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Freed Palestinian Woman Object of Polarized Views

Mideast: Many Arabs hail ex-prisoner as a resistance hero. To Israelis, her role in Jew's slaying is terrorism.

March 03, 1997|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Dusk was settling over the Old City, reaching into its labyrinthine alleys and shrouding its holy sites as Yigal and Ronit Shahaf made their way slowly toward the Damascus Gate. The young couple, chatting in Hebrew with two friends, paid little heed to the dwindling crowds or the shopkeepers closing for the day.

Nearby, four young Palestinians, three men and a woman, waited. When the Israelis paused in front of a jewelry shop near the Via Dolorosa, one of the men ran toward them, aimed a pistol at the back of Yigal Shahaf's head and fired one shot.

As chaos broke out, the gunman fled, handing his weapon to one of his comrades, who gave it to the woman, a college student who had just joined the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a radical faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The woman, Rula abu Duhou, 19, paid with nine years in prison for her participation in the slaying of an innocent Israeli civilian. And still today, freed by a controversial amnesty, she is unrepentant.

"I'm not sorry for it," Abu Duhou said recently, her dark eyes direct, as relatives and friends streamed into her family's comfortable West Bank home to celebrate her release. "On the contrary, I'm proud. And I wish I could do more for my country."

Such tough talk underscores the fundamental question raised across the Middle East by the Feb. 11 release of Abu Duhou and 30 other female Palestinian prisoners.

Are Palestinians who killed innocent Israelis criminals?

Palestinians have greeted Abu Duhou and the others as heroes, but Israelis, almost uniformly, have reviled them as terrorists.

The story of Rula abu Duhou, now 28, is that of a generation of young Palestinian women. Born one year after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, she grew up in a charged political atmosphere. As a 9-year-old, she asked her Palestinian teacher why, if Palestine was a country, it was forbidden to fly its flag. As a college student, she joined countless demonstrations, shouting angry slogans against the Israeli occupation.

The path she took, from protest to violence to prison, in many ways was inevitable, according to Abu Duhou and her friends, a natural response to the oppressive presence of the Israeli army on Palestinian territory and the daily humiliations of roadblocks and identity checks.

But such statements bring renewed pain to Shahaf's widow.

Ronit Shahaf, who saw her wounded husband crumple to the ground and begged him, weeping, to live, said she cannot understand the decision to kill a civilian in pursuit of a political goal, or the willingness of a woman to participate in such violence. She was shocked to see Abu Duhou on Israeli television immediately after leaving prison, declaring that she would continue her activity against Israel.

"I hoped that she [would feel that she] had made a mistake," said Shahaf, who has remarried and runs a consulting business. "It's so awful to destroy a life. I don't want revenge, but I don't want other people to have this kind of life. I hope she will decide to stop it."

*

There are few issues that so fundamentally divide Palestinians and Israelis as the subject of the Palestinian prisoners, both the women released recently and the thousands of men who remain in Israeli jails.

Palestinians across the political spectrum view Abu Duhou and those released with her as patriots in the battle for a homeland, soldiers who deserve to be freed at the war's end. Many believe that they are heroes whose acts of resistance, especially during the 1987-93 uprising known as the intifada, helped propel Israel to the bargaining table.

"These are women who resisted occupation," said Hanan Mikhail-Ashrawi, a Palestinian Cabinet minister who attended an official welcome for the freed prisoners in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "There is an inadvertent blindness, or a willful blindness, in people wanting to see Palestinians as different from other resistance groups. They were fighting for freedom, and it's about time they were released."

"They struggled for our rights," said Mahmoud Manasrah, whose daughter Nariman was among the released prisoners.

Even the most leftist Israelis, though, seemed to cringe at the release of the women, especially those, such as Abu Duhou, who were implicated in the killing or attempted killing of Jews. But freedom for such women was seen by many Israelis as a necessary but repugnant step to push the peace process forward.

Amnon Rubenstein, leader of the center-left Shinui party in the Meretz coalition, no doubt spoke for many Israelis in saying he viewed the release with a "heavy heart" and feared the consequences.

That the women are part of the Palestinian political mainstream was evident almost immediately throughout Ramallah, the unofficial capital of President Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.

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