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Wafa Idris, who detonated a bomb on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem two weeks ago, killing herself and an 81-year-old man, and injuring 140 people, was the first Palestinian woman to carry out a suicide attack. Though Israeli security officials are not entirely convinced that Idris's intention was indeed a suicide attack, her action has triggered a debate about Islamic ethics in the Arab world. Idris has lit a fuse, lighting up the imagination of many Palestinians and Arabs; for many, she is a heroic Muslim patriot, and also a feminist.

Idris had been active in the Fatah movement; and it was Fatah's military wing, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, who took responsibility for the terror attack. Since her death, she has been perceived as a national, and pan-Arab, heroine. Arab-language newspapers circulating both in the territories and in the Arab world, have given space to public discussion of her act; the debates are conducted both from a religious standpoint, and from a social-cultural point of view. The Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI), which runs offices in Jerusalem and in Washington, has compiled some of these discussions about Idris.

Particularly in Palestinian newspapers, the commentators have wondered whether Idris was motivated by emotional distress. According to reports, she married a cousin at the age of 16, and was divorced nine years later because she had not been able to bear a child. Friends and family relations told reporters that her divorce might have compelled her to carry out the suicide attack.

After her divorce, Idris worked as a volunteer for the Palestinian Red Crescent emergency medical service. Some relatives and friends have speculated that her trying experience attending to victims of the intifada led her to take vengeance against Jews.

Though many Palestinians have expressed astonishment that a terror attack was perpetrated by a woman, most have justified Idris' action. Such support was exemplified at a symbolic funeral service for Idris that Fatah held in Ramallah. Eulogists from the whole spectrum of Palestinian politics praised her.

In the religious sphere, leaders of most Islamic organizations in the territories have concurred that Idris' attack was permissible, and just, given Islamic law and tradition (their position has been supported by one of Egypt's most respected Islamic sages). Hamas leaders in the territories such as Hassan Yusuf have stated explicitly that "Jihad against the enemy is an obligation borne not only by men, but also by women." Islam, these Hamas leaders emphasize, does not distinguish between men and women on the battlefield.

Yet Hamas' spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, has taken a skeptical position on the subject of women and suicide attacks. He told the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat that "at the present stage," there is a sufficient number of men who are prepared to carry out such attacks, and that "for the time being women do not have a military organization" within the Palestinian Islamic movement. Yassin explained that though a woman is entitled to take part in the holy war, a man must supervise her acts. Three days after noting this requirement of male chaperons for Islamic women fighters, Yassin clarified his view; he explained that a male escort is necessary if a a woman is to be gone "longer than a night and a day" in a military action. Should the the action be shorter in duration, "she doesn't need a [male] supervisor."

Ataf Alian, a Palestinian woman from the Islamic Jihad organization who was involved in an attempt to explode a car bomb in Jerusalem in 1987, challenged Yassin's view. Alian, who did part of her extended prison term in Israel, and who was released as a result of the Oslo Accords, was lauded in an article published in an Islamic Jihad journal in 1989 as a model of "the Islamic woman of our generation, who obliges the orders of religious law ... and all commandments and prohibitions, including the desire to make it to heaven via self-sacrifice." Interviewed last week by Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Alian criticized Yassin's position, and said that the order to send a chaperon to supervise a woman during a suicide attack is impractical, and also not required by religious law. Her position drew upon oral traditions concerning the views of the prophet Mohammed. Under these traditions, a woman is obligated to take part in jihad, even without the consent of her husband, should an enemy invade a Muslim land.

Idris has been praised widely in Arabic language newspapers. MEMRI researchers say that scarcely a day goes by without five to 10 articles being published in praise of her act. Arab pundits compare her to Joan of Arc; in Baghdad, journalists reported that Saddam Hussein has ordered that a monument be built in her honor.

Particularly effusive with praise for Idris are Egyptian journalists, both in the state-sponsored newspapers and also opposition journals. For instance, Ahmad Bahajat, a columnist for Al- Ahram, wrote that Idris will go down in history as a symbol of heroism; alluding to her work for the Red Crescent, he added that "she expanded the sphere of her work from saving individuals, to saving the Palestinian people."

Is Idris a feminist symbol?

Wafa Idris has been adopted by some Arab feminists to promote their agenda. For instance, Dr. Samiah Sa'ad a-Din, who has a column in the Cairo-based newspaper Al-Akhbar, wrote that "the limbs of this woman martyr sketched the outline of change ...in the ideology of the struggle. Palestinians have ripped out the mention of gender in their identity documents, and declared that sacrifice for Allah will not only be done by men; all the women of Palestine will advance the history of liberation with their blood, and become time bombs posed to strike the Zionist enemy. They will no longer be content with the role of being mothers to martyrs."

In contrast, Islamic Jihad men have used Idris' example to denounce feminism. An editorial published by the Islamic, Cairo-based weekly Al-Sha'b declared that Idris was a woman "who taught Muslim women the meaning of genuine liberation ... For the woman, the meaning of liberation is to free the body from the hardships of this world, and bravely embrace death."