BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The young man accused of being the first suicide bomber in Jerusalem in a decade doesn’t fit the profile of a desperate Hamas operative — and that worries the Israelis.
His uncles are prosperous merchants. He did not grow up in a refugee camp. He went on shopping trips to Jordan.
But the cover photo on his Facebook page includes the image of Yahya Ayyash, a.k.a. “The Engineer,” the chief bombmaker for Hamas, who likely was killed by an exploding mobile phone planted by Israeli agents in 1996.
On Monday afternoon, 19-year-old Abdel Hamid Abu Srour boarded the Egged No. 12 bus and placed a package between his legs. His uncles think that it might have been his first visit to Jerusalem.
His seat was above the vehicle’s gas tanks, according to Israeli news media. His relatives scoffed at the idea that Abu Srour would know how to make a bomb himself.
His high school grades were poor enough that he wanted to retake subjects and redo his exams.
Who gave him the bomb and how it was detonated is the object of a fast-moving investigation.
Hamas claimed that Abu Srour was a member of the Islamist militant movement, although the Gaza-based terrorist group did not assert direct responsibility for the bombing.
Israeli police announced Thursday that they had arrested several members of a Hamas cell in Bethlehem tied to the case.
Monday’s explosion shattered hopes on both sides that six months of violence was subsiding.
The bomb created a fireball that consumed the bus, injuring 20 Israelis, one seriously. Abu Srour was mortally wounded in the blast. He lost both his legs and died Wednesday after a series of surgeries at an Israeli hospital.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health described Abu Srour as a resident of the Aida refugee camp, a tough, politicized neighborhood of tight, twisting alleys where the walls are painted with murals of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and covered with the faded posters of dead teenagers hailed as martyrs, killed either attacking Israelis or in clashes with Israeli troops.
But his relatives said Abu Srour was more of a Palestinian preppy, the scion of a well-to-do and well-known clan of eight prosperous brothers, who own and operate a string of furniture outlets and are rich enough to take their young sons for holidays in Jordan and to set them up with their own shops selling clothes.
“We are financially comfortable, you could say very comfortable,” said his uncle Mahmoud Abu Srour, who was gathered with relatives in a courtyard at a family house in Bethlehem awaiting the return of his nephew’s body so they could bury him.
Abu Scour’s teenage cousins listened to their uncles speak but kept silent. They wore pricey watches, skinny jeans and fancy sneakers.
Abu Srour’s father declined to speak on the record. He was exhausted, he said. His family said his DNA was used to identify his son. He said the body was unrecognizable to him.
Earlier in the day, the father denied in an interview with Reuters that his son had any connection to Hamas, which had announced Wednesday that Abu Srour was the bomber and that he was an affiliate of the group.
“I never thought my son would do such an act,” the father said. “My son did not make me feel, even for 1 percent, that he has feelings or thoughts like that. Never.”
An uncle said that Abu Srour didn’t know chemistry, had never done construction or worked in mining — suggesting that he could not have built a bomb and that someone gave him the explosive device.
“He had some chickens and goats in the back yard,” his uncle said. “He told us he wanted to be a veterinarian.”
His connection to Hamas is mystery, the uncle said. After the explosion, “all the political factions claimed him as their own.”
But on his Facebook page, there is a photo Abu Srour with a Hamas flag. Israeli news media also reported that before he died, Abu Srour had given his mother a photograph of himself wearing a Hamas scarf. The Jerusalem Post reported that Abu Srour’s relatives gave out sweets on the street to celebrate his martyrdom in the bomb blast.
Relatives suggested a possible motive for the suicide attack. Abu Srour’s cousin was killed by Israeli soldiers during a clash in January when troops raided a neighborhood in Beit Jala, a town that abuts Bethlehem. According to Palestinian news media, Ahmad Abu Srour, 21, was shot in the chest while confronting Israeli soldiers.
As Palestinians say, funerals beget funerals.
His uncle tried to explain that the families are worried what their sons will do. They tell them not to confront Israelis and take away their IDs to keep them at home.
Was it possible that Abu Srour was upset by the death of his cousin and wanted revenge — and so he could have been recruited and groomed by Hamas to be a suicide bomber?
“Everything is possible under these circumstances,” he said. He blamed Israel’s 49-year military occupation, but he also said he only “wanted to live in real peace.”
“They are making a big mistake provoking these children,” he warned. “Kids today are uncontrollable.”
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.