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Ayat al-Akhras was the third and youngest Palestinian female suicide bomber who, at age 18 (some sources report her age to be as young as 16), killed herself and two Israeli civilians on March 29, 2002 by detonating explosives belted to her body. The killings gained widespread international attention due to Ayat's age and gender and the fact that one of the victims was also a teenage girl. The killings led U.S. President George W. Bush to observe: “When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying; the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people.”
Childhood and family background
Akhras was raised in the Deheishe Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, the daughter of Palestinian refugees who themselves grew up in a tent camp in the Gaza Strip. According to Newsweek journalist Joshua Hammer, Akhras's parents "fled from Arab villages near Tel Aviv at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. After Israel won the 1967 war and took control of Gaza, Akhras' parents migrated to the Dehaishe camp", described as "a maze of cinder-block buildings, refuse-strewn alleyways and open sewers". Akhras' father found employment with an Israeli construction firm and was able to build a three-story concrete house, where Akhras and her four brothers and six sisters were raised. Akhras was a straight-A student and had hopes of attending college and becoming a news reporter. In 2001 she became engaged and plans were made for a wedding in July 2002.
Radicalization and preparation for violence
During the First Intifada which started in 1987, Akhras' oldest brother was jailed twice for attacking Israeli soldiers. During the Al-Aqsa Intifada or Second Intifada which started in 2000, members of her family were wounded and killed by the Israel Defense Forces. On March 8, 2002, a close friend and neighbor of Akhras that was playing with his toddler was hit by a stray bullet fired by Israeli troops as they were on a counter-terrorism operation.
These traumatic experiences may have influenced Akhras' attempts to join one of the Palestinian resistance groups. However, intelligence reports indicate that Akhras was impregnated by a Fatah operative, despite being an unmarried teenager, and that the emotional and social consequences of her unplanned pregnancy were the primary reason she decided to commit a suicide attack. Akhras first tried to join the ranks of Hamas, which turned her away because of a long standing policy against allowing females to fight in physical combat. Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for many suicide bombings in Israel says that the basis for this rule lies in teachings of the Qur'an that says Jihad is the domain of the male. Despite this, Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad (which generally also only recruits males) have since each used female suicide bombers. In 2002, the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin made a statement to the press after Akhras' bombing saying that the group would only use women after they ran out of men.
However, Akhras found a group that would accept her: the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a group linked to the armed branch of Fatah (Yasser Arafat's party), more secular than Hamas. The group already had experience, using at least three other women successfully in suicide bombings against Israel before Akhras. She was reportedly trained for several weeks before being sent to Kiryat Yovel, a south-western neighborhood of Jerusalem, to detonate in the supermarket. Before her attack, Akhras, like many other Palestinian suicide bombers, made a video in which she lashed out at the regimes and militaries of Muslim nations throughout the world. She said: "I say to the Arab leaders, stop sleeping. Stop failing to fulfill your duty. Shame on the Arab armies who are sitting and watching the girls of Palestine fight while they are asleep."
The bombing and the victims
On March 29, 2002, Ayat al-Akhras was driven to the Kiryat HaYovel supermarket in Jerusalem by the recently recruited Tanzim member Ibrahim Sarahne, who had once worked in the supermarket. The neighborhood is home to a mostly young population, young couples, students at the Ein Kerem medical campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, professors and teachers. The two crossed an Israeli checkpoint with the bomb in a bag on the car floor at Akhras' feet.
In the aftermath of the bombing, Sarahne said that during the drive he suggested that he just throw the bomb, which would allow her to return home. Yet, she replied 'I'm not afraid. I want to kill people.'  Akhras detonated her explosives and killed two people: a 17 year-old Israeli girl named Rachel Levy and a 55 year-old security guard named Haim Smadar who had attempted to stop Akhras from entering the supermarket. Smadar, who spoke Arabic, became suspicious after two Arabic women who usually sold vegetables outside the shop entrance were told by Akhras to leave. Smadar's actions saved the lives of many, as Akhras would otherwise have exploded the device inside the supermarket.
The Al-Asqa Martyrs Brigade claimed responsibility in the press for the attack which the Israeli government denounced as an act of terrorism. The killings led U.S. President George W. Bush to observe: “When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying, the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people”. The European Union condemned "firmly" the terror attack. The Saudi Ambassador to the UK, Dr Ghazi Abdul Rahman Algosaibi - a scholar and top politician in Saudi Arabia, wrote a poem in praise of al-Akhras, for which he was criticized by the UK and US governments, and among some Palestinians and Islamic militants, Akhras became a martyr (hero) figure, but the reaction among Akhras' family was mixed.
According to a Newsweek, Akhras' fiance did not approve of violence and would have stopped her if he had known her plan. "May God forgive her for what she has done," he reportedly said. Other members of Akhras' family, which were educated and moderate, condemned suicide bombings as morally wrong. However, they said that Israeli "brutality" had left Palestinians no other choice. In the 2007 documentary To Die in Jerusalem, Akhras' mother was confronted with the mother of 17 year-old Israeli victim of the bombing, Rachel Levy, but refused to denounce her daughter's action.
To Die in Jerusalem is a 2007 HBO documentary film about Ayat al-Akhras and her 17 year-old Israeli victim, Rachel Levy. The film documents the efforts of Rachel's mother Avigail Levy to meet with Um Samir al-Akhras, the mother of al-Akhras.
- How Two Lives Met In Death
- List of designated terrorist organizations
- Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Blackmailing Young Women into Suicide Terrorism. 12 February 2002
- MIDEAST TURMOIL: VIOLENCE; In Suicide Bombings, the Taxi Man Got Away, New York Times June 13 2002
- How Two Lives Met In Death
- Saudi Government-Controlled Daily Praises Passover and Jerusalem Supermarket Suicide Bombers, Jihad and Terroism Studies Project.
- Diplomat censured over bomb poem (BBC News 18 April 2002)
- To Die In Jerusalem