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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.


It was there in the plethora of official receptions and welcomes, there in the banners hung overhead ("Our freed women prisoners are our pride," read one erected by the city), and there in the hundreds of well-wishers who trooped to the former prisoners' homes.

Two days after her release, Abu Duhou, dressed in a gray sweatsuit, black socks and no shoes, sat curled into a plastic chair in an alley outside her home, trying to give an interview. But every few minutes, she was interrupted, first by a young woman holding a baby, then by a pair of well-dressed matrons who left lipstick on her cheeks, then by a deferential group of men--"comrades," her sister said.

It was all a little overwhelming, Abu Duhou admitted, from the flood of reporters and visitors to the suggestions from her mother and sisters that she should brush her hair and put on her shoes.

"There are a lot of expectations," she said wearily, as yet another group greeted her and passed into the house. "Everyone has received us with such love and warmth and I want to be nice from my heart, but it's really difficult."

She looked quizzically at the cordless telephone another sister had carried out to her in the alley. "What do I do with this?" she asked.

The youngest child of a Ramallah businessman and his wife, Abu Duhou is descended from one of the city's seven major clans. She grew up in relatively comfortable circumstances. Although her father died when she was a teenager, she was financially and emotionally secure, the much-loved baby of her six older brothers and sisters, who took her along to political and social gatherings.

The family has been successful. One brother works as a chemical engineer in Sydney, Australia, while a sister is an education professor in Melbourne. Another sister runs a women's health center in Ramallah, and two more brothers own a restaurant and catering business in the city.

As a child, Abu Duhou was a bright and articulate girl. She soaked up the political passions of the adults, who talked of curfews and crackdowns, of the war in Lebanon, of the arrest of friends and the imprisonment of others.

Antoinette Ashwal, who taught science to third-graders at Ramallah's Aziz Shaheen Girls School, remembers Abu Duhou asking why Palestinians did not have a flag or national anthem. She asked too about the Israeli soldiers who patrolled the streets of Ramallah and other West Bank communities, the teacher said.

" 'Why should we fear the soldiers? Are they going to shoot us?' " Ashwal recalled her saying. But unlike other girls, the teacher said, Abu Duhou didn't seem afraid of the soldiers. She began to take part in protests, joining older students in denouncing the occupation and calling for the return of the land to Palestinians.

"When you live under occupation, you eat, sleep and wake up under occupation," Abu Duhou said. "When you go out, you see the soldiers. When you go to school, you learn what the Israelis want you to learn. When you open your atlas, you see Europe, Asia, the United States. But [when you look at] your country, you see Israel."

Increasingly self-confident and outspoken, Abu Duhou became a leader at her high school, Al Ahlia College, a Catholic school near her home. Her Arabic teacher, Wadi Azer, called her "Rula Arab," after the strong female character in a popular poem.

At 16, she entered Bethlehem University, aiming for a degree in social work and social psychology. She told her then-fiance, Khalil Shatara, that she would complete a doctorate by the time she turned 24.


But she also grew increasingly political. She was elected to the student senate and began organizing demonstrations and lectures. But she wanted to do more.

She joined the PFLP, a radical PLO faction based in Damascus, Syria, whose leftist ideology appealed to her and whose longtime leader, George Habash, was a Christian, like her.

It was 1987, a few months before the beginning of the intifada, and six years before the signing of the first peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Abu Duhou grew silent recently when asked to speak of the "operation" that killed Shahaf, a 24-year-old student who had been married three months. She refused, politely, to explain her motivation or anything else about the attack.

"Really, I don't like to talk about this," she said. "I did something for my country. I fought against the occupation, and it doesn't matter in the details."

Friends and relatives said they were somewhat surprised to learn of her involvement in violent activity. "She always spoke in normal ways, of loving Ramallah and Palestine," said former fiance Shatara, a U.S. citizen who now lives in Ramallah and owns a dental supply company. "Nothing crossed my mind about anything else."

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