A Palestinian Plea for Peace

In an audiotape released this week, Osama bin Laden urges Palestinians to shun negotiations with Israel in favor of armed resistance. In spite of such calls, however, pleas for talks are coming from unexpected players on both sides of the divide. One of them, Shifa al-Qudsi, recently finished serving a six-year sentence in an Israeli prison for planning to carry out a suicide bombing. Back in 2002 the Palestinian had been fitted with an explosive belt by Fatah's Al Aqsa military brigade but was arrested shortly before carrying out her deadly mission. Since then al-Qudsi, now 30, has undergone a radical change of heart and today insists that a solution can be achieved only through dialogue. NEWSWEEK's Joanna Chen met with al-Qudsi at her family home in the West Bank town of Tulkarem and heard why violence isn't an option and life is worth living after all. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What made you want to blow yourself and other people up six years ago?
I was motivated by all the suffering that was going on around me, and at the time it seemed the right thing to do. Palestinians were getting killed inside their own homes, farmers were unable to work on their own lands, innocent children were being oppressed. All of this created an atmosphere of violence.

What did those years in prison do to you?
It was very difficult for me. I sat there for a long time and came to the conclusion there must be an alternative to this path of death and violence. We have to find a better way to reach our objective.

Was there a certain moment when you realized that blowing people up might not be the right way?
I had the chance to read a lot while I was in jail. I read about Mahatma Gandhi and how he obtained his objective of peace without raising a weapon or throwing a stone. I tried to think of a way to do the same in my own country. I think words can express better the suffering of Palestinian prisoners and the wish for peace between two peoples. I don't need to blast my body to bits and kill other people. Today I believe that words are more powerful than weapons.

Even between enemies?
The reality has already been imposed on us. We can't start talking about getting back historical Palestine, and I'm resigned to the fact that there are two nations who can live on this land. There should be peace and quiet not just for the Israelis but for the Palestinians.

What would you say to people who still think that attacks are the way to go?
Many people before me carried out suicide attacks and others will continue to do so if the situation doesn't improve. However, I tell them now: enough. We have created a lot of problems and a lot of destruction on both sides, and the time has come for us to engage in dialogue.

Would you say that to your brother, who's serving 18 years in an Israeli jail for an attempted suicide bombing?
My youngest brother is in jail because he was caught inside Israel wearing a suicide belt. He was only 15 and a half. I consider this blackmail and exploitation of my brother. He was too young to have been able to make this decision on his own, and so I consider what happened to him a crime from our own side. He should never have been exploited this way. When I decided to blow myself up I was convinced this was right and I was old enough to make my own decision, but not my brother.

Your daughter was just seven when you were sent to prison. How did you explain your willingness for her to grow up without a mother?
We've talked about it a lot. She blamed me for leaving her, although I tried to explain to her that I had bigger issues to deal with. I don't want to say that I regret my former mission, but at the same time I know I should have thought of my daughter more and should have made her [my] priority. What will make an impact is not a suicide belt that I strap to myself but education. A bomb only creates casualties and more violence. If I can equip my daughter with education, that will make a change.

What do you tell your daughter today about Israelis?
The most important message for my daughter is that Israelis are not all carriers of weapons and not all of them want to kill Palestinians. There is a big sector that wants peace.

What are your plans for the future?
The day after I came out of prison I went to register [at] university. I feel like there's no time to waste, and my objective is to study and to be able to give my daughter and other children a better future through education.

Do you think that's going to be possible?
I say it in three languages: yes, ken and aywa. I want to talk, to tell people that I did time in an Israeli jail and learned Hebrew and communicated with a lot of Israelis. I want to continue this communication and also to carry the voice of 11,000 Palestinian prisoners to the world.

Do you think your change of heart reflects a change in the Palestinian people?
I think my position reflects the desire of the Palestinian people for peace. People are tired. They want to live. And they really want peace but are struggling in order to make the world understand.

If you could speak to the Palestinian and Israeli leadership, what would you say?
My message to both is peace. We need to engage in real dialogue. Everybody needs to come down from the tree and to enter into a solid, realistic negotiation. This is the only way.