Middle East: The Making Of A Martyr

In the dusty alleys of Qabatiya Village just outside Jenin, Mohammed Nasser was known as the neighborhood kid who made good. A rising star in the Palestinian Authority's military police, the 28-year-old cop had one of the force's most sensitive jobs: guarding a nest of Islamic radicals who were held in protective custody in a three-story prison on Jenin's outskirts. But Nasser's proximity to the extremists apparently had unintended consequences. Last week Nasser slung a black bag loaded with explosives over his shoulder and walked into the Wall Street cafe in Haifa, where he blew himself up and injured 21 Israelis. "He was so affected by the killings of Palestinians, by the oppression," says a close friend and fellow cop. "He came to identify with the men he jailed."

Last week's suicide bombing marked a new stage in the Middle East's cycle of violence: evidence of the power of radical Islamic groups to convert even Palestinian police--often their jailers--to their cause. Nowhere do the radicals hold greater sway than in Jenin, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism that's emerged as the suicide-bombing capital of the West Bank. Nine of the two dozen suicide bombers who have attacked Israelis since the intifada began came from Jenin and surrounding villages, including the one who blew up a pizzeria in central Jerusalem, killing 16. Last week, calling Jenin "a city of bombs," Israeli military Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz dispatched tanks and bulldozers to raze the town's police station--the first invasion of a Palestinian town since the uprising began. But the five-hour incursion seems only to have stiffened the resistance of Jenin's radicals, who say dozens more bombers are ready to die.

Jenin has experienced plenty of suffering of its own recently. A hardscrabble town of 30,000 at the northern edge of the West Bank, it once enjoyed close commercial ties to Arab Israelis in the nearby Galilee region. But the intifada plunged Jenin into economic ruin. Clashes with the Israeli Army claimed the lives of 60 people and fed resentment--benefiting the militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Now they move openly through the town's refugee camps: warrens of poverty and rage plastered with posters celebrating the town's martyrs. The Palestinian Authority, which once kept a lid on Islamic terrorists in Jenin, now looks the other way. During the Israeli incursion, police even fought back alongside Islamic extremists.

Nasser had joined their ranks months before. The oldest son of a Qabatiya farmer, he enlisted in the police in Ramallah in 1998 and was transferred to Jenin two years later. There he guarded collaborators, deserters and about 60 Islamic terrorists. While the Palestinian Authority allowed most radicals to escape after the intifada began, it kept a handful of the most dangerous men under guard. Among them: Iyad Hardan, the charismatic commander of Islamic Jihad's military wing in the northern West Bank. Nasser was appointed Hardan's personal guard and spent hours with him daily, studying the Koran, praying alongside him and escorting him on furloughs to a local college. Nasser was mesmerized by the fiery young radical. "We were very tender with our jailers," says Abdul Halim Hazideen, an Islamic Jihad leader who shared a cell with Hardan. "We tried to show them [that the] radical path of revolution was the only proper path."

On April 5, Hardan left the prison unescorted on another furlough, stopping outside the gate to call a taxi. A remote-controlled bomb planted there by a collaborator exploded, killing Hardan instantly. Nasser received word of his mentor's death while working in the family olive grove. He rushed to the scene, where a large crowd had gathered. "Right there he vowed that he would take revenge on Israel," a colleague remembers. Nasser hung a framed poster of Hardan in his bedroom and told his brothers, "If I die, place my photo beside Hardan's." On July 1, he was fired from the police because of his deepening links to Islamic Jihad. He returned home to sleep each night, but spent most of his days huddling with other disaffected men in a coffee shop not far from the village mosque.

On Aug. 13, Nasser set out from Qabatiya around noon. He had spent the previous few days in isolation, reading the Koran and praying. "They need a period of intense faith-building to increase their courage," explains one Hamas fighter who says he has helped prepare three bombers. Before Nasser left, he asked one of his sisters to cook his two favorite dishes, oven-fried eggplant and potatoes. "I'll eat it when I get back," he promised. After a shave at a Jenin barber shop, he caught a taxi toward Haifa, 60 kilometers away. Walking into the cafe, he showed off his bomb to a waitress, whose scream gave patrons time to protect themselves. When Nasser detonated his load, he killed only himself. At the family's modest compound in Qabatiya last week, Nasser's father, Mahmoud, took little comfort in his son's "glorious" end. "I would have told him 'don't do it'," the old man mumbled. Above his head, a hastily printed poster showed a smiling Nasser beside Hardan--a new martyr to inspire the youth of Jenin.