The Jihad Soccer Club

The Jihad mosque in Hebron is an easy place to miss. Located on the top two floors of a three-story stone building containing a minimarket and a car-repair shop, it draws attention only by the green globe and green banners that flutter from its rooftop minaret--symbols of the radical Hamas movement. Inside there's a modest prayer hall, a library and a recreation room with a battered Ping-Pong table. And just down the street, behind an elementary school, is the asphalt playground where the young men who worshiped at the Jihad mosque played Friday-morning soccer matches against rival teams. Today, it's hard to find a trace of the squad once considered the best in Hebron; many locals deny that it ever existed. That's not surprising, because the Jihad soccer team has also earned a more terrifying distinction. Beginning last fall, six active players and one --former member of the squad, including the player-coach, carried out a wave of suicide attacks against Israelis.

The revelations of the Jihad soccer team's double life is a severe embarrassment to Israeli intelligence. During the period of the Jihad-club attacks, Hebron was under tight Israeli military occupation, and remains so today. Residents are subject to sporadic curfews, random searches, arrest and six months' detention without warrant or trial. The suicide missions of the soccer club show how difficult it is to battle terror through military force alone. They also raise questions about how the Palestinian Authority's battered security forces will be able to penetrate and break such clandestine groups, as both Israel and the Bush administration demand. "If a group is closely knit, doesn't use cell phones and keeps itself tightly compartmentalized, as this soccer team did, it can be extremely difficult to penetrate," says Eran Lerman, a former top officer with Israeli military intelligence.

Last week Israel did finally hit the cell hard. An elite Israeli unit killed Abdullah Kawasmeh, the 43-year-old leader of Hamas's military wing in Hebron, as he left evening prayers at a mosque not far from the Jihad playground. According to Israeli intelligence, it was this quiet, veteran militant who recruited and dispatched the Jihad soccer players on their missions. Kawasmeh also allegedly recruited a half-dozen other young men in the neighborhood who either had close friends in the Jihad squad or played for rival soccer clubs--including Abdul Shabane, who blew himself up on a bus in central Jerusalem last month, killing 17. Shortly after the hit on Kawasmeh, Israeli troops launched a massive sweep through Hebron, arresting 130 alleged Hamas militants and their relatives, including the last remnants of the Jihad mosque soccer team.

The Palestinian Authority won its own victory over Hamas last week, but of a very different sort. After weeks of negotiations, including pressure from Arab intelligence agencies, Hamas agreed to observe a three-month hudna, or ceasefire. The truce raises hopes that Israel and the PA can now start implementing the steps of the "Roadmap" that would lead to a Palestinian state by 2005. But ceasefires have collapsed repeatedly in the past, and Israel (backed by the Bush administration) is demanding that the Palestinian Authority do more to defang Hamas, and to prevent the rise of more cells like the Jihad soccer club.

The Jihad team came to life in 1998 as the project and consuming passion of Muhsin Kawasmeh (a distant relation to Abdullah). A bright student who had dropped out of school at 16, Muhsin ran his own small bookshop specializing in computer and Islamic texts. He also spent a lot of time at the Jihad mosque, across the street from the house he shared with his parents, siblings and their children. Muhsin tutored the Qur'an to kids, coached a Ping-Pong squad and recruited 15 boys and young men from the neighborhood to join a soccer squad. He had only one requirement for membership: that all pray five times a day and fast on Mondays and Thursdays. He set up matches against a dozen other mosques in Hebron, acquired blue-and-white soccer jerseys and stenciled each with the logo al-jihad: prepare for them. "They were unbeatable," says Mazen Kawasmeh, Muhsin's older brother.

Muhsin's core group of friends were the stars of the team. Fuad Kawasmeh, two years younger than Muhsin, was a baby-faced plumber from a family that had strong ties to Hamas. (The Kawasmehs are the dominant clan of Hebron, and thousands of people in the city share the name.) Directly across the road from Fuad lived Fadi Fakhuri, a husky youth with brooding eyes who worked as an electrician. Two blocks away from Fuad and Fadi lived Hazem Kawasmeh, the youngest of the group, a skilled goldsmith who earned as much as $700 a month crafting jewelry. Once or twice a week the boys would gather after morning prayers and practice soccer under Muhsin's guidance. "They were inseparable," says Fadi's father.

The Aqsa intifada broke out in September 2000, and the Jihad squad was quickly swept up in the fervor. A teenage player named Hamzeh Abu Shkhedeh was the first to die; in November 2000, Israeli troops shot him in the head while he was throwing stones. Another Jihad player was killed near the same spot during another clash in January 2001. On April 28, 2002, as part of its massive sweep through the West Bank, the Israeli Defense Forces reoccupied Hebron and took hundreds of men and boys into custody. They tracked down Fuad's uncle, and seized Fuad when he tried to flee. Muhsin Kawasmeh was also arrested, and spent six months locked in a cell alongside Fuad at Ofra Prison. Hamas activists filled the ranks of the prisoners, and it was there, relatives believe, that both Muhsin and Fuad became radicalized. "Fuad was indoctrinated in Hamas political theory, hatred of Israel and the glories of martyrdom," says a cousin. About halfway through his six-month sentence, Fuad was taken to a military-court hearing. After his handcuffs were removed, his father says, he attacked his Israeli guard. Fuad got three months tacked onto his prison term and was released in December 2002.

By now, local Palestinian sources say, the Jihad mosque had become a busy recruitment center for Hamas. One of those with close links to the mosque was Abdullah Kawasmeh, a quiet, intense Hamas militant who grew up in the neighborhood. In late 1992 Abdullah was one of 417 Hamas militants who were rounded up and expelled to southern Lebanon by the government of Yitzhak Rabin. "It was the turning point in his life," says his older brother. Abdullah spent a year living in a tent on the border, studying the Qur'an, building a mosque in the camp--and growing steadily more committed to the destruction of Israel. Israel permitted him and his fellow exiles to return to the occupied territories after the 1993 Oslo accords. The Palestinian Authority locked him up for two years, and --then Abdullah returned to the streets. He worked in construction, raised six children and became a leading member of Izzedin al-Qassam, Hamas's military wing. At that point, according to the cousin of one member of the Jihad soccer team, "The Jihad mosque became a factory for martyrs."

In September 2002, a 21-year-old player for the Jihad team named Mohammed Yagmur carried out an armed attack against a Jewish settlement near Hebron. He became the third member of the team to die--and the first in a suicide operation. Three months later, Hamzi Kawasmeh, who had quit the team months earlier, crept into the isolated Kharsina settlement northeast of Hebron; he shot dead a settler and wounded three others before he was killed. Even as its members were dying off, the Jihad soccer team continued playing--and winning. Muhsin resumed his role as Jihad's coach; Fuad Kawasmeh began taking a hairstyling course as part of a prison-release program run by the Palestinian Authority.

But martyrdom beckoned. On Friday morning, March 7, the Jihad team played soccer as usual, soundly defeating another mosque from across town. Later that morning, Hazem, the teenage goldsmith, surprised his father by handing him a gift of 500 Jordanian dinars--$750. "I just want you to be pleased with me," he told his father, who was puzzled by the gift. "I'm always pleased with you," he replied. Later that afternoon, Hazem met up with Muhsin, Fadi and another close friend from the neighborhood named Sufian Hares. As darkness fell on Hebron, the four young men dressed in the black garb of yeshiva students--a disguise that would become a trademark of Abdullah Kawasmeh's suicide operations. Muhsin and Hazem mingled with a group of Jews and walked undetected through an electronic gate that divides Hebron from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. The teammates shot a settler couple to death as they ate their Sabbath meal and wounded three others before Israeli troops killed them. Minutes later, Fadi and Sufian, also disguised as yeshiva students, were killed as they tried to sneak into the nearby settlement of Negohot.

With the death of several star players, "the team started getting loose, scattered," Muhsin's brother says. "They practiced less, and the regular Friday-game schedule fell apart." On the surface, Fuad acted the part of a bereaved best friend. He kept playing soccer, and "he would come to comfort me and tell me about what he and Fadi did together," says Fadi's father. Fuad would talk about their soccer exploits, their joint study sessions at the mosque and the barbecues they threw in a tree-shaded park. "He told me, 'Think of me as your new son'," Fadi's father recalls.

The relationship would not last. On the evening of May 17, Fuad strapped on an explosive belt, disguised himself as a religious Jew and blew himself up near the heavily guarded Abraham Avinu settlement in the center of Hebron, killing an Israeli man and his pregnant wife. Twelve hours later, his close friendand neighbor Bassem al-Takruri--a 19-year-old engineering student and a player for a rival mosque team--boarded a bus in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was dressed in a white prayer shawl, skullcap and an explosive belt. The blast he detonated killed seven people and injured dozens more.

The dead teenagers and young men of the Jihad soccer team now lie buried in a weedy graveyard near the mosque. Their relatives are sometimes proud, but more often devastated. Fawzi Kawasmeh, father of the young goldsmith who died at Kiryat Arba, says he never imagined that the soccer team was an incubator for suicide squads. Standing beside the rubble of his house, which the Israelis dynamited three days after Hazem's mission, he begins to weep. "If I had realized what was happening," he says, "I would have tied up my son with wire." Down the street, Thaer Fakhuri proudly shows a visitor the blue-and-white soccer jersey that belonged to his older brother Fadi, who perished hours after Hazem. Thaer attended all his brother's Friday-morning matches and played for the team's now defunct junior squad. Walking past the now silent playground saddens him, he says, but he is convinced that the Jihad soccer team will one day be born again.

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