NABLUS, WEST BANK — NABLUS, West Bank - When the two Palestinian 17-year-olds left their dingy neighborhoods here to blow themselves up at an Israeli grocery store and bus stop this week, they carried with them more than bags packed with explosives and nails.
Islam Yousef Qteishat and Hamis Jurrin, two anonymous teen-agers living almost as neighbors in this battle-scarred city, were armed with the ability to throw a cease-fire and the peace-making efforts of some of the world's most powerful politicians into turmoil.
Their single acts of self-immolation, which killed two Israelis within one hour, demonstrated once again how militants can control the ebb and flow of this deadly conflict and how they may determine whether and when peace is declared.
That was exactly the point, the fathers of the two youths said in separate interviews yesterday. Although both men grieved over the loss of their sons, they also exhibited pride in the mission their boys had carried out.
It is not the politicians - be they Palestinian, Israeli or American - who will decide when the fighting stops, they said, because when the Palestinian street wants to influence the discourse, it has a powerful weapon: suicide bombers.
The only person who matters in this complicated war of attrition, said Jurrin's father, Hosni Assad Jurrin, "is the one wearing the explosive belt. ... It tells the world that we exist. The Israelis can do what they want, but we can respond."
Added Qteishat's father, Yousef Qteishat: "It was a message to the Israelis. You stop, we stop. You keep going, we keep going."
Israelis consider these suicide attacks the most reprehensible of crimes; Palestinian extremists consider them their only real weapon. Israeli officials say there can be no end to the violence until the Palestinian Authority dismantles militant groups. Palestinian leaders say they can't control the militants until Israel stops raiding cities.
It was such a raid last week in Nablus that apparently led to one of this week's suicide attacks. Israel killed two men in Nablus on Aug. 8, saying they were bomb makers from the militant group Hamas. On Tuesday, in retaliation, Hamas sent Islam Qteishat on his mission, which culminated at a bus stop.
Another raid occurred yesterday, when the Israeli army sent its troops into the West Bank city of Hebron and killed a prominent Islamic Jihad leader, Mohammed Ayub Sidr, 25. That set off still more threats of revenge, with Islamic Jihad saying its response would "shake like an earthquake in the heart of the Zionist entity."
Leaders scrambled yesterday to save the strained cease-fire and advance the American-backed peace plan called the "road map." Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz met with U.S. adviser John Wolf and later with Palestinian security minister Mohammed Dahlan. Egyptian officials said they would talk with militant leaders in Gaza to urge restraint.
Palestinian leaders say their efforts to eradicate extremist groups from Palestinian society through negotiations rather than force have failed because Israel has not made the kind of concessions that would convince people that they can obtain freedom by disarming.
'A fault line'
Roni Shaked, an Israeli journalist for the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and an expert on military affairs, said the six-week cease-fire, coupled with army pullbacks and the easing of restrictions in some areas, has had at least some effect.
"A fault line has been created on the Palestinian street, which is beginning to feel a change in its everyday life, and the terror organizations, which are sticking to their path," he wrote in a column this week. "But this gap is not enough for the population to eject terror from its midst."
Until that happens, Shaked wrote, "the bearers of arms are still the rulers of the street."
Army officials say they will not allow militants to exploit the cease-fire to regroup and rearm and so must carry out raids. Yesterday, an elite commando unit surrounded a carpentry workshop in Hebron used as a hiding place by Sidr, who was the city's Islamic Jihad leader and whom Israel had twice tried to kill before.
After a six-hour gunfight, the army fired anti-tank missiles into the building, toppling the walls. Sidr's burned and bullet-ridden body was found inside, lying next to a rifle and ammunition. Officials said he had been building car bombs and was preparing a major attack.
"It is not by chance that Sidr was in an explosives laboratory when we found him and that he was armed with hand grenades and guns and was ready for battle," army Col. Hagai Mordechai told reporters in Hebron.
Israeli security sources said Sidr was responsible for attacks that killed 19 Israelis and injured more than 80 - including the shooting deaths last year of a dozen soldiers and police on Worshipers Way in Hebron and an attack that killed international observers from Switzerland and Turkey.
Yesterday's raid was similar to the one Jurrin, one of the 17-year-old suicide bombers, witnessed Aug. 8. He was among a group of stone-throwers fired on by police, and his best friend, Mohammed Atik, was killed.
Jurrin, who was sent on his mission to a supermarket by the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Qteishat, dispatched by Hamas, were marked by their lives on the Palestinian street, in a neighborhood besieged by the Israeli military.
They knew each other only from chance meetings on the street, though they grew up a few hundred yards from each other. Jurrin, who lived in the Askar Refugee Camp, a cinder-block warren of hovels, had dropped out of school and sold shoes from a pushcart.
Jurrin's father said that although his son threw stones at soldiers, he was a quiet boy who rarely talked politics. He said he never thought his son could commit a suicide attack.
Qteishat, who dreamed of being a lawyer, lived in poverty just outside the camp in an apartment building next to a United Nations school. His 53-year-old father runs a perfume shop to support two wives and 19 children, including one who was permanently maimed when shot by Israelis during the first uprising in the late 1980s.
Qteishat had been involved with Hamas since he was a young boy, and his father said he talked him out of blowing himself up two years ago.
Yesterday, Yousef Qteishat stood in the remains of his apartment, which Israeli soldiers had blown up as retribution, and watched as neighbors swept away damaged belongings. His son's room had borne the blunt of the dynamite; none of his personal effects were left. A broken fan dangled from the ceiling.
The father said he thought his son had given up on Hamas two years ago and was concentrating on his studies. He described him as a good student who studied the law. "He hid his true feeling from us," Qteishat said. "He appeared to be normal."
On the night before the bombing, Qteishat said, his son went to the store, bought a bottle of Coke and some humus and sat with the family on the roof of the apartment building to escape the heat. Qteishat said he didn't think it odd then, but he recalls that his son was unusually quiet and lovingly handed his mother spoonfuls of food.
He said his son's bombing sends a message to the world that "we have the strength to sacrifice ourselves" to end Israel's occupation on the West Bank and obtain a Palestinian state. "This is the only way we can make change. We love to live, but we are ready to die."
'It got worse'
Jurrin's father, Hosni, said he is still trying to figure out how his son graduated from throwing stones at Israeli tanks to blowing himself up. His house had been demolished too, and he sat yesterday in a large hall, mourning with friends and family as a tape of an imam reading from the Quran played softly in the background.
Hosni Jurrin said he had hoped that a cease-fire would bring change. But Nablus, deemed a "terror hub" by Israel, remains under army siege and is frequently raided. The relief brought by Israeli withdrawals from Bethlehem and Gaza is not felt here.
"It was supposed to improve, but just the opposite happened," Jurrin said. "It got worse."
Jurrin said he was pleased with the attention the bombings received from world leaders, proving, he said, that they were successful in refocusing world opinion on the Palestinian cause. He disagreed with U.S. officials who said the bombings only hurt the aspirations of the Palestinian people.
"It's too hard to say there is hope," he said, shaking his head as he greeted yet another friend offering condolences. "But it's never impossible."