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One of the 1,027 Arab prisoners released in exchange for Gilad Shalit was a young woman named Wafa al-Biss. Wafa lived with her parents in the Gaza Strip and was engaged to be married. In 2004, she suffered severe and life-threatening burns in a kitchen fire accident in her parents’ home. As a result, her fiancé promptly rejected her because she was now ugly.
In 2004-2005, Wafa’s life was saved by doctors at Soroka hospital in Beersheba, where over a period of six months she underwent a series of successful treatments for the massive burns that she suffered in the kitchen explosion. She developed a good relationship with the medical team. Israelis at Soroka, where she had spent three months undergoing treatment for her burns, treated her with “respect and dignity…..They had been very kind,” she told Judith Miller, who interviewed her in 2007 while she was still in prison. Her family was so appreciative that they wrote a letter of thanks and commendation to the doctors. It said “the care was wonderful and warm.” A Gazan gynecologist with whom she consulted between treatments was even more effusive in his letter to the Jerusalem Post: “I have nothing but praise for the doctors, nurses and other medical staff at Soroka hospital. They show compassion, sympathy and kindness.”
In between treatments, she returned to Gaza with a medical pass to allow her to enter Israel uninhibited at the Erez crossing point from the Gaza Strip in order to return to Soroka hospital for the necessary follow-up treatments.
With her life saved and her facial features partially restored, her homecoming might have inaugurated a return to normal life. But rejected by her fiancé, she had little hope of marriage and thus no hope of bearing children or raising a family of her own. Wafa’s society is an Arab, Muslim and strongly patriarchal society, one in which there is a deeply embedded inequality for women. It is a society which denies individual women the freedom to define their own future. For most women in Gazan Arab society, having no prospect for marriage renders a woman a source of shame to her family, and a financial burden as well. These bleak circumstances seem to have plunged Wafa into a severe depression, and she told her parents that she was contemplating suicide.
Word of her depressed emotional state reached Fatah recruiters for homicide bombers in the Gaza Strip. When they became aware of her mental state, members of the Fatah-controlled el-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade pounced. “They hunted me down like prey,” she recalled.
Al-Biss gave her Israeli interrogators a chilling account of the cynical tactics used by her terrorist mentor, “Abul Khair,” from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. “Abul Khair kept calling,” she said. “He told me a guy they were counting on had backed out of an operation; they needed me. ‘Look at your future,’ they told me. ‘No one will ever marry you.’”
They preyed upon her distressed emotional state and urged her to become a homicide bomber so that she could die with “honor,” as opposed to merely committing suicide and thus dying with “shame”. Since she wanted to commit suicide, they argued, she might as well do it in a way that would bring glory to herself and her whole family.
They enticed her with promises of Muslim paradise, where her beauty would be restored for all eternity; and they accosted her with brow-beating sessions where she was warned again and again that if she lived she would never know happiness, never find a husband, never have a family, and thus be an eternal source of shame to herself, to her parents, and to her people; so she might as well choose a death of glory and honor. She asked if God would grant her anything she wanted in paradise. “Would he give me new skin?” “Yes,” Abul Khair told her. “I wanted to believe him …. He looked religious, like someone you could trust. He told me I was very brave. He made me feel important.”
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