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Interview with a suicide bomber

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“The doctors asked me, ‘Why did you want to die?’”

“I told them, ‘Because I can’t do anything while I’m living in my country. I can’t learn. I can’t do business with my father and he is out of work. Every day there is siege and killing.’”

17-year-old Mohammed Zaidan had awoken in an Israeli hospital, recovering from serious injuries to his stomach, eye socket, head and arm. He had gone on a suicide bombing operation, but the explosives he brought failed to properly detonate. 15 years later, I interviewed Zaidan in his home in Gaza City.

“The doctor asked me, ‘What’s your view of the future? Is it death?’”

“I replied, ‘I didn’t want to end my life or yours.’”

“I didn’t see a place to live with dignity,” Zaidan told me.

I met Mohammed Zaidan riding in his taxi in Gaza City. After nearly a decade in Israeli prisons, he was released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap in 2011, and banished to the Gaza Strip.  Now, Zaidan earns a meager living as a driver.

“I’d blow myself up on the wall,” he joked with a wide grin.

Slenderly built, Zaidan walked with a light step and had a cheerful attitude. Now 32 years old, he is married with one child and his wife is pregnant.

“Are you happy,” I asked him as we drove through Gaza’s busy streets.

He took a long and contemplative pause, turned his head and looked me in the eyes. “Thank god,” he said with a sigh.

 Mohammed Zaidan displays two newspaper clippings of photos of the Israeli bomb disposal robot. (Photo: Dan Cohen)
Mohammed Zaidan displays two newspaper clippings of photos of the Israeli bomb disposal robot. (Photo: Dan Cohen)

Mohammed Zaidan was a teenager when the second intifada broke out. “I didn’t have anything to do with the factions,” he explained. “[The motivation] wasn’t religious. I just didn’t feel alright with the life I was living and I needed to do something about it.”

Zaidan recalled the suffocating restrictions and everyday violence of life under Israeli occupation. “If you wanted to leave Jenin, you couldn’t. You didn’t have the money to leave. It was either bombing night and day, or curfew in the morning and bombing in the night,” he said.

With no opportunity, Zaidan saw a grim future.

“I liked going to school and I wanted to finish to improve myself and to make my family proud,” he explained. “But I dropped out – not because of financial issues, but because it was pointless with the life I was living. The Israeli occupation depressed me and everyone else. You’re not living and you’re not dead. So I thought of suicide bombing.”

Mohammed Zaidan’s explanation is consistent with studies of suicide bombers. As Robert Pape described in his book Dying to Win – The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, “The bottom line, then, is that suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign occupation… Modern suicide terrorism is best understood as an extreme strategy for national liberation against democracies with troops that pose an imminent threat to control the territory the terrorists view as their homeland.”

From my interactions with Zaidan, he fit the personality profile that Pape described. “In general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane, or economically destitute individuals, but are most often educated, socially integrated, and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future.”

Situated in the slopes west of the city of Jenin in the north of the occupied West Bank, Jenin refugee camp was a stronghold of armed resistance – a status it would lose after the intifada. Near the green line and several Israeli cities, many suicide bombings originated from the camp.

On March 22, 2002, a suicide bombing killed 29 Israelis and injured 150 more in a hotel in Netanya. The ensuing international outrage provided the pretext Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government needed to carry out a pre-planned attack on the West Bank.

In Jenin refugee camp, fighters had prepared for the invasion, setting up booby-traps and fortifications. After a week of fighting, a booby-trap killed 13 Israeli soldiers. Unable to crush the resistance, Israeli weaponized D9 bulldozers began to demolish the camp, burying fighters and civilians beneath the rubble. By the end, 52 Palestinians were killed, more than half of them were civilians.

Then Israeli military Chief of Staff and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon described his approach to crushing the resistance, invoking language used to incite against Jews in Nazi Germany: “The Palestinian threat harbors cancer-like attributes that have to be severed. There are all kinds of solutions to cancer. Some say it’s necessary to amputate organs but at the moment I am applying chemotherapy.”

Living in the city of Jenin, Mohammed Zaidan watched the decimation of the besieged Jenin refugee camp, looking for any way to enter to provide any humanitarian relief.

“After the third day, I heard that the people were saying that they didn’t have money to eat and that the food storage was burned. I couldn’t stay calm,” he told me. “If I could have given my blood to bring food for the people, I would have done that.”

Zaidan found a way to enter the camp, avoiding Israeli military tanks, bulldozers, and jeeps. “I helped the Red Cross,” he recalled. “They said ‘we are not allowed to deliver food because there is no way to enter.’ I told them, ‘There is a way. Come with me.’ So we brought the food for the people that we could reach.”

Back at home in the city of Jenin, Zaidan was unable to stay still. Once again, he left his house searching for any way to slip past the military. “There was no way to enter, like the first time.” Day after day, he failed. Finally, the siege loosened, and he managed to enter Jenin refugee camp.

“All I wanted was to enter the refugee camp to help any way that I could, or to fight by suicide bombing because I didn’t have any weapon on me,” Zaidan said. “But I wasn’t prepared to fight at all. It was only in my heart – I didn’t have the tools to do it, and I wasn’t trained.”

Upon entering the camp, he witnessed the aftermath of Ya’alon’s “chemotherapy.”

“I found bulldozers all over the place with dead and burned bodies all around. I was traumatized by that scene,” he said adding “The bombing was everywhere. It wasn’t aimed at a specific target.”

“I saw a woman keeled over with her face in the dough,” he said as he bent at the waist to demonstrate the position he found her body in, killed as she was making bread. “She had a bullet in the middle of her face,” he added, pointing directly between his eyes. “After I saw this, I knew it was a war.”

Having seen the shocking scenes of the decimation of Jenin camp, Zaidan became intent on carrying out a suicide bombing.

Sitting in his home in Gaza City, Zaidan reflected on his decision. “I wrote in my will that I wanted to live a normal life like the rest of humanity – to travel and work and to live a dignified life, not to live poor, or to die and rest from this life. I didn’t want to die. Why would anyone want to die,” he asked me rhetorically. “Do you have more reason to live this life than I do? Live happily and go wherever you want. This life will fit me and you – it fits a trillion human beings. But why are you encroaching on me? Did I come to you holding a weapon? Did I kill you? Did I harm you? Because you are putting pressure on me!”

As much as Zaidan wanted to carry out a suicide bombing, he had no involvement with the resistance and didn’t know where to start.

“I saw a friend that I used to think was involved with the resistance. I was direct with him. ‘I want to do a suicide bombing,’” he said.

“My friend said, ‘Go home to your mother.’”

“‘I’m serious,’ I told him.”

“He replied, ‘Go home to your mother.’”

He beseeched his friend on a daily basis and always received the same response: Go home to your mother.

Finally, Zaidan’s friend accepted.

“That was on the sixth of May, 2002,” Zaidan recalled. “My friend told me, ‘Tomorrow be ready and I will take care of the rest.’”

Zaidan then realized that his friend had been preparing an operation since he first approached him, but wanted Zaidan to demonstrate his commitment.

Before sunrise the following morning, Zaidan and his friend went to record his will in an abandoned house near Jenin. Being uninvolved with any faction, Zaidan did not have anything prepared. The language of armed resistance was unfamiliar to him, but he spoke eloquently of oppression. Zaidan explained a profound philosophy on death, something he had much time to reflect on while he was incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

“I stood up to say my will but I was never in any faction or trained or anything. I never shot a bullet in my whole life,” he told me. “So, I did my will. He gave me a paper to read from and I added to it: It’s either the Israeli occupation or we live like the rest of the human beings. To have the full freedom of movement — to live a normal life or death would be the only choice. Because they will not take our freedom in choosing to die. Maybe you can take my freedom in life but you can’t take it on how I’m going to die. You either give me my freedom or you give me the freedom to choose how to die. That’s exactly how it is. Not because I want to die or buy death, and not because I’m not afraid of death. But because death is a departure from this system we are living under. When the human being dies, it’s not the end. If someone kills and steals, oppresses people and then dies, is this the end to this human being?”

His conception of the afterlife dispelled the common portrayals of suicide bombers in the western media. “I didn’t want to die because I wanted to go to heaven. This thing is between me and God only. I wouldn’t kill you to go to heaven and you wouldn’t kill me to go to heaven. This discussion is invalid in our religion or any other,” he said before quoting a Qu’ran verse.

Zaidan’s non-religious motivation is in line with Robert Pape’s findings: “There is strong evidence that Islamic fundamentalism has not been the driving force behind Palestinian suicide terrorism.” Indeed, as the second intifada began, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, both secular factions, adopted to tactic of suicide bombings.

After recording his will, Zaidan went to the mosque to pray. His friend instructed him on how to arm the bomb he was given, using a simple on/off switch. That evening, he went to his family’s house.

“I sat with my family and acted normal. They didn’t notice anything,” he recalled.

As he often did, Zaidan’s father encouraged his son to get married. “I used to think to myself, ‘How am I going to get married,” he asked. “Get married for two days and throw the woman away? Then she’d be left alone. Shame!’”

The following morning, Zaidan left home at 3:30 AM. He prayed in the mosque and then set off, walking 2.5 miles through Jenin carrying the bag containing the bomb on his back.

With no training, Zaidan made a number of mistakes on his way.  After reaching transportation, he put the backpack containing the bomb in the back of the vehicle, but became concerned that the heat of the vehicle could detonate the bomb.

“I didn’t have the military mentality you may think I had,” he said.

The vehicle started moving, with an Israeli tank next to it.

Instructed to call his friend 90 minutes before he arrived to his destination where he would explode the bomb, Zaidan called much earlier. The organizer of the operation then called the Israeli authorities, he told me, as a form of psychological warfare. At that point, the Israelis announced maximum alert.

Zaidan recalled the tank next to him and an Apache attack helicopter being directly above the vehicle as he traveled out of the West Bank. On his way to the Palestinian city of Um al Fahm inside Israel, he reached a checkpoint with Israeli soldiers but was able to avoid it by walking in the mountains above.

As he reached Um al Fahm, he encountered two Border Police vehicles, one of which almost hit him. Arriving at the central bus station, the Apache helicopter was still just overhead, Zaidan said. He boarded a bus, telling the driver that he was headed to the Meggido Junction.

“The driver said to me, ‘You seem like you are going to blow yourself up.’ I answered back, ‘Come on man. I hope neither of us will ever be close to such a thing.’”

Zaidan got off the bus at Meggido Intersection where there were two Israeli soldiers. He then called the organizer to inform them that he had reached his final destination where he would board a bus and detonate the bomb. “The soldier woman looked at me and wasn’t focused, but I was,” he said.

Standing at the intersection, another bus approached. “I saw kids in it and said, ‘No, I’m not going into this bus,” Zaidan recounted. “I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the heart. Not because they were Israelis, but I had a message that was directed to the soldiers because they were the ones who did what I saw to the refugee camp. On the bus, they were just children. They might become soldiers, but who am I to judge them from this age? No mind can agree to kill a child because of what they are going to become. You can’t call my daughter a doctor because she hasn’t studied medicine.”

Another bus was approaching, and the two soldiers became agitated, Zaidan said. He heard them talking on the phone saying that he appeared suspicious, and that he may he holding a bomb. “I understood Hebrew because I worked in Israel,” Zaidan said proudly.

The two soldiers had closed the road and intersection but the bus was approaching Zaidan. “It was full soldiers,” he told me. “The driver didn’t notice the situation and the soldiers didn’t even bother to tell the driver. The two soldiers ran away from me.”

As Zaidan stood at the door of the bus, the door opened. By then, other soldiers from the nearby Meggido prison had pulled up in their jeep and pointed their guns at him without him noticing. “The soldiers next to me were very close,” he said pointing to the chair next to him in his apartment. “I looked at them and I noticed that they were aiming at me, so I switched the bomb on. I laid on the ground as the bus left.”

Laying on the ground with the backpack full of explosives next to him, the bomb malfunctioned. “If it was working properly, when I put it in the car [near Jenin] when I was with another ten people, it would have detonated then. What exploded? Only the trigger,” Zaidan said. “Then I woke up in the hospital.”

Scars cover Mohammed Zaidan's abdomen from the partially detonated bomb he carried. (Photo: Dan Cohen)
Scars cover Mohammed Zaidan’s abdomen from the partially detonated bomb he carried. (Photo: Dan Cohen)

The first two years of his incarceration were spent in administrative detention. Zaidan was given a life sentence in early 2004. In prison, he said, “60 minutes per hour and 24 hours a day, you are wishing to die in the prison. They used to starve us, take our clothes, not let us have breaks outside, and wouldn’t let us be in contact with our families. I felt the darkness of the prison and of my life sentence.”

Zaidan complained that the prison punished his family too when they would visit. “What does my family have to do with what I did? They didn’t tell me to go fight the Israelis, become a martyr or kill myself,” he said. “No one in my family has been involved with the resistance. Why were they oppressing my family when they would come and visit me, and trying to put pressure on them? Do you want them to explode in your face?”

In prison, Zaidan said he was put into solitary confinement for 90 days, unable to distinguish day from night. “Every 24 hours, they would bring three meals. But if you added them up, they wouldn’t be enough for a breastfeeding infant.” Zaidan described fending off large rats in order to keep his food. “The rats in solitary confinement used to eat the sheets because there weren’t any crumbs for them to eat,” he said. “They used to come out of the pipes and would even eat my clothes. I would hit them and they would come back. If I tried to save some bread crumbs, the rats would try to come and eat your pockets to get the bread,” he said, swiping his hand as if he were shooing away a rat.

After being released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, Zaidan was banished to Gaza, unable to visit his family in his native Jenin. “I got out of prison, but the prison is still inside of me,” he said.

At 32 years old, Zaidan spent untold hours reflecting on his decision to carry out a suicide bombing.

“I wouldn’t do it again. I would help in delivering food and tending to sick people,” he said. “But for me to do a suicide bombing? I wouldn’t – not because I failed but because of my age now. I was 17 then. Now it’s a different situation, we’re in a bloody war in Gaza.”

“I think suicide bombings are still a way to defend ourselves,” he told me. “It’s still the same philosophy: You either live free or die free.”

While the prospect of a Israeli reoccupation of Gaza appears unlikely, Zaidan said that if the Israelis attempt to reoccupy Gaza, the suicide bombings will resume. “If you think it’s not there, it is. There are many people who would do it,” he said. “The situation now is more than one bullet here and there, or a suicide bombing there or a rock there. Now it’s a fierce war. There were scenes [in the last war] that were a million times uglier than the Jenin massacre,” he said, referring to the areas of Shujaiya, Beit Hanoun, Khuza’a Rafah, which were largely decimated in Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza.

The violence of Israeli occupation and siege continue to fuel the urge to resist, but Gaza now has a well-organized armed resistance that has pioneered new weapons and tactics to repel ground invasions, as well as to strike on Israeli military targets across the border. “There is a study of war and battle. It’s not like I was – just going out to do this operation,” Zaidan said.

Ultimately, the impetus to resist is the same, regardless of tactic, Zaidan explained. “My aim in that moment was to deliver a message with my own blood. To deliver a message that this guy who did a suicide bombing didn’t live equally and to [force people to] ask a question: why would a guy like me, who didn’t have any records, go and do such a thing? I only went to suicide bombing because I wasn’t living like the rest of the people. And you, the Israelis, are suffocating us, because of what? Who gave you the power to do that to us? Do you want us to ask for permission to breathe? We will never do that. The [Palestinians] will not ask you how to die and we will not ask how to take their freedom and dignity. All I wanted was to deliver my message and there was a way to do that back then.”

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Wow~ a very rare and a very important interview.

Thank you, Mohammed and Dan. All the best to Mohammed’s family.

“Wow~ a very rare and a very important interview.”

Yes!

Thanks for this very insightful interview. The scenes Zaidan describes vividly explain the data from several studies, all finding the same motives he describes for the Palestinian resistence. Years ago a PBS Newshour segment reported on three such studies. All got buried, of course. Like the one brief appearance by… Read more »

poignant. honest. and told from the intended bombers own point of view. in Israel, these kind of stories are eaten up as genuine h.i. pieces.

Excellent story Dan… I have always told people here in the states that we are asking the wrong question. The question we should be asking is: What is so miserable about the lives of 100 teenagers that they would rather blow themselves to bits than live another day? And this… Read more »