nice to me and treated me badly. But that wasn't the only reason. Actually I already dreamed of becoming a suicide bomber when I was still a young girl. Why? To be worthy of God's mercy, and also because of the 'Shahada' – martyrdom."

Although these Palestinian women dream of the destruction of Israel, they gladly tell their stories to the Jewish-Israeli filmmaker, who interviewed them for two years. Only in passing does the viewer learn that they try to use the film as a vehicle for their political and ideological ideas. The camera films a conversation in the prison yard between Manal and the leader of the strict Muslim prisoners' group.

"What did you tell her?" asks the woman. "Not everything, just the usual interview stuff," Manal assures her.

Inner-Palestinian Conflict

The two Palestinian groups – the strict Muslims of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the secular Fatah – were separated from each other after it came to brutal violence between them. Unfortunately, the viewer does not learn about that. It does become obvious, however, how much these women are oppressed within Palestinian society.

One prisoner, Ranya, puts it bluntly; because she was repeatedly beaten at home, after her release she voluntarily returned to prison. Since Ranya does not want to join either of the two Palestinian groups, she has to be protected – by Israeli prison guards.

What drove these women to their assassination campaigns? "They have personal motives which are gradually becoming politically tinged," says Ranya during the interview.

Dialogue in everyday life?

"Such a woman is like a person who lies to himself for so long that he begins to believe his own lies. In time I understood that what they said in front of the camera is not what I have learned about them in the meantime. For example, I could never quite understand Kahira. An extremely beautiful, feminine women, with whom I developed a good relationship."

"I see that she cannot live without her children," Ranya goes on to say. "I understand that she is living under Israeli occupation and wants a Palestinian state. But what a price she is paying for it! When I ask her about it, she says she only did it for her children. I have never fully believed that, however."

Director Natalie Assouline is convinced that peace can only be achieved if Israelis and Palestinians really get to know the culture of the other side and respect each other as human beings. "Most of the prisoners told me that the only Israelis they had met before me were soldiers."

She doubts, however, that the almost friendly dialogue she was able to carry on with the Palestinian women in the prison can also be possible in everyday life.

Igal Avidan

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Phyllis Anderson

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