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[Posted 4 May 2002]
Apathetic, almost laid-back, sometimes even entertaining, is how Thabet Mardawi yesterday described his time as a senior Islamic Jihad member. The terrorist from Jenin, who dispatched nine suicide bombers to fatal attacks inside Israel, is not ashamed of anything he has done. "I am proud," he says, "I did something for my people, for Allah."
Does that mean you admit to killing dozens of civilians in these attacks?
Mardawi: "All's fair in war."
Mardawi, 26, from the village of Araba, west of Jenin in the West Bank, was one of three leading Islamic Jihad members the IDF killed or captured during Operation Defensive Shield. Muhammed "Noresi" Tuwalbeh, the head of the cell, was killed during the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. Mardawi and Sheikh Ali Safuri gave themselves up to the IDF on April 10, the day before the army completed its takeover of the camp.
The Shin Bet security services yesterday allowed the media to interview Mardawi. CNN were up first, and talked with him for over two hours; then came Israel's three biggest newspapers. The interviews took place at Kishon prison, and Mardawi's Shin Bet investigators were present throughout. Under such conditions, it is hard to talk of a free and easy conversation, though this meeting did give a rare peek into the world of a man who sees himself as a freedom fighter and Israelis see as a serial killer.
Mardawi spoke relatively freely, despite the all-present Shin Bet. Twice he chose his answers carefully; when the issue of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's role came up and when discussing the operational aspects of a terror attack. When asked about his interrogation by the Shin Bet, he said that he had not been beaten, but the investigators then cut in and asked not to give any further details.
The interview was conducted in Arabic, though every now and then, he would deliver short sentences in Hebrew, which he learned during his last stay in prison seven years ago. The most chilling part of the interview is his ordinariness - he is lean, short with a baby-face that not even his short beard can age. Mardawi appears very far from the threatening image of a terrorist. This man, hunted by Israel for over a year, would not even get a second glance on the streets.
He says that since the Israeli defense establishment listed him as one of its wanted men, he constantly changed his car and his address. "After I was caught, I asked one of your Shin Bet men how many times they had tried to kill me. He said, `many.'" He admits the wanted men were ready for the IDF's offensive on the camp, "the second `Defensive Shield' (said in Hebrew) started and you went into Ramallah."
He says mines were planted to hit soldiers and tanks (during questioning he also admitted booby trapping houses with gas canisters). "All locally produced, from coal and agricultural fertilizers," he says. "We deployed armed men at the entrances. The residents did not resist when they came into their homes. When the fighting started, I myself asked the civilians to leave the camp so they would not get hurt."
During the fighting, he says "between 80 to 100 men from all the organizations [took part]. There was no real command." Mardawi says he killed two soldiers with a short barrel M16. "I hit three soldiers from a few meters away. Two of them died. I heard their commander report over the walkie talkie, behind a wall."
Mardawi admits he never saw an Israeli soldier take aim or fire at women or children. "I saw a couple of dead women and a wounded child. Your helicopters shot at houses where there were civilians."
Was there a massacre?
"This whole war is a massacre," he retorts, "what's a couple of dozen people against tanks and bulldozers?"
Why did you turn yourself in, after you swore to fight to the death?
"There is some truth to what you say," Mardawi says, smiling. "But we did not think the army would come in with tractors. We were not scared of dying, but there is nothing that can be done when up against bulldozers. We fired RPG rockets at them. Nothing bothered them. We had casualties, I too was injured. I took two bullets and shrapnel to my left hand. I couldn't carry a weapon."
Mardawi and his colleagues battled for nine days, moving from house to house, every time they heard the approaching bulldozers, looking to the sky as the crossed the road, checking for helicopters. Only after he was arrested did he hear that before he had been caught, his brothers in arms had killed 13 reserve soldiers in the camp in one day.
How did you feel?
He laughs. "How did you feel when you heard you had killed Noresi?" he asks. Mardawi says that as far as he knows, Noresi was killed when a bulldozer demolished a house on top of him. The night before Mardawi gave himself up, he spoke by cellular telephone with Islamic Jihad's leader. "I called Dr. Ramadan [Shalah] in Damascus. We talked about Hezbollah's offer to release [kidnapped Israeli] Elhanan Tennenbaum in exchange for an end to the siege on the camp."
Mardawi started off his career with Arafat's Fatah movement. In 1994, while in jail, he switched allegiances to Islamic Jihad. He has never met the leader of his organization, though he speaks with him by telephone often. "We decided on the attacks. Damascus only received belated reports," he says.
Shalah did however make sure he transferred lots of cash to his activists in the territories. Since the start of the latest intifada, says Mardawi, the PA's security forces have also been hunting him, "but I hid and they couldn't find me."
Yes, he admits, "I dispatched people to terror attacks. You tell me why. My friends were killed. My people want freedom, their rights. This is not a war between armies; you also killed civilians." Switching to a self-justifying tone, he says "we only started the attacks inside Israel after 350 Palestinians were killed. In my operations, your women and elderly people were killed, but not children. I read in the papers that there were not children; there are no children on buses." He later added: "There are no rules in war."
Noresi and Mardawi also sent minors to carry out their suicide bombings, even though he denies it. One of those minors was Noresi's younger brother, who was arrested in Haifa after he opted out and did not go ahead with a planned attack on a Carmelit underground train station.
"At first," says Mardawi, "we had a problem with a lot of devices that did not explode, because we did not have the experience. But then we learned." They never had a problem recruiting bombers, though. "We did not have to talk to them about virgins waiting in paradise."
A suicide attack takes "a day or two of preparation, sometimes a week. Noresi prepared the bombs, I helped him." The bomber chose the target himself. "We told them `blow yourselves up any place where there are people.' They went wherever they knew to go," he says.
The dispatchers would then sit and wait for the television reports. He relates how with the attack on a bus near Camp 80 close to Hadera last November, in which three people were killed, Noresi kept calling the bomber's cell phone and when they got the "client is unavailable" recorded message, they knew the attack had been completed.
When asked how many suicide bombers he has sent out, he has to use his fingers, and his Shin Bet interrogators to answer. "Four in Hadera, one in Afula, one other..." he slowly recalls, making a grand total of nine, not including those captured before managing to blow themselves up.
After the attacks, Mardawi would write the statements taking responsibility for the bombings and send them off to Reuters news agency offices. Like most other high-ranking wanted men arrested by Israel, Mardawi had no inhibitions in confessing to his investigators or detailing his actions to the media. "I was infamous," he explains, "everyone knows what I did."
A Shin Bet source says the latest lot of detainees act very different from those arrested during the first intifada. "They confess already in the car, immediately after they are arrested. For them, it is part of the struggle for independence. It is a question of pride and of their personal status in the jail after the questioning, so that everyone will know," says the source.
And because of this, there is almost no need to use pressure, such as torture. Furthermore, a prisoner like Mardawi cannot be considered a "ticking bomb" since his terror network has been wiped out.
The leaders of Islamic Jihad, "don't know how this will end," says Mardawi. "Under these circumstances, there is no chance of peace. Even if Arafat orders an end to the operations. Why would he do that? There is no reason to stop. The talks with you slowly led nowhere." He does stress that this is his own personal opinion, and not that of his organization. If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders and concedes East Jerusalem, there [might] be something worth discussing.
Dressed in yellow sweat pants and shoes without laces, the exhaustion on his face is clear to see. Mardawi is not handcuffed during the interview, he chain smokes and often jokes with his Shin Bet interrogators.
"They [the Shin Bet agents] annoyed me during questioning," says Mardawi, "this one for example, I don't even know what his real name is." When the agent intervenes and asks not to have his named mentioned in the article, Mardawi, clearly amused with himself, chirps, "perhaps it really is best you don't write it."
Mardawi does not believe the PA would try to secure his release, even under a permanent status agreement. He makes do attempt to hide his hope that his co-fighters will kidnap soldiers to secure his release.
Once upon a time, before the intifada, he wanted to be a doctor of economics. But this third year Al Quds open university student decided instead to major in murder. He got married last July. His wife is now in her third month. He probably will not see her for a long time. "She knew what I was when we married. What you gonna do?" asks Mardawi, dropping his head.
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