RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Almost six years ago, Mai and Manar Ghussein, Palestinian schoolgirls, decided to join the fight against the Israeli occupation of their people. The two cousins bought a knife and waited outside the Old City of Jerusalem for a Jew to stab.
Mai, 19, wielded the knife on that June day in 1991, stabbing a man wearing the knitted skullcap of a religious Jewish settler. She and Manar, 17 at the time, say they picked the man because he had a gun on his hip; they say they saw the settler's gun as a symbol of their oppression.
This week, after serving five years and eight months in prison, the cousins were set free as part of a prisoner release specified in the peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians.
They were released along with 29 other Palestinian women, some of whom succeeded in killing their Israeli victims. Mai actually did kill a Palestinian suspected of collaborating with the Israelis while she was in prison. The act got her a life term.
To many Israelis, these women were terrorists with "blood on their hands," and a hue and cry went up against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to go ahead with their release.
But Palestinians welcomed the freed women as heroines of the intifada, the violent struggle against Israeli authority from 1987 until 1993, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords were signed.
Here in Ramallah, the Palestinian city north of Jerusalem, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat personally welcomed them.
Signs on the municipal building praised the women as "freedom fighters" and "our pride."
Girls in school uniforms waited to shake their hands.
Mothers brought babies to be kissed.
Palestinian legislators, some former prisoners of Israeli jails, stopped by to welcome the young women home.
Aida Al-Ahmad, 50, traveled two hours from the northern Palestinian city of Jenin to attend a reception for the freed female prisoners. "They're our daughters," said Al-Ahmad. "We're happy for them."
Studious and reserved
Dressed in a long black coat-dress favored by religious women, Mai sat solemnly next to her 23-year-old cousin, Manar. Pale-skinned and wearing big round glasses, she appeared studious and reserved, like any number of women one might see on the campus of an Islamic university.
Unlike some of her fellow inmates, Mai insisted that she was not a member of a Palestinian resistance group or political organization during the intifada. Israeli authorities say that she and Manar were both members of the mainstream Fatah group of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
One of seven children of divorced parents, Mai went to a secular girls' high school in East Jerusalem where teachers emphasized Palestinian pride and activism.
In 1991, Mai dropped out of school. The intifada had been under way for four years. Mai and Manar's contemporaries were the stone-throwing youths of the intifada.
Some were killed. Some were injured. Many were imprisoned.
According to Israeli records, 1,067 Palestinians were killed and 18,000 injured during the intifada; 114 Israelis were killed and 7,137 injured.
"What was happening here made us grow up," said Manar.
"When I was in school, before the intifada, I was thinking about studying," Mai said in an interview earlier this week. "When the intifada started, when I saw what happened to my people, I recognized the difference between the important things and the more important things
"We have to resist, and each of us has to do it in our own way," said Mai, her arm draped around her cousin. "I don't consider myself violent. Each one of us had to do something and this was what we were able to do."
The two young women carefully thought out their plan to kill an Israeli.
On the day they picked to attack, they positioned themselves outside the Damascus Gate of the Old City and watched Israelis entering. The first Jew with a skullcap had his children in tow. The women looked for someone else. Other Jews passed them. Then, they say, they saw a man with a gun on his hip. He represented the occupiers who ruled with guns and military might.
The man survived the attack. The attackers were arrested immediately.
In prison, Mai and Manar joined other female prisoners for discussion and study groups. They usually lived six women to a cell. Mai spent about 40 days in solitary confinement during her imprisonment.
She took advantage of the books provided by the Red Cross, reading such classics as "Oliver Twist." She also found time to sketch, and she took and passed high school equivalency exams.
Pardoned for peace
Under the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, the women were to have been pardoned and released last year. But when President Ezer Weizman refused to pardon them all, the ones who were pardoned refused to leave without the others. It was not until this week that all of the women were pardoned.
Many Palestinians believe that without the pressure of the intifada, there would have been no peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Mai Ghussein seems to see it that way.
"I haven't forgotten the cause," she said. "Before, in the intifada, we had the knife. Now we have the peace process."
Pub Date: 2/15/97