Photo Credit: twitter
Wafa Idris. Her claim to fame? First Palestinian female suicide bomber

*Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment in ‘Setting The Record Straight,’ the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD 

In the afternoon of Sunday, January 27, 2002, Wafa Idris, a divorced woman, who lived in the Al-Am’ari refugee camp near Ramallah, detonated her bomb outside a shoe store at a bus stop on Jaffa Road in the center of Jerusalem killing 81-year-old Pinhas Tokatli and wounding more than 100 people. [1] 


The attack occurred just below Jaffa Road’s intersection with King George Street, in an area where in the previous 16 months there had been eight bombings or shootings that murdered 28 people, not including the assailants. [2] Her willingness to murder civilians underlined how divisive and tumultuous the region had become. [3]   

According to the initial plan, Wafa was not supposed to kill herself along with her victims, yet inexplicably the bomb detonated without warning. [4] The Israel Defense Forces, the Israeli public, and many in the West were surprised, if not entirely stunned by this practically “unprecedented” phenomenon of a Palestinian Arab female suicide. On the other hand, the Arab press, and to a greater extent the Islamic press, were euphoric. “It’s a woman!” hailed al-Sha’ab, an Islamic Egyptian newspaper, in a headline sounding like “It’s a boy!” announcement for the joyous birth of a male offspring. [5]  

The Concept a Palestinian Arab Female Suicide Bomber 

The concept of a Palestinian Arab female suicide bomber was so unexpected because the idea deviated from the common view of women as being “gentler, softer,” and definitely less inclined to physical aggression than men. In Muslim societies, women are perceived as “timid, modest, and sexually pure, all of which preclude free inter-gender mingling.” They are for the most part restricted to the private domain, where they are at home or with family. Their role is confined to “serving and satisfying their husbands’ needs; and to childbirth and childrearing. They are thus associated with the myth of the gift of life rather than that of death.” These traits and roles are also perceived as a social and religious commandment, which has been both internalized by women and harshly enforced by their social environment. [6]  

On the morning of January 27, 2002, more than 1,000 Palestinian Arab young girls and women traveled to Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah to hear him speak about women in the Intifada, notes journalist Barbara Victor. “Women and men are equal,” he decreed. “You are my army of roses that will crush Israeli tanks.” [7]  

What made his speech unique and changed the nature of the conflict Victor claims, is the phrase he coined which became his mantra: “Shahida all the way to Jerusalem.” By using the feminine form of the Arab word for martyr, he sent a message that “You are the hope of Palestine. You will liberate your husbands, fathers, and sons from oppression. You will sacrifice the way you, women, have always sacrificed for your family.” Later that day, Arafat had his first shahida. [8]  

Idris became a Role Model 

For young Palestinian Arab girls, Idris became a role model. [9] Her 25-year-old sister-in-law, Wisam Idris, correctly predicted that Idris’s actions would most likely ”encourage other girls to commit such acts.” [10] Wafa clearly inspired others to follow her lead not long thereafter: one a seamstress, a college student, and another still in high school. Their images were plastered on posters. A columnist for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafd compared Idris to Mona Lisa, admiring her “dreamy eyes and the mysterious smile on her lips.” [11]  

Throughout the Arab world, Wafa was celebrated as representing Palestinian Arab womanhood, and her death was proclaimed as an indication of the emancipation of women. “Wafa’s martyrdom restored honor to the national role of the Palestinian woman, who sketched the most wonderful pictures of heroism in the long battle for national liberation,” declared a Fatah Revolutionary Council member, who eulogized her at a symbolic funeral. “Wafa came today to complete the path of the martyr Dalal Al-Maghribi and her comrades….” [12]  

A Palestinian Arab woman from Tulkarm at the funeral fearlessly proclaimed, “This woman will not be the last. We will all booby-trap our bodies and blow ourselves up in the Jews’ faces.” [13] 

Adel Hamuda, editor of the Egyptian opposition weekly Sout al Uma, viewed her suicide as having smashed a glass ceiling, and demonstrated the value of a woman’s life by ending it in such stunningly dramatic manner. ”Wafa Idris,” he wrote, “elevated the value of the Arab woman and, in one moment, and with enviable courage, put an end to the unending debate about equality between men and women.” [14]  

”What captured their imagination is that she is a real fighter,” asserted Yigal Carmon, who heads the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors and translates coverage by Arabic-language media. [15]  

In her column in the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar, Dr. Samiya Sa’ad Al-Din wrote: “…Palestinian women have torn the gender classification out of their birth certificates, declaring that sacrifice for the Palestinian homeland would not be for men alone; on the contrary, all Palestinian women will write the history of the liberation with their blood, and will become time bombs in the face of the Israeli enemy. They will not settle for being mothers of martyrs…” [16]  

A eulogy at Wafa’s funeral proclaimed: “The martyrdom of the ‘flower Wafa’ proves that all sectors of our people, men and women, side by side, are joined together in the war of liberation and in the confrontation with the aggression.” A female member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council and concluded that “Wafa’s martyrdom has restored honor to the national role of the Palestinian woman; [she]has presented us with one of the most awe-inspiring portrayals in the long struggle for national liberation.” [17]  

Writing in the Jordanian daily Al-Dustour, Hussein Al-‘Ammoush remarked, “…There is no need to bring examples of the status of the Arab and Muslim woman. The Arab woman has taken her place and her dignity. It is the women’s rights activists in the West who robbed women of their right to be human, and viewed them as bodies without souls… Wafa Idris, like the rest of the young women of her generation, never dreamed of owning a BMW or of having a cellular phone… Wafa did not carry makeup in her suitcase, but enough explosives to fill the enemies with horror…” [18]  

Beyond reporting the bombing and identifying Wafa, Palestinian Arab newspapers avoided writing much about the event. ”They’ve moved on,” explained Maher al-Sheik, the managing editor of the newspaper Al Quds in Jerusalem. ”Every day we have a new story, which is sad.” [19]   

With many Palestinian Arabs advocating acts that would lead to bloodshed, the newspaper decided not to involve the community in this violent subject. ”It’s not easy to open a debate about something like this” he said. ”The reaction of some of the people would not be very pleasant. So sometimes we try to avoid this kind of debate.” [20]   

On the morning after her death, posters appeared at the Al-Am’ari refugee camp and throughout Ramallah with a picture of Wafa wearing a green headband with the words: “Allah is the answer,” holding a Kalashnikov rifle with a background of the Islamic flag on which was written “Allah Akhbar.” [21]  

Attempts to Explain Her Actions 

Though attempts were made to explain her action as ideologically motivated, her friends and family indicate she was driven by personal and not religious or national motives. In the years before her suicide attack, Wafa had served as a nurse in Ramallah. While tending to the injured Palestinian Arabs who had fought with Israeli forces, she showed great empathy for their suffering and frustration with the situation in the city. Her life was significantly different from most Palestinian women of her age. Her family was poor, and she lost her father at a very young age. She married her cousin Ahmad at age 16. After eight or nine years of marriage, during which she failed to produce an offspring, her husband divorced her. [22]  

This left the 25-year-old deeply humiliated with “feelings of emptiness” and defeat. As a divorced and barren woman, she was forced to return to her mother’s home “where she became an economic burden,” placing her in a no-win position in a traditional, patriarchal society. Her ability to rebuild her life in Arab society was “close to zero,” while she focused her strength on volunteer work. The only way for her to “redeem herself” was to become a shahida for the benefit of her people. [23]  

After learning of her mental state, the recruitment officers of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs appealed to her profound identification with the injured whom she had cared for in Ramallah. Idris, the former pariah, had a become a role model for Palestinian women. [24]  


[1] Ori Nir, “The Palestinians See a Joan of Arc,’” Haaretz (February 10, 2002); James Bennet, “Israel Says Palestinian Woman Intended to Kill Herself in Blast,” The New York Times (February 8, 2002); Barbara Victor, Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers (New York: Rodale, 2003), 4; “Suicide Bombers” Time Magazine (April 15, 2002); James Bennet, “Arab Woman’s Path to Unlikely ‘Martyrdom,’” The New York Times (January 31, 2002). 

[2] James Bennet, “Israelis Declare Arab Woman Was in Fact a Suicide Bomber,” The New York Times (February 9, 2002). 

[3] Ibid; Lib Copel, “Female Suicide Bombers: The New Factor in Mideast’s Deadly Equation,” The Washington Post (April 27, 2002). 

[4] (Yoram Schweitzer,  “Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers: Reality vs. Myth” in “Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?” Yoram Schweitzer, ED, The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) (2006):25. 

[5] Rivka Yadlin, “Female Martyrdom: The Ultimate Embodiment of Islamic Existence?” in “Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?” Yoram Schweitzer, ED, op.cit. 51. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Victor, op.cit.19. 

[8] Ibid.19-20. 

[9] Copel, op.cit. 

[10] Bennet, op.cit. 

[11] Copel, op.cit; Bennet, op.cit; Victor, op.cit.5-6; see also “Female bomber’s mother speaks out,” BBC News (January, 30, 2002). 

[12] “Wafa Idris: The Celebration of the First Female Palestinian Suicide Bomber” – Part III  MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Number 85 (February 14, 2002); Clara Beyler, “Women Weapons,” The Sun (June 29, 2005); Wafa Idris: The First Female Palestinian Suicide Bomber Films Media Group; Schweitzer,  “Palestinian Female Suicide Bombers: Reality vs. Myth,” op.cit. 25. 

[13] “The Role of Palestinian Women in Suicide Terrorism,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (January 30, 2003). 

[14] James Bennet, “Arab Press Glorifies Bomber as Heroine,” The New York Times (February 11, 2002). 

[15] Ibid. 

[16] “Wafa Idris: The Celebration of the First Female Palestinian Suicide Bomber” – Part II, MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Number 84 (February 13, 2002). 

[17] Mira Tzoreff, “The Palestinian Shahida: National Patriotism, Islamic Feminism, or Social Crisis,” in “Female Suicide Bombers: Dying for Equality?” Yoram Schweitzer, ED, The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies (JCSS) (2006):22. 

[18]  “Wafa Idris: The Celebration of the First Female Palestinian Suicide Bomber,” op.cit. 

[19] James Bennett, “Arab Press Glorifies Bomber as Heroine,” The New York Times (Febuary11, 2002). 

[20] Ibid. 

[21] Ibid. 26-27. 

[22] Ami Pedahzur, Suicide Terrorism (Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press,2005), 138. 

[23] Tzoreff, op.cit. 20; Raphael Israeli, “Palestinian Women: The Quest for a Voice in the Public Square through “Islamikaze martyrdom;” Pedahzur, op.cit. 139; “Terrorism and Political Violence”, Volume 16, Issue 1 (Spring, 2004): 66-96; Avi Issacharoff, “The Palestinian and Israeli Media on Female Suicide Terrorists,” in “The Palestinian and Israeli Media on Female Suicide Terrorists,” Schweitzer, ED, op.cit. 49-50. 

[24] Pedahzur, op.cit. 139. 


Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleJordan Allowing Golan Druze to Enter Kingdom Without Visas or Preconditions
Next articleThe Hidden Danger of the US Visa Waiver Program
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.