JEBALIYA, Gaza Strip – The oldest Palestinian suicide bomber, a 64-year-old widow, lived in a one-room shack and had so many grandchildren that relatives lost track of the number, but her daughter said Fatma Omar An-Najar was driven to lay down her life in an attack on Israelis Thursday because one grandson was killed and another disabled in clashes with troops.
Fatma presided over a small army of militants, mostly from the Islamic Hamas movement, but with a few active in the rival Fatah. Her husband, who died a year ago, served time in Israeli jails, so did five of her seven sons. One of her numerous grandsons died at 17 four years ago, fighting Israeli troops during an incursion into nearby Beit Lahiya, relatives said, and another teenage grandson lost a leg from gunshot wounds after he tried to stab a soldier.
One of her sons, Samir, 36, estimated that her nine offspring had a total of between 35 and 38 children of their own.
"She had an army of grandchildren," he said.
Her oldest daughter, Fatheya, said she and her mother had taken part in rally at a Gaza mosque three weeks ago, where women defied a cordon of heavily-armed Israeli troops to create a diversion for besieged Hamas fighters to slip away.
"She and I, we went to the mosque. We were looking for martyrdom," she said.
A veteran Hamas supporter, she sheltered fugitive militants during the first Palestinian uprising of 1987-1993, they said.
The couple's home was demolished by the Israeli army for harboring a Hamas leader, leaving Fatma and her husband to get by in a spartan lean-to tacked onto the complex of buildings housing the extended An-Najar family, with a mattress on the floor and little else.
Widowed, alone, her children grown, the embittered matriarch vented her frustration Thursday by strapping an explosive charge to herself and going on a Hamas-sponsored operation to blow herself up amid a group of Israeli soldiers operating in a nearby Palestinian refugee camp. The army said that the troops were at the ready after a tip-off of an impending attack and hurled a stun grenade at the woman as she approached them.
Startled, she detonated the charge while she was still some distance from the soldiers, killing herself instantly but only slightly injuring two of her intended victims, the military said.
Before setting out on her suicide mission, she filmed the video testament customary for such bombers.
A copy obtained by The Associated Press showed a petite woman wearing a white headscarf and black dress, toting an assault rifle on her shoulder and standing in front of a Hamas wall mural.
Reading from a sheet of paper, she dedicated her attack to the Hamas-led government of Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and to the movement's military commander, Mohammed Deif.
"I hope God accepts it," she said.
Relatives gathering at the family compound for Fatma's wake Thursday evening said the attack itself came as a surprise to them, but her will to die fighting the Israelis did not.
"They destroyed her house, they killed her grandson — my son," said Fatheya, one of her two daughters. "Another grandson is in a wheelchair with an amputated leg," she said.