Via The Corner|
By Inigo Gilmore in Hebron
Eight Palestinian footballers who played for a team from their local mosque in Hebron have killed 34 Israelis and injured scores of others in a series of suicide attacks during the past two months.
In the deadliest incident, a bus-bombing in Haifa in March, a midfield player, Mahmoud Hamdan Qawasmeh, killed 16 Israelis. Last month eight people died in the most recent attack carried out by a member of the Jihad Mosque XI, who blew himself up on a bus in Jerusalem.
The three remaining players have been arrested by the Israeli authorities.
Details of how Hamas, the Islamic militant group, secretly recruited young men from the mosque team are only now emerging.
The story of the team - six of whom lived in the same Hebron neighbourhood - illustrates the uphill task facing the new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, as he tries to rein in militant groups and stop suicide attacks against Israeli targets.
Last night Mr Abbas - also known as Abu Mazen - was facing his most serious challenge so far, after Hamas rejected his call for a ceasefire which he made at last week's Aqaba summit in Jordan.
For months after the Hebron footballers were recruited by Hamas, they aroused little suspicion. They were renowned as fierce opponents, but no one anticipated just how deadly they would prove off the field. Only after the eighth player blew himself up in Jerusalem did Israeli intelligence officers wake up to the fact that the Jihad Mosque XI was no ordinary side.
At his apartment in Hebron, Ziad Al Fakhouri proudly displayed the shirt worn by his son Fadi, a striker. The front of the shirt bore a hand wielding an axe, ringed by an inscription which read: "Prepare for the enemy and to fight the occupation."
Fadi, 21, died in March in an attack on an Israeli settlement on the edge of Hebron, during which he and a team-mate shot dead four people before being gunned down themselves. Within 24 hours, two of the team's defenders were killed while carrying out another shooting attack. "Maybe they talked about these operations during football practice," Mr Al Fakhouri said. "My son was in the first group of shahids [martyrs] and I would have stopped him if I had known. I think the others in the team wanted to follow them to paradise."
Mr Al Fakhouri only discovered that Hamas was behind the operation a few days after the attack, when he received an envelope containing a photograph and a farewell note from his son.
At the top of the street near the Jihad Mosque, a group of young men were hanging around by the concrete football area where the team had trained. They told how the team would chant their motto before every match: "Jihad, Jihad, Jihad. Allahu Akbar [God is Great]." Graffiti scribbled across the walls read: "We will avenge the killing of every Hamas follower."
David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlement in the centre of Hebron, said the football team's activities revealed the deep-rooted culture of hatred within the local Palestinian population. "The question is whether this team was created as a cover for a suicide squad, or whether it first existed as a 'friendly' football team whose players were then recruited," he said. "Ultimately, though, it amounts to the same thing - we are dealing with people who are very sick and very dangerous."