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Middle East: Female Suicide Bomber Sets New Standard In Conflict

The scene of carnage in Jerusalem over the weekend was all too familiar. One man was killed and scores injured when a blast from a suicide bomber ripped through a busy shopping street. But one thing set this attack apart from others -- the bomber was a woman.

Prague, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Israeli police are still not sure that the woman whose body was found at the blast scene intended to blow herself up or plant the bomb and leave.

But if it's confirmed this was a suicide mission, the woman identified in media reports as a 20-year-old Palestinian student from Nablus will earn a dubious distinction -- as the first lone female suicide bomber to attack Israel.

Paul Wilkinson heads the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at Britain's St. Andrew's University. He says the case appears to be a worrying departure for militant Palestinian groups, which already have a substantial pool of young male volunteers for what they consider missions of "self-martyrdom."

"If you now add to that a number of highly committed women members of radical organizations or people who've been recruited by those organizations, that greatly complicates the business of trying to trace potential recruits and trying to prevent this kind of suicide bombing."

Wilkinson says there are obvious advantages for terrorist groups in using women "in the front line." Notably, women don't attract the same degree of suspicion as men from security personnel. Conservative sensibilities mean there's a reluctance to body-search a woman. Palestinian women's clothes are often more loose-fitting than men's, making it easier to conceal strapped-on explosives. He says these practical advantages might in some cases outweigh Islamic groups' ideological opposition to using women bombers.

"You can say that the political Islamist organizations have to recognize that they have a growing cadre of young women who want to take a more front-line role in their violent struggles. And this may be a precedent that leads to other women coming forward."

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. But a Hamas leader told AFP yesterday that it is the right of Muslim women to fight in the intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Sheikh Hassan Yusef said the Prophet Mohammad "has always defended women's right to jihad."

Even in their male-dominated society, Palestinian women have been involved in attacks against Israelis before. It was a Palestinian woman who is thought to have accompanied the suicide bomber who killed himself and 15 other people in a Jerusalem pizzeria last summer. And Wilkinson says the militant group Hezbollah used female suicide bombers in their campaign against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.

But he says the weekend attack will give Israeli forces an even bigger security headache.

"It's a nightmare problem for the Israeli authorities and clearly it's going to add to the number of potential volunteers for self-martyrdom, as they would regard themselves. And it increases the problems of the intelligence and security agencies in Israel, no doubt about that."

The weekend attack was a first for Israel, but female suicide bombers are a more familiar feature in other parts of the world.

In March 1999, a suspected Kurdish suicide bomber killed herself in Istanbul, one of a number of attacks that month, which followed Turkey's capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Research by one of Wilkinson's colleagues, Rohan Gunaratna, shows that some 30 percent of suicide bombings by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers have been carried out by women. It was a woman -- a suspected Tamil Tiger -- who assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

In a paper on suicide terrorism for "Jane's Intelligence Review," Gunaratna said the explosive body suits used by suicide bombers have over the years become smaller and more sophisticated. Some have even been tailored for women -- since body searches are usually conducted on the abdomen, he said, one group is also developing "breast bombs."

Khadijeh Habashneh is a member of the General Union of Palestinian Women. Speaking from Ramallah, she tells RFE/RL that Palestinian women most often are involved in peaceful political activities and refrain from using violence. But she says the anger young Palestinian people feel at their situation is not restricted just to men.

Asked how the weekend attack is being perceived by Palestinians, she says it is "not welcome very much" but that this kind of thing happens.

"Sometimes these events happen, that you find young people either with some fanatic groups or people who are against -- actually from the beginning -- the peace [process]. They are the minority, but they are there."

Often there is a religious element to the motivation of male suicide bombers. Self-martyrdom, as they see it, will earn them rich sensual rewards in the afterlife. Habashneh says it is unlikely a female suicide bomber would have similar motivations.

"According to my information, the Islamic groups do not accept [suicide bombing missions] for women. And most probably, if these events are confirmed, most probably she [did it on her own]."

Asked if she thinks more women might follow suit, Habashneh says she hopes not. But she says there is "no guarantee" that there will not be further such incidents, adding that, "No one says they're going to do it" beforehand.