A 17-year-old girl from west Beirut found a new kind of martyrdom in the Arab world last month when she videotaped her final words and drove off in a bomb-laden Peugeot. On a road above Jezzin, Lebanon, she blew herself up along with at least two Israeli soldiers.
Since then Sana Mhaydali's farewell has been broadcast throughout the region. Photographs and sketches of her smiling face grace the covers of Middle Eastern magazines. There was a two-page color spread in the popular French weekly Paris Match. "La Kamikaze," read the headline.
But Mhaydali is only the best known in a new generation of high-profile Lebanese suicides whose deaths are meant to dramatize a new sense of nationalism and to win prestige for their parties in Lebanon's internal politics as well as freedom from Israeli occupation.
A young man killed 13 Israeli soldiers and himself in March in Lebanon and another from the Bekaa Valley killed two more Israelis in a suicide attack April 20. On Thursday a 21-year-old woman carried a suitcase full of explosives to an Israeli checkpoint, killing herself, an officer of the pro-Israeli South Lebanon Army militia and his wife when it detonated.
All these bombers also recorded their thoughts and made posthumous television appearances.
"It's a new approach to the media," a prominent Lebanese politician said drily, "and it has its effect on our people throughout the world."
Unlike earlier suicide bombers, these Lebanese died not in the name of God or Islamic "Holy War," but of country. All were members of secular parties in the secular Lebanese National Democratic Front. The woman on Thursday was a Communist.
Their deaths, according to Lebanese politicians closely allied to Syria, are part of an effort to wrest the banner of successful opposition to Israel and the United States away from the fanatically religious Hezbollah, or Party of God, and other groups believed operating behind the shadowy cover of "Islamic Jihad." Such groups claimed responsibility for attacks in Lebanon on U.S. diplomats, U.S. Marines and French forces and for many kidnapings as well as attacks on Israelis.
"We are trying to prove there is an alternative to Jihad," said a prominent Lebanese politician with knowledge of the bombing campaign who asked not to be cited by name.
The example of a successful anti-Israeli resistance based on patriotism rather than extremist Shiite Moslem fundamentalism, moreover, has broader appeal to Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where there is no Shiite tradition of martyrdom, but where there are decades of nationalistic grievances.
Several shop windows on Saladin Street in East Jerusalem in Israel recently displayed posters of Sana Mhaydali in her red beret as she appeared on television.
The Israelis have taken note of the attempts to secularize the suicide bombers. They say they are confident that such attacks will not spread to the occupied West Bank and Gaza, where they believe the Palestinian population does not have the political will, the arms or the supply lines necessary for such attacks.
But, countering the television campaign, the Israelis have permitted one reporter to interview Mohammed Mahoud Burro, a 16-year-old Lebanese youth in the custody of Israeli intelligence. He reportedly was captured before he could blow himself up. Burro, undermining the heroic rhetoric of the television martyrs, told the reporter he was coerced into his mission by what may have been Syrian-allied intelligence operatives in order to free his father from debts incurred by traffic accidents.
"The Israelis want to minimize this phenomenon," said pro-Syrian Lebanese politician Inaam Raad. "But this doesn't make sense -- as if they, the Israelis, were our cherished brothers and we had to be terrorized into fighting them."
Raad was vague, however, about how the young suicides are in fact recruited, indoctrinated and trained. "We don't know them. They just appear when they make the operations," he said.
The gray-haired elder statesman of Lebanon's Syrian Social Nationalists, Raad has been given new prestige as a spokesman for the secular Lebanese resistance to the Israelis since the teen-age Mhaydali appeared in her video beneath the banner of his party.
"Members of our party have been participating in the resistance since the summer of 1982," said Raad. "But what you call suicide or sacrifice operations seemed before only to be people with religious motivations. Now people die for nationalistic reasons."
"Who are the leaders of the Lebanese resistance? The martyrs," Raad said. Whatever moves them to act, their image of youth, bravery and dedication has given them prestige among Arabs that many politicians now seem anxious to share.
When Assem Kansouh, the leader of the Lebanese Baath Party, went to the Syrian capital of Damascus recently for an emergency conference among feuding Moslems, he carried a collection of letters sealed with smears of blood showing that members of his party, too, say they want to die for their country.
The politics of the recent suicides, according to a number of Lebanese Moslem leaders, are closely tied to efforts by Syria to develop a secular government in Lebanon as a way of ending a decade of civil war and rebuilding in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion.
Diplomats in Syria suggest that despite the development of close ties between Syria and Iran during the past few years, Damascus is far from comfortable with the growth of Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalism in the region. A threat to the authority of Syrian President Hafez Assad by the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood in 1982, they note, was suppressed at the cost of thousands of lives.
Chances of success in building a secular government in Lebanon appear slim, in the view of western diplomats in Syria. But if the prestige and power of Islamic fundamentalists there grows too great, building on their reputation as the vanguard of the fight against the Israelis, then any hope of a secular, Syrian-dominated peace for Lebanon's bitterly sectarian society is likely to evaporate, they said.
The recent attacks in Lebanon have been carried out by parties in the National Democratic Front, which includes Raad's party, Kansouh's, the Communists and others.
The woman who carried the bomb Thursday, Wafa Nour Eddine, left a videotaped will suggesting a sort of political atonement in her act: "I saw many people around me from my country make mistakes, so I thought that the only way for me is to erase those mistakes through fighting the Israeli enemy."
But most of the videotaped farewells have been aimed at the most basic emotions of Arab families throughout the region. Mhaydali, with the fresh face of a high school senior, seemed to fill the bill better than anyone, judging from the exposure she has received.
"I am a future martyr. I do what I've decided to do with my soul at peace," said Mhaydali, adding: "I do my duty for the love of my people and my country."
"The Bride of the South," Mhaydali is now called in much of the Arab press. At her funeral her family from west Beirut wore white. Candy was distributed as if at a wedding. In Damascus, according to Raad, a secondary school and a street are to be named for her, and a commemorative stamp is to be issued.
When Malek Wabbeh from the Bekaa Valley, 19, killed himself April 20, he said he was looking forward to joining Mhaydali and the other martyrs. "The Eagle of the Bekaa," he was called in the Syrian and Lebanese press, and "the Bridegroom of the South."
Mhaydali, who appeared to be reading from cue cards, also thanked Syrian President Assad for helping her country resist.
Whatever the precise motives of the suicide bombers, Raad and others believe there is little question of the campaign's effectiveness.
The Israelis "would not have left Lebanon if they had not been resisted," Raad said. "I think this resistance has broken their computer. It was the unknown variable in the calculations of the occupier."