In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams
"He was a stubborn, moody boy," said his father, Ahmed Sabagh, 75, who owned a refrigerator repair service and pushed his son to take an interest in the shop. "Every day he made trouble for the teachers. He used to beat up the teachers and throw rocks at them. He always wanted to get kids out of school to throw rocks at soldiers. I used to beat him to make him stop doing these kinds of things. He never listened to me."
Sabagh said he tried to interest his son in the repair business, but he said Alaa preferred to make money in the stolen car trade that flourished between Israel and the West Bank.
By the time the Palestinian uprising exploded in the fall of 2000, Sabagh's friends noticed that although he remained close to them, he began associating with an older crowd. At 23, he was roughly their age, but they regarded him as a more knowledgeable elder. He had developed a charismatic personality that seemed to draw others to him.
In the early days of the uprising, attacks against Israel by religious militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, spurred supporters of Arafat's secular Fatah movement to try to keep pace. They began arming young men from refugee camps and villages across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling them the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, in a tribute to the revered mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.
Sabagh, who his friends and parents said still harbored bitterness toward Israelis for demolishing his childhood home and jailing his older brother, was among the first of the young men in the camp to join their ranks -- despite the objections of his father.
"I don't want you to walk this path," his father recalled saying, his voice growing husky. "He never listened." Of children like Alaa, he added: "You can't control them. They do what they want."
A year after the intifada started, Alaa Sabagh drove to an Israeli checkpoint on the edge of Jenin in a car he had repaired for an Arab friend living in Israel. When he arrived at the checkpoint, he pulled out a rifle and shot an Israeli guard at his post, according to his father and friends. Sabagh escaped, and despite being put on Israel's list of Palestinians wanted for arrest, he got married at the urging of his family.
As Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel and attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the Palestinian territories intensified in the spring of 2002, Israeli troops and tanks made repeated incursions into Jenin.
Sabagh assembled his guerrillas to prepare the camp for more clashes. He turned to his friends from the theater. Ashraf Haija, 23, who had been Yousef Swatat's best friend, joined him, according to Haija's family. Swatat's 21-year-old brother, Nidal, became a fighter under the auspices of Islamic Jihad, his family said.
When Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers roared into the camp again in early April 2002, Sabagh and Haija took up positions in the same room where they once laughed and joked as Arna Mer Khamis dressed them in fancy robes, Sabagh said in a videotaped interview before he was killed. They stocked the old rehearsal room with grenades and homemade bombs and hacked holes in the walls to spy on the advancing Israeli soldiers and position their rifles for an ambush.
As the fighting intensified, Sabagh left to coordinate fighters at another location. Ten days later, after one of the most intense and deadly battles of the intifada, Ashraf Haija and Nidal Swatat were among the more than 50 Palestinians killed. The rooms that once housed their stage were destroyed by Israeli missiles, along with the entire heart of the refugee camp.
Israeli soldiers took Sabagh prisoner, according to his father, but he gave the soldiers a fake name. Believing that Alaa Sabagh had been killed in the fighting, the Israelis released him 55 days later.
"I hoped he would stay in jail," said his father. "He wanted to die. I saw it in his eyes."
When Sabagh left prison, he became the new commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin, replacing a senior commander killed in the Israeli incursion.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Many of stonemason Mahmoud Kaneri's closest friends now lie beneath tombstones he crafted. "I remember the stories, the jokes, the kind of things we did," he said, recalling their days in an experimental theater group. "It was an illusion. We were struck by reality."
(Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
From Role-Playing to Reality: Of seven Palestinian youths who acted in a community theater group, only three remain alive.