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A Thunderous Blow to Peace From a 'Quiet Boy'

Abdel Shabaneh, who killed 17, was devoted to his studies and Islam. His hometown, Hebron, is emerging as a source of suicide bombers.

June 13, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

HEBRON, West Bank — Abdel Shabaneh, 18, told his mother that he was going to study with a friend when he left home for the last time Wednesday morning.

Instead, he traveled about 20 miles north to Jerusalem, strapped on a bomb packed with nails and screws and concealed it under the bulky type of garb worn by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Then, he boarded Bus No. 14 on busy Jaffa Street during rush hour.

He didn't bother to sit down before setting off the explosives.

The blast that killed 17 other people, including a young engaged couple, and injured 80 others, struck a bloody blow against the nascent Middle East peace process. It was also the latest confirmation of Hebron as a key source of human bombs for the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Unlike Gaza City or more remote locales such as Jenin, Hebron's size and proximity to Jerusalem make it difficult to isolate and a better staging ground for attacks on large groups of Israelis.

In the last month, 27 Israelis have been killed by attackers from Hebron. Four of the recent suicide bombers have come from one well-known Hebron family, the Qawasmehs.

During one weekend last month, three Hebron residents -- all of whom lived on the same hilltop street and played for the Jihad Mosque soccer club -- detonated suicide bombs, killing nine people in Jerusalem and at a Jewish settlement in Hebron.

Israeli spokesman Avi Pazner said the government plans to crack down on Hebron, as it has on other cities with active terrorist cells, such as Nablus and Jenin.

"Apparently there is a well-organized group there able to carry out numerous attacks -- and sophisticated ones like [Wednesday's] attack," Pazner said.

Israeli intelligence officials say they have noticed similarities in the bombs used in Wednesday's attack and bombings by other Hebron residents. The officials believe that the bomb maker has been the same in each attack and learned the trade from Ali Alan, who was implicated in 50 deaths and spent time in Hebron before being killed by soldiers in March.

Unlike the Qawasmehs, the Shabaneh family was poor and little-known outside the Jabal Rahmeh neighborhood. Shabaneh's father died of cancer five years ago. Only one family member held a steady job, a brother of Abdel who worked in a nylon factory.

Their mother, Rahma, said her son constantly studied and, having recently passed his high school completion exam, planned to go to college. He was a quiet boy, she said, who stayed in their three-room home much of the time and liked to read his engineering textbooks. He prayed every day and occasionally attended the Royan Mosque.

"I didn't see any change in his behavior," said his sister, Suha, 19. "He was very peaceful, I never saw him fight anyone. But when he was 4 years old, the Israeli army took him away.

"They said he was throwing stones at them. They beat him and treated him harshly. It's possible this affected him."

His cousin Mamdouh, 21, disagreed.

"He's like every other Palestinian under the occupation -- it's normal to expect Palestinians to do these things," he said calmly. "They occupy our lands, so we have to resist them. I'm sad to have lost a cousin, but I am proud of him."

Hebron Mayor Mustafa Natsheh said constant curfews and rough treatment by troops are driving the town's young people toward militancy. Natsheh also said that Jewish settlements have exacerbated matters, including one near the Shabanehs' residence.

Immediately after the Jerusalem attack, Israel reinforced checkpoints on major roads and halted car traffic in and out of Hebron.

Israeli troops also arrived at the Shabanehs' doorstep hours later and interrogated the men in the house, probing for links to Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the blast.

They left with the bomber's two older brothers, ages 24 and 28, and his 33-year-old uncle. They were still holding the three Thursday.

At the family's residence, Rahma Shabaneh looked out her door every time she heard a motor. With the curfew on, only a few vehicles were on the road -- several furtive taxis and Israeli army jeeps on patrol.

But somewhere out there, she said, was an Israeli army bulldozer. So she said she was doing what other Hebron mothers have done after learning that their children have staged suicide attacks: She packed her possessions and started cooking all the food in the house, so that if a bulldozer crushes her home -- as she expected -- she will lose less.

She sat on the couch, watched her grandchildren eat the last of the rice and shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't understand why Abdel would do this," she said. "It was something in his own mind."

Hours later, they had to leave when the bulldozer came and destroyed her home.

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