Son's pyre of martyrdom redeems family's shame

IS Maher abu Srur dead? And if he is, was his final act daring enough to expunge his past crimes of collaboration, confirming him instead as a true Palestinian martyr?

In the alleyways of Ida refugee camp in Bethlehem, on the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Maher abu Srur grew up, his family is in no doubt. The charred corpse pulled from the wreckage of a Israeli car on 1 July was his 'for sure'.

It was Maher, they say, with another Palestinian, who tried to hijack an Israeli bus in Jerusalem, then attempted to escape by hijacking an Israeli car, killing the woman driver, Jeannette Kadosh. The car ran into an Israeli checkpoint near Bethlehem, bursting into a ball of flame.

The leaders of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, also seemed sure that the 'brave mujahedin' who died in the operation was Abu Srur. Crude propaganda photographs distributed by Hamas showed him, boyish-faced, with fair curly hair, wearing his favourite Rambo head-band, toting a gun, on the day of the attack.

The Israeli authorities said at first that there was no proof the body was that of Abu Srur. Might not Hamas be keen to promote his death in order to halt the manhunt for him, launched in January after he first attempted to prove he was no longer a collaborator? That was when Abu Srur stabbed and beat to death his Israeli 'minder', Haim Nachmani, an officer in Israel's Shin Bet security services, and later disappeared without trace.

Palestinian activists may spin mythic tales around the name of Maher abu Srur. But much of his life was tragically commonplace. At 24, the youngest of five brothers, he came from one of the largest clans in Ida camp.

Islam has a growing following here, as does Hamas. For many young men, daily routine is marked out by the calls to prayer and the confrontations with Israeli patrols. There are also the routine calls made by the Shin Bet officers, who recruit informers.

Haim Nachmani was 25, of Moroccan Jewish stock. He grew up less than four miles from Ida camp, in a working-class district of Jewish West Jerusalem, and entered the Shin Bet straight from the army.

A fluent Arabic speaker, he knew the lanes of Ida intimately, and strode confidently around. Dressed in jeans and jacket, armed with a pistol and always accompanied by soldiers, he knocked on doors, passing the time of day. The local youths all remember 'Captain Afif' - as he was known to them - and not without some fascination. 'He was good at karate. You could mistake him for an Arab sometimes,' said Maher's cousin.

Nachmani was good at his job. Most of the young men in Ida have been detained at some time, and most have had to face up to torture, prolonged detention or retaliation against their families for their activities. Nachmani would regularly call youths to his office, a mile down the road at the military headquarters in Bethlehem, to talk things over.

'He never beat the people up himself, but sent the army to do it instead,' said one camp leader. 'They would threaten the families that, if their son did not surrender, the army would shoot him. Or he sent them to destroy the family's furniture.'

Nobody knew how many collaborators Nachmani operated in Ida. And nobody suspected that one of them might be Maher abu Srur. The Abu Srur family is a respected clan. His mother is known as a 'strong woman' in the camp, and his older brother was a sheikh and a teacher. Maher was religious, praying in the mosque above his three-room home (the Israelis are to seal off two rooms to punish the family). He had two nicknames: 'Rambo' because he liked to wear his bandolier; and 'Hamse', a religious name. And he was well known as a Hamas activist.

Nachmani no doubt picked out Maher abu Srur because he was popular and active. 'Captain Afif wanted people who were liked and knew the people,' said a camp leader. Some say Abu Srur succumbed because he needed money for his mother's medical bills. It is said he may have been recruited during one of his many periods of Israeli detention.

'Maher may have seen this Israeli standing opposite him - a man with power and authority - and have become weak in front of him, ' said one resident. Some still doubt that Maher was a collaborator at all. But on 4 January, the camp woke to the sound of soldiers banging on doors and making mass arrests. They swiftly learned that a Shin Bet officer, Haim Nachmani, had been killed the night before at a safe house in Jerusalem.

It was only when they saw Nachmani's picture, however, that they realised this was Captain Afif. And later they learned that a prime suspect was Abu Srur.

Maher had gone with two cousins to a secret meeting with Nachmani in a well-heeled neighbourhood of West Jerusalem, aiming to kill the Shin Bet officer. While the cousins waited in the car outside, he went in for his appointment, and overcame Nachmani with his bare hands.

The reason for Abu Srur's dramatic turn from collaboration has caused as much speculation in Ida camp as the cause of his original 'weakness'. The most likely explanation is that Hamas discovered his collaboration and pressed him to purge himself.

The killing of Nachmani took place only three weeks after the deportation of 400 alleged Islamic militants to south Lebanon. Hamas morale was badly hit, and it is possible that Abu Srur's decision to purge himself sprang from spontaneous guilt.

The killing caused a mixture of celebration and dismay in Ida. Hamas leaders at first denied that Abu Srur was a collaborator and plastered the camp with graffiti hailing 'Hamse, the hunter of lions, Hamse the hunter of the Jewish Shin Bet'. But most in the camp realised the implications of the act.

The family was humiliated, tarred with the brush of collaboration. 'You cannot say there were the celebrations for the family that would normally be held after such a deed,' one resident said. 'There was not much support for them, as there would be if a member had been deported or arrested.'

On 1 July the family, all under curfew in Ida, heard the explosion at the Bethlehem checkpoint, as the hijacked getaway car crashed. 'We didn't know it was Maher until Hamas distributed leaflets in the mosque 48 hours later,' says his brother, Abdel Baset abu Srur.

Israeli spokesmen said the body was so badly burnt that it was impossible to say who it was. Later, they felt sure it was him. Many in the camp were not as swift as the family to grant Maher the collaborator the title of 'Maher the martyr', and suspicions remained.

It was relief on the faces of the family that provided the best evidence that Maher was indeed dead. Their humiliation was finally over.

His cousin Mohamed said: 'Everyone here wants to be a martyr. Every child in the camp. Today it is like Maher's wedding day. It is as if he is the groom, and we are happy for him.'

(Photograph omitted)

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