The story of Hiba, 19, a suicide bomber. Can the road-map put an end to all this?

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The Independent Online

Even her family is baffled that Hiba Daraghmeh insisted on covering herself from head to toe in a dark brown, all-enveloping robe at all times. The white veil she also wore - a badge of Islamic fundamentalism - concealed her head, mouth and nose. Only her almond-coloured eyes were visible to the outside world.

The shy 19-year-old student of English literature never spoke to men, and so avoided drinking coffee or tea at the cafeteria of Al Quds Open University in her home town, Tubas in the West Bank. All of her friends were women. Even her cousin, Murad Daraghmeh, 20, also a student at Al Quds, says: "I never saw her face. I never talked to her. I never shook hands with her."

The first time the world saw her young face unveiled was in a poster. Islamic Jihad released it, after her death eight days ago.

Hiba was a suicide bomber. She detonated the explosives around her waist outside the Amakim Shopping Mall in the northern Israeli town of Afula, killing three Israelis and wounding 48.

Eyewitnesses described a horrifying scene of rubble, shattered glass and great pools of blood. As casualties lay on the pavement, emergency workers hunted in the ceiling to recover body parts. One of the dead was a female security guard who had tried to bar the student from entering the building. With the others, she brought to 360 the victims killed by suicide bombers in 32 months of the intifada.

Monday last week had dawned like any other in Hiba's household. As usual, she said her prayers at dawn. She insisted on preparing the family breakfast of cucumber salad, bread, olive oil and thyme, and tea. Her mother, Fatima, 45, recalls: "We ate. She washed the dishes.''

Then Hiba went outside to the garden where the family had almond and olive trees, pomegranites and roses. Her mother says: "She watered the plants and I noticed she was smelling the roses. She was laughing, and I asked her why. She told me, 'I feel that I am a new person. You will be very proud of me.' Then she left and never returned."

Before leaving town, Hiba visited her sisters, Jihan and Mariam. She returned a notebook to a classmate. She went to say goodbye to her grandfather.

The last time anyone in Tubas saw her, she was - as always - wearing her Islamic clothes. Four hours later when she got to Afula, she was dressed in jeans. She was also wearing a belt of explosives.

To the followers of Islamic Jihad, which recruited her, to many Palestinians and millions of Arabs and Muslims, Hiba Daraghmeh is the fifth heroine of the intifada. To Israelis and the international community she is a terrorist, a callous killer. Told of the atrocity, President George Bush vowed that it would never deflect Washington from the road-map to peace. He dismissed suicide bombers as "sad and pathetic".

Interviewed as the Israeli Cabinet was voting narrowly in favour of the Middle East road-map, Hiba's family say they are proud of her. They insist they knew nothing of her plans.

Only her grandmother Fozeh, breaks ranks and says she regrets her action and blames those who recruited her. She says: "She was too young."

They are staying with relatives now, for the family's house, large and comfortable, was dynamited by the Israelis the day after the bombing. Only the garden, where Hiba smelt the roses on the morning of her mission, remains.

On the rubble of their home, the family has plastered one of the Islamic Jihad's posters of her. There are two more on a wall in Tubas.

Hiba Daraghmeh was much more devout than her family. Obsessed by religious ideals, she was a fundamentalist Muslim. Her mother says: "At 15, she wore the Jelbab. At 16, she wore the veil."

The Jelbab is the flowing costume that envelopes the entire body. The white veil covering all but the eyes is a badge of fanatical Islam shunned by most Palestinian women including Hiba's mother, sisters and female relatives. "Throw it away, this veil," her grandmother remembers telling her. "You are too young and it is too hot." Her oldest sister, Jihan, 26, recalls: "Any time the radio or TV played a love song, she turned it off.''

She was a model student, gaining 100 per cent in her most recent exams in Palestinian studies. In English literature she scored 89 per cent.

"She saw herself as a special person," Jihan said. She demonstrated that in her religious obsession. "She used to pray for two hours, standing, stooping and kneeling in devotion,'' Jihan added. "She spent most of her free time reading the Koran.

"When she was repeating its verses she said she felt unique. I thought she meant unique in her studies and religious feelings. I did not realise she meant she wanted to be unique in her death."

Aside from Hiba's religious zeal, the political environment she grew up in radicalises many Palestinians to the point where they make no distinction between soldiers and shoppers in a mall. A psychiatrist, Ahmed Abu Tawahina, explains: "The closures and daily incursions by the Israeli army, the martyrs' funeral, the eulogies recited by militants, the graffiti, revering suicide bombers as Istishadyeen - the martyr- attackers - are part of the political environment which nourishes suicide bombings."

The involvement of women in suicide bombings is a new and unsettling phenomenon for many Palestinians. Hamas, responsible for most suicide bombings, and for the four previous suicide bombings by women, opposes it because the organisation has enough male volunteers.

Islam does not prohibit the participation of women in the jihad. But Islamic Jihad would not encourage it, say members, unless the female suicide bomber insisted on doing it.

Hiba Daraghmeh might have insisted because of her own personal brush with the Israeli military authorities.

She was visibly affected by the trial of her 23-year-old brother, Bakr. Bakr had been shot in Nablus in a demonstration to commemorate the 1948 Palestinian Nakba, or disaster anniversary, when Israel was established. He was arrested on charges of weapons possessions and carrying out attacks for Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. The charge sheet includes the possession of an explosive belt. The Israeli prosecutor requested a 99-year prison term for him.

On the day her brother was arrested in June 2002, the army stormed the family house. One of the soldiers tore up Hiba's text books and a copy of the Koran, her mother says.

A week later, there was a curfew on Tubas. As she was walking to school, an army jeep stopped her and soldiers forced her to take the veil off. Her grandmother explains: "She was very angry. She was full of hatred against Jews. I believe this is the motivation for what she has done."

Immediately after a suicide bomber is named, the Israeli army demolishes the bomber's family house and arrests members of his or her family. The army prevents them from rebuilding on the same spot.

Murad Daraghmeh calls her a heroine. As he surveys the ruins of the family home, he says: "I am a coward. She is courageous. I will never be an Istishahdi. I have brothers and sisters. The army would arrest them. And the army would destroy my family house."