The women who would die for Allah

In Gaza, a young man dies, but his sisters do not weep, they rejoice. And they insist that they, too

Death is a carefully orchestrated affair in Gaza. We went to the funeral of 28-year-old Osama Helless, who was killed by Israeli forces when he shot dead an Israeli settler. The Islamic resistance group Hamas had taken control of the funeral - after all, Osama had become theirs when he went on the "operation".

The "shahid" or martyr - a status awarded to anyone who dies attacking Israel - was a handsome young man. He had avoided getting married, despite the constant haranguing of his aunts, who would have arranged a match. He was extremely popular in his neighbourhood, in his mosque and at university.

Osama had set out on his mission without a word to his family, but he knew there would be no return. Hamas has been winning Palestinian hearts and minds since the new intifada began 15 months ago - claiming 1,125 lives to date - and there is no shortage of young men offering themselves as recruits. Whereas five years ago only 20 per cent of Palestinians approved of suicide attacks, recent polls have shown that more than 70 per cent support them now.

The concept of martyrdom becomes clearer in the Gaza Strip. Three-quarters of the 1.2 million population live in refugee camps. Families of 14, 16 or 20 are often squeezed into two-room hovels. With the new uprising, things have gone rapidly downhill. No one can travel to day jobs in Israel, and the internal economy has collapsed. The UN feeds 80 per cent of the population and two-thirds are out of work. Essentials cost the same as in Israel, but Gazans earn 18 times less.

Hamas had set up a shahid tent for the men at the side of the Helless family home, and sprayed the walls with heroic Islamic graffiti. Activists were busy painting murals of Osama's face all over Gaza's slums and townships. Children wrote his name in ball-point pen on their arms. A group of kids followed us everywhere: "We want to be shahids," they told us with smiles.

Over three days, thousands called to pay their respects, among them Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. An honour. But it struck me that Osama's father, unable to show his sadness, had become a bystander at his own son's funeral.

The women aren't part of the public event - it's not the custom. They congregate in the house, away from the men. About 40 women were gathered in the main room, sitting on Persian carpets on the floor. I was in Gaza for Channel 4's Unreported World, working with the director and cameraman Rodrigo Vazquez. Before he was allowed to enter the house, we had to warn the women so that they could fix their veils and put on their public faces.

Gaza is more traditional than the West Bank, and its women are reluctant to speak to journalists. In this case, however, they wanted to talk about Osama's life. He was a hero now. I offered my condolences - a faux pas. "We don't consider this is a time for sadness," explained Osama's younger sister, Reham. "This is a time for joy and happiness. Because we are sure that our brother is now having all the pleasure of heaven. We should be pleased for him, not sad."

I asked the women to describe him. He was kind, generous and funny. He had a degree in economics and political science. He was always a gentleman to women . . .

But he had killed an Israeli mother of four, I felt I had to point out. How could Osama's mother stand it?

"They kill our children," she replied.

Reham took me upstairs to her brother's bedroom. It was an ordinary room, with books, a prayer mat, a portable television. A coffee cup still sat by the bedside. Like the other women, Reham wore a long black gown and a white veil. Standing by the window, she looked like a nun, a St Teresa of Avila figure. She told me that Osama had saved money to pay off outstanding university fees. At the last moment, he'd spent the money on a Kalashnikov. How did she feel about his choice?

"We know what Palestine needs from us," said Reham. "Jihad. If Osama had chosen differently, he would have been living for himself, but failing Palestine. Everyone should choose sacrifice until we restore our rights. Israel is occupying our land and we have to get rid of it. Jihad is the only way." Then Reham turned to me: "I am sorry that I am not the shahid," she said. "Osama took my wish to be a martyr and preceded me. We were in a race and he beat me. It's what I've always wanted to do."

I'd never heard of women in Gaza becoming suicide bombers. I listened, mesmerised, knowing that Palestinian women rarely speak so candidly about their feelings. But maybe Reham was just upset because of Osama's death.

"I, too, wish very much to be in the mujahedin," said Mahira, Reham's friend from university, an engineering student. I was stunned. What would make these gentle-looking girls want to kill? Had they been inspired by other women?

"Yes," said Reham, "there was a woman who tried to carry out suicide attacks. But I can't remember the name or where."

I wondered whether she meant Leila Khaled, who became a revolutionary icon in the 1960s when she took part in two hijackings. But she was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a secular, Marxist group. In the war in Lebanon, women as well as men became suicide bombers, but they were always from secular groups, and their targets were never civilians.

Had Hamas decided to recruit women?

Last August, the High Islamic Council in Saudi Arabia exhorted women to join the armed struggle. Two days later, a Palestinian woman was caught with explosives in Tel Aviv's bus station. Newspaper reports suggested that scores, if not hundreds, of women were preparing for jihad. "The women will fight, too," declared the Israeli-Arab spiritual leader, Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish. "Israel has signed a death warrant against the Palestinians, so it's reasonable for women to join the struggle. Now the Palestinians prefer to be killed at the front rather than wait and be killed at home."

But there has been no evidence that this was anything but propaganda. The woman in Tel Aviv was an isolated case. Since then, there have been no suicide attacks carried out by women. Perhaps they are being clandestinely trained for action - though this seems unlikely in ultra-traditional Gaza, where only 3 per cent of women work outside the home, lest their "honour" be compromised. Yet I was talking to two sensible, well-educated young women who were saying that they wanted to go on suicide missions. Were they serious?

"Yes," said Reham. "We have gone to Hamas and Islamic Jihad many times. We wish the Islamic movement would recruit girls into jihad, but their policy is total rejection of this. They say it is not the place of girls; they don't want us to go through what other mujahedin go through when they are arrested. They don't want Islamic women in Israeli jails. So now my tongue is my weapon. I am very good at spreading the word of Islam in my community."

"I want very much to be a mujahidah [warrior]," said Mahira, "but we know our enemy. They are savages. That's why the movement won't let women go."

Our fixer raised an eyebrow. "God, they are hard," he said.

One of the most depressing things about Gaza is its total isolation from Israelis. Neither Mahira nor Reham (or anyone else in their teens or twenties I spoke to) had ever met an Israeli civilian. The only Israelis they know are the soldiers.

"When I was a little girl and I saw the soldiers with guns, it put such fear in my heart," Mahira recalled.

Then how could she condone shahids killing children in pizza restaurants in Jerusalem? How did she feel for the Israeli mothers?

"I feel sorry for the parents," she told me. "This is natural. But then I think, having learnt it in the Holy Koran, all children go straight to heaven. And I am so pleased that these children will go to heaven. And maybe when they get there, they can plead for their Israeli parents." Her words were spoken in a soft voice, while a beatific expression spread across her face.

A few days later, there was another martyr funeral. Our fixer dropped by. His wife, Fatima (not her real name), sat in the car outside the shahid tent. It was night, and the martyr's video, his last words, recorded by Hamas before he went on his death mission, was being projected on to the side of the family's house.

Fatima watched from the car as the shahid asked his friends and family to be good Muslims, to live by the Koran and to be happy for him now that he is in heaven. Towards the end of the film, he posed with his gun and sang and laughed.

"It was so beautiful," said Fatima. "It's the first one I've seen. He looked so happy, like he was going to his wedding."

We were sitting in a restaurant and her three-year-old son sucked on a milkshake.

She cradled him in her arms. "That's what I want for him when he grows up," she said.

"God, she is hard," laughed her husband, shaking his head.

Unreported World's film from Gaza, Journeys to Heaven and Hell, is transmitted on Channel 4 on Friday 11 January at 7.30pm