Monday, July 16, 2007

To Die In Jerusalem

To Die in Jerusalem


While working on my master’s degree in film and television at Southern Illinois University, I read a newspaper article about a bombing in Jerusalem. Shortly thereafter, I saw an article in Newsweek about the event, with a close-up photograph of the two girls on the cover. I couldn’t stop looking at them! The more I read, the more I realized that this tragic story ironically represents everything I feel regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I started to learn more about the girls, it struck me that in a different time and place, they might have been best friends or even sisters who were simply out shopping together. Faith, or fate, brought each of them to the end of her life in such a tragic manner!

I tried to put myself in Ayat’s place. I tried to understand what would lead a beautiful girl just starting her life and with plans for the future, to wake up one morning, take a bag of explosives and put an end to her life — and in the process end the lives of others.

I contacted the mothers of the girls — Avigail Levy and Um Samir al-Akhras — and found them to be two wonderful women, each struggling to cope with her daughter’s death. They opened their hearts and shared their pain with me. This is where the real challenge began: Could I help close the gap between them or would cultural differences and hate ultimately stand in the way of reconciliation? Are their lives permanently unbridgeable in light of pictures/posters praising the young Palestinian’s actions and her parents’ hesitant pride as a result?

The more I got to know the mothers and their stories, the more I felt a deepening desire, along with Avigail Levy, to embark on a journey in search of the answer to the most basic question, Why? The highlight of the journey — for all of us — is an emotional meeting between Avigail and Um Samir.

Just as seeing the pictures of Rachel and Ayat — so similar and yet so different — drew me into their story in the first place, the dream of a meeting between the two women stirred me to take my own personal journey with this film. I believe that theirs is a story that needs to be told, in part because we can all identify with the individuals in this tragedy. Most of us have all been 17, after all.

Hilla Medalia,


On the morning of March 29, 2002, Ayat al-Akhras had just spent a long night of studying for a big test at school. After taking the test, she met the man who drove her to a targeted grocery store, where, at 1:45 p.m. she detonated her bomb — killing herself, Rachel Levy and a guard, and injuring 30.

Because Al-Akhras and Levy looked so much alike, there was immediate confusion following the bombing as to who had carried it out. In an interview, the chief of police initially said that there appeared to have been two female suicide bombers. Professor Yehuda Hiss from the Forensic Institute remembers how the two girls were even wearing similar clothes and had been injured in what is known as the “mirror image effect,” i.e., their injuries were almost identical. As they lay side-by-side in the morgue, it was impossible to ignore the similarities between them. And, both girls had plans for the future.

Al-Akhras was engaged to be married that summer and wanted to go to college to become a journalist so she could defend the Palestinian cause before the world. Undoubtedly, the environment of Israeli occupation in which she grew up, and the exposure to violence and death, had influenced her profoundly. When al-Akhras’ motivation for committing this act is examined, it appears that she might have had several reasons; however, substance abuse does not seem to be one of them. Professor Hiss concluded there were never traces of drugs or any other toxic substance that could indicate a motivation for the suicide bombing. Dr. Anat Barko, in her book, On The Way To Heaven – The World of Suicide Bombers, has suggested that most female suicide bombers have personal problems such as family conflict, an intimate relationship with a terrorist, sexual relations before marriage, or a problematic social status (such as divorce or sterility). Others have indicated that suicide bombing is a way for females to gain power in a male-dominated society. Or perhaps al-Akhras and others like her simply want to fight for their cause but are feeling frustrated by current conditions and negative, suppressive and/or traumatic life experiences they’ve endured thus far.

Levy, like all 18-year-old Israelis, was about to join the army and wanted to study art and design. Her family had returned to Jerusalem following nine years in the United States. When Avigail and Amos divorced, their three children — Guy, Rachel and Kobi — stayed with their mother, while their father moved to Tel Aviv.

Neither of the young women’s fathers supported the idea of a meeting between the two mothers.


On March 29, 2002, 17-year-old Israeli Rachel Levy walked into a grocery store in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel to purchase ingredients for Sabbath dinner. Soon thereafter, 17-year-old Palestinian Ayat al-Akhras approached the store’s entrance carrying a black purse loaded with explosives. She issued a brief warning to two elderly Arab women sitting just outside selling fruits and vegetables.

The store’s security guard stopped al-Akhras, who seemed suspicious. She immediately activated the explosive bag — killing herself, Levy and the guard, while injuring 30 civilians. The end result: three more victims added to the Middle East catalogue of martyrdom.

Al-Akhras had been transported to the store by Ibrahim Sarahnah, an Israeli Arab**, with whom she’d rendezvoused earlier, near Bethlehem. Sarahnah was later captured — on his way back from another bombing — and is now serving time at the Gilboa Jail in northern Israel.

Before al-Akhras had left the camp earlier that afternoon, she read her suicide statement into a video camera. It included verses from the Quran, and blamed Palestinian and other Arab leaders and armies for not coming to the aid of the Palestinians and their cause. She also blamed them for “leaving the fighting to Palestinian girls.” Among its themes, the film investigates what might have led this young Palestinian girl to undertake such a deadly mission.

One wonders whether the two 17 year olds with very similar looks may have briefly glanced at one another before the detonation. Perhaps they noticed that they were around the same age, had long dark hair and dark complexions, small body types and even similar facial features. Both were high school seniors with plans and dreams.

But, even though the two young women had numerous similarities and had grown up less than four miles apart, they hailed from two vastly different worlds. Al-Akhras lived in the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, a heavily populated and impoverished area under the constant threat of Israeli incursions and where some 11,000 people are crammed together in one square kilometer. Al-Akhras’ formative years were spent in an environment of death, fear, checkpoints and humiliations. Levy, by contrast, grew up in a Jerusalem neighborhood remarkably western in style and culture, with an atmosphere of openness, freedom, independence and abundance. With all that, there is also the constant threat of terror, which creates lack of basic freedom and difficulties and fear in daily life.

Following the deaths of their cherished daughters, both families are hurt and broken. Levy’s mother can’t get over the loss of her daughter and struggles constantly with negative feelings toward al-Akhras, her family and Palestinians in general. Levy is unable to comprehend how a 17-year-old girl could decide to end her life — just like that — and potentially take so many others with her. As part of her quest for answers, Levy decides that she wants to meet the mother of her daughter’s killer.

TO DIE IN JERUSALEM presents the deadly conflict between Israel and Palestine through the eyes of two families who have lost their daughters in the conflict. By contrasting the lives and deaths of these two teenage girls, the documentary offers a personal perspective that is all too often eclipsed by political issues. The film explores on one side, al-Akhras’ reasons and ideology, and the events that led her to sacrifice her life. On the other, Levy, who paid with her life when she was caught up in the ongoing conflict during her daily routine.

Nothing about it is simple. Or clear. While one girl’s death was, in a sense, chosen, the other’s was a twist of fate or tragic destiny — yet both are victims of one of the longest, most complicated and disturbing conflicts of our time. The film’s glimpse into each young woman’s world seeks to enhance the viewer’s understanding of the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, while opening a window into the lives of these tragic families as they cope with their pain.

TO DIE IN JERUSALEM doesn’t suggest a solution to the conflict, but unabashedly explores the difficulties, fears and gaps between opposing sides. However, as Avigail Levy’s character develops through the film, and al-Akhras agrees to meet with her, a channel of communication opens up. And with it, new hope for a better future.

* Israeli-Arabs are full citizens of the State of Israel, with equal protection under the law, and full rights of due process. Israeli Arabs comprise around 15 percent of the country’s total number of citizens. They are the descendants of the 150,000 Arabs who remained within Israel’s borders during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and of the Wadi-Ara Palestinians who came under Israel jurisdiction as part of a territory exchange under the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Jordan.

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