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Bus Bomber Was a Fervent Preacher

Raed Abdel-Hamed Masq, 30, was a family man and a passionate Muslim with a flair for the pulpit. His suicide attack killed 20 others.

August 21, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

HEBRON, West Bank — By the time Raed Abdel-Hamed Masq was 16, he had memorized the Koran, chapter and verse. Religion consumed him, and he wanted it to consume others as well.

As an adult, he preached in local mosques his hard-line version of what the Koran meant: Establish a pure Islamic state; end the plague of Israeli occupation; avenge the deaths of martyrs.

On Tuesday, Masq's interpretation of Islam led the 30-year-old father of two to don the garb of an observant Jew and blow himself up on a Jerusalem bus. The attack -- one of the deadliest in three years of fighting -- killed 20 other people, including several children, and imperiled a sputtering plan to bring peace to this war-torn region.

Sitting in her parents' home Tuesday night, surrounded by friends and family, Arij Masq heard her husband's name on television in connection with the bombing and prayed -- not out of grief but gratitude, she said: "I'm so proud that God allowed him to be a martyr."

Later, Israeli troops demolished the family's house, a common retaliation against attackers, after the family had left.

Before that, however, family and friends, all women, were on hand to offer her their condolences and congratulations. Not far away stood one of the mosques in which her husband had exhorted worshipers to engage in what many Palestinians consider noble resistance and most Israelis call murder.

In some ways, despite his unyielding views, Masq didn't fit the usual profile of suicide bombers -- Palestinian zealots with whom Israel has become tragically familiar. He was, according to people who knew him, happily married, a doting father about to finish his master's degree.

But he was also a member of the radical Muslim organization Hamas, which, along with Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for Tuesday's bus explosion.

He made his affiliation clear in a videotaped will broadcast on television after his death. Masq explained that he was on a mission to avenge the deaths of Abdullah Kawasme, a Hamas operative killed by Israeli troops in June, and Mohammed Sidr, Islamic Jihad's top man in Hebron, who died in a shootout last week.

Friends and relatives -- as is often the case after such events -- said they knew of no connection between Masq and the two other dead militants.

But as an active militant and part-time cleric, Masq would have had ample opportunity to come into contact with the two men. On June 21, Kawasme was shot by Israeli forces outside the mosque where Masq was a frequent preacher, weaving together passages from the Koran and bits of Arabic poetry with indignant screeds against Israel.

Even for a conflict steeped in strong religious emotion, the language of hostility and fanaticism is aggressive here in Hebron, a crowded city that is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Islamic extremists and radical Jewish settlers live here in close proximity under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers. Disputes often erupt over access to the sacred Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Abraham is reputed to be buried and where a militant Jew gunned down 29 Muslims in 1994.

Israel says this hilly West Bank city is a hotbed of Hamas activity. Two months ago, soldiers rounded up more than 100 Palestinian residents in a hunt for Hamas suspects.

Masq, one of 14 children, became a Hamas loyalist when he was a teenager during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the late 1980s and early '90s, relatives said. While he was serving jail time for throwing stones, his mother died, and the young man was not allowed out to attend her funeral. Family members said the experience cemented his hatred of Israel.

"Whenever he talked about his parents" -- both of whom are dead -- "you could see the tears in his eyes," said his wife, who is 25 and five months pregnant with their third child.

Although Masq railed from the pulpit against the Israeli presence in the West Bank and cultivated his Hamas ties, those who knew him said Masq appeared to lead a quiet life devoted to his family and his books.

He taught Islamic studies at a private school and was just a few months away from completing his dissertation at a university in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Five days before the bombing, Masq spoke eagerly of books he had ordered from Morocco and Syria, a cousin said.

Yet by then there had been signs of a darker ambition. Playing off the fact that "martyrdom" and "certificate" (or "diploma") are the same word in Arabic, he would sometimes say, "God grant that I will achieve martyrdom before my certificate," his wife recalled.

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