To live not die for Palestine

I teach a seminar on “The world after 9-11” and like to start off every semester asking students, “Is it better to live or die for your country?” This question kept coming to mind as I watched on July 12 the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers being returned to Israel, and the remains of over 100 Palestinian and Lebanese warriors, including the legendary Dalal Moghraby, returning to Lebanon. Dalal had led an 11-man group of militants onto an Israeli beach, hijacked a taxi, and then two buses, before dying in an explosion of one of the buses. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) say she detonated a bomb, while the Arabs claim that the IDF blew up the bus. It was 1978. She was only 19.

No name could be more familiar or inspirational to young Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians who were growing up in the 1980s. Dalal is probably paralleled only by Sana Muhaydali, the legendary Lebanese woman from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) who blew herself up fighting Israel in April 1985, and Laila Khalid, a young Palestinian girl from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who made world headlines at the age of 25 when she hijacked a TWA Flight 840 heading from Rome to Athens on August 29, 1969.

Arabs grew up with the iconic photograph of Laila Khalid, carrying a freedom fighter’s gun with her fragile hands, her jet-black hair wrapped in a checkered kufiyyah. One journalist described her as having “the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”. She is wearing a ring made from the pin of a hand grenade – the first she had ever used when training “wrapped around a bullet”. She currently lives in Amman, with her children, but is no longer involved in military operations. Dalal, however, had the world ahead of her. By all accounts, she was young, smart, and motivated. She would have made a wonderful attorney for example, defending the Palestinian cause around the world, or a poet, musician, and both a good wife and mother.

Many in the West, influenced by the media, have been trying to draw a parallel for years between women like Dalal, Laila and Sana, and someone such as Sajida Al Rishawi, the woman from Ramadi who tried and failed to kill herself – but succeeded in killing many others – in the Amman hotel attacks of November 2005. This was made all the more easier when over the last six months, several women bombers have denoted bombs in Iraq, killing themselves and hundreds of civilians, under orders from Al Qaida. This shows that the West still has a great misconception about how the Arab world operates or thinks.

Wafa Idris, for example, was the first woman to blow herself up in an attack against the Israelis in occupied Jerusalem on January 28, 2002. She was 28 years old, divorced and working with the Red Crescent. She justified her attack as one against her declared enemy, the Israelis. She became a symbol for many others, most notably Ayat Al Akhras, an 18-year-old girl who on March 29, 2002 detonated explosives at a supermarket in occupied Jerusalem, killing two Israelis, one a 17-year-old Israeli girl. Her age, gender and the fact that one of the victims was her age caused a loud outcry in the international community. Akhras had been an A-student who wanted to go to college and study journalism. She was engaged to be married in July 2002. She did not detonate a bomb against fellow Palestinians, as Sajida or the other Iraqi women did, killing fellow Iraqis, Jordanians, and Syrian Hollywood producer Mustapha Al Akkad.

Never imagined

I really don’t know whether it would have been better for Dalal to live or die for Palestine? Had she lived she would have only been 49-years old today. Certainly she wouldn’t have been as inspirational to my generation of Middle Easterners. She probably never imagined, however, that her remains would stay in the hands of the Israelis for 30 years until ‘liberated’ by Hassan Nasrallah. Her story and the entire prisoner deal conducted last week – heroic as both are – raise many unanswered questions about the value of human life in the Arab world. This is the third prisoner swap conducted between Hezbollah and Israel, via German mediation, acting on behalf of the UN.

The first deal involved Hezbollah releasing the bodies of two missing Israelis in exchange for the remains of nearly 100 fighters involved in cross-border operations from Lebanon.

The second in 2004 led to the return of more than 400 prisoners from Israeli jails (mostly Lebanese and Palestinian, including the veteran Mustapha Al Dirani) in exchange for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers who had been abducted in 2000. Last week’s deal, in which over 100 bodies were returned to Lebanon (Dalal included) with four Hezbollah commandos and Samir Kantar, the “dean” of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. In exchange Nasrallah handed over to Israel the bodies of two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah, and believed to be alive until last week. They give up hundreds of prisoners and bodies, in exchange for anywhere between one to four Israelis. And what is worse is that we take them and smile, waving the V-sign. Dalal would have done more for Palestine – and so would have Sana – had they lived, not died for their countries.

Gulf News, 22 July 2008