In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams
"Did you know it was Yousef?" he asked breathlessly.
"Which Yousef?" Kaneri asked.
"Our Yousef," came the reply. "Yousef Swatat."
Kaneri did not believe him. "I went outside and looked at the house of Yousef's family. They were crying. Tears came to my eyes."
The militant organization Islamic Jihad released a videotape showing a visibly uncomfortable Swatat stiffly reading a farewell message: "To my brothers, my family and all my loved ones, don't be sad. It is a sacrifice." His accomplice, a next-door neighbor, stood next to him, also clothed in camouflage and wearing the black headband of Islamic Jihad.
"None of us suspected Yousef could do something like that," said Majdi Kaneri. "I'd seen him just four or five hours before. He shook my hand and gave me a couple of kisses. Usually he just shook hands, but I didn't take it seriously."
The young men who'd grown up with Swatat said they learned that their friend had not been recruited to carry out a suicide attack, as Israeli intelligence officials announced at the time. Swatat's friends and relatives said he spread the word that he needed a gun to carry out an assault -- not as part of any organization, but simply on behalf of the girl. Over a cup of thick Arabic coffee, a member of Islamic Jihad offered him a gun in return for allowing the organization to claim responsibility, Kaneri said.
Even so, friends insisted they did not believe Swatat's decision could be explained as vengeance against Israel for killing a schoolgirl. Rather, they said, it was a complex mixture of shock at the death, and his own despair.
"I never heard a word of revenge out of him," said Kaneri. "It was more pity: 'It's not fair for this girl to die.'
"Some people express rage by throwing themselves from high buildings," the stonemason continued. "Some cut their veins. It depends on the individual."
"He was the most romantic, the most sentimental of all of us ," said Zakaria Zbeida, 28, who now is commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin. His mother had donated the top floor of her apartment house to build the theater, and his brother Daoud is the member of the troupe now in prison. "In the play, the whole world opened before his eyes, because he was the king. Now he sees a child torn to pieces before his eyes. A person feels all his childhood was a lie, all his life was a lie."
A Militant's Path
As a youngster, Alaa Sabagh was the most shy and withdrawn of the neighborhood boys. In 1992, when he was a teenager, Israeli troops demolished his family's house and jailed his brother for killing an Israeli soldier.
Yousef Swatat and his group of theater enthusiasts drew the sad-eyed youngster into their circle. They encouraged his talents for painting and drawing and nudged him to take part in the production of the plays. Slowly, Sabagh shed his perpetual pout and became part of the raucous, joking brotherhood of the theater.
When the theater group disbanded, however, Sabagh was the first to drop out of school.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company