The phone rang at 10 o’clock at night. The caller asked politely to speak to Muhi Adin Sharif.
In fact, Sharif was sleeping, but the call roused him from his bed. Somebody was after him. Minutes before Israeli soldiers surrounded the house, Sharif slipped out a back door and into the darkness. He still was dressed in his pajamas.
That was Aug. 23, 1995. Sharif has managed to elude the dragnet of Israeli security ever since, leaving a trail of bloodshed behind him. The 31-year-old zealot is suspected of master-minding a string of suicide bombings on behalf of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement.
Sharif ranks near the top of Israel’s most-wanted list.
Some suspect he is the successor to Yehiya Ayyash, “The Engineer” - the master bomb maker who was assassinated last year with a booby-trapped mobile telephone, which almost certainly had been installed by Israeli agents.
Before his rise to prominence within Hamas, Sharif worked only sporadically as a free-lance electrician - hence, the nom de guerre of “The Electrician” sometimes given Sharif in the Israeli press.
His brother Ibrahim Sharif said Muhi Sharif is a devout Muslim who first ran afoul of the law when he tried to set fire to a social club where men were playing cards and gambling. He is unmarried, with no college education.
“I wouldn’t say he is a great genius. You don’t need to be Albert Einstein to make a bomb. He is not an ideologue like Che Guevara. But he is very qualified at what he does and very dangerous,” said Menachem Klein, an expert on Islamic terrorist groups at Bar-Ilan University.
Shlomo Gazit, a former military intelligence director, also describes Muhi Sharif as an unexceptional character who distinguishes himself merely by his zeal for his cause.
“I’m sure it is more difficult to learn Hebrew than to become a mediocre terrorist. I wouldn’t give too much credit to the intelligence or sophistication of these operations,” Gazit said.
Last month, Muhi Sharif was at the top of a list of 36 terror suspects to be arrested that Israel submitted to the Palestinian police. Israeli suspicions that Sharif was hiding out in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, led to all of Bethlehem being sealed off by Israeli security for much of the summer.
Muhi Sharif was born April 4, 1966, the fifth in a family of six children. His father runs a falafel stand in Jerusalem’s Old City, and the family owns a comfortable house in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighborhood at the north end of Jerusalem in the shadow of a large new Jewish settlement, Pisgat Zeev.
Ibrahim Sharif, 38, the oldest son in the family, said Muhi is the family’s most devout Muslim.
As a young man, Muhi spent much of his time at the Beit Hanina mosque. Although he occasionally joined other young men in throwing stones at the onset of the “intifada,” the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987, Ibrahim said his brother’s interests were more religious than political then.
“He was quiet. He would help the kids study the Koran. He liked to play soccer,” Ibrahim said.
It was after his arrest for arson in 1989 that Muhi Sharif turned militant, Ibrahim said.
In 1993, he was jailed for relaying messages among Hamas members. He was attending a vocational school in Jerusalem to become an electrician, but he was kicked out because of his criminal record. The family tried to get him a permit to leave the country in the hope he could find work in one of the Persian Gulf countries, but Muhi’s record also precluded that.
“We wanted him to get a job, to get married, just like any other normal person, but it was difficult for Muhi. At checkpoints, he was always stopped for being an ex-con. He couldn’t leave. Israel closed off all doors in front of him. They made him what he became. He had no other future,” Ibrahim Sharif said.
Hamas - which in Arabic means “fervor” but also stands for Islamic resistance - was established in the late 1980s by a wheelchair-bound Gaza cleric, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. In the tradition of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, it promotes Islamic devotion and runs a network of charities, schools and mosques.
Hamas is a sprawling organization with several wings. The most militant is the Izzedine el-Qassam Brigades, which has carried out many terrorist attacks against Israel.
In July 1995, Muhi Sharif himself volunteered to become what Hamas activists refer to as a martyr - a suicide bomber for the Palestinian cause.
According to statements later given by other activists to police, he had hooked up with a terrorist cell in the West Bank city of Nablus and was supplied with a suitcase filled with explosives. He also made a videotape in which he stated his desire to die for the cause.
The intended target was Jerusalem’s central bus station, which the terrorists expected would be swarming with soldiers returning to their posts on a Sunday morning, the start of the Israeli workweek.
But Sharif balked and never left home. He later told his fellow Hamas activists that it was not out of cowardice, but there were too many checkpoints on the road to Jerusalem.
Whatever the truth, Sharif’s career with Hamas did not suffer. The next month, he served as a courier delivering a case of explosives to the suicide bomber who blew himself up on a crowded rush-hour bus in Jerusalem. Three people, including a Connecticut schoolteacher, were killed in the Aug. 21, 1995, attack.
Two days later, Sharif vanished from his Beit Hanina home - just minutes ahead of Israeli security. Little is known about his activities since, but it is believed that Sharif rose to prominence within Hamas after the assassination of Yehiya “The Engineer” Ayyash, on Jan. 5, 1996.
Sharif is suspected in a string of suicide bombings in February and March that followed Ayyash’s death and that ultimately helped bring hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu to power as Israeli prime minister last year on a tide of public outrage over terrorism.
Ironically, a cousin of Muhi’s was a victim of a bus bombing last February in Jerusalem that is attributed to Sharif and his gang, and at least one wing of the family is furious.
“He goes out to kill Israelis, and he ends up killing his cousin,” another cousin, who asked not to be named, said of Muhi.
Last month, following the suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, Israeli security detained Sharif’s parents and demanded blood and saliva samples so DNA testing could determine whether Muhi Sharif had been one of the suicide bombers.
Klein, the Hamas expert, said Sharif appears to be the field commander of the Hamas military wing on the West Bank. He reportedly works with two others at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list: Muhammad Deif of Gaza and Adel Audallah, 30, an activist who reportedly works out of Nablus.
“These are high-level people. They work with the gangs mobilizing suicide bombers, and I would imagine they take their orders directly from Damascus and Amman,” Klein said, referring to the most militant Hamas leadership living in Syria and Jordan.
Last week, Netanyahu charged that the most recent terror attacks in Israel have been directed by Khalid Mashaal, the Hamas leader living in Amman who was the target of a botched assassination plot by Israel’s Mossad.
It is not clear how Muhi Sharif has managed to elude Israeli security for the last two years. According to security reports, Sharif had asked his family for help in obtaining a forged identification card and passport so he could escape to Jordan.
But it is believed he remained on the West Bank, shaving his bushy beard and perhaps disguising himself as a woman to pass through checkpoints. There have been reported sightings of Sharif in Nablus and Ramallah. He communicates occasionally with his family through messages stuffed in pita bread, and early last year, he met briefly with his brother Ibrahim in Jericho.
In retribution, the Israeli army bulldozed a wing of the family’s home in Beit Hanina so that pink tiles of a partially destroyed bathroom jut into the front patio.
“Muhi, Muhi - everybody is always asking about Muhi. Every time there is a bomb, the police are here looking for Muhi,” lamented Maysoun Sharif, Muhi’s sister-in-law.
The family reacts to Muhi’s infamy with a curious mixture of pride and disdain.
Over coffee in the living room, Ibrahim Sharif hospitably whips out a photo album with news clippings about Muhi pasted together with old family photos.
But Muhi’s father, Yehiya Sharif, angrily denounces his son for bringing grief upon the family and causing part of its house to be destroyed. He said friends and relatives are afraid to visit for fear they would be questioned by Israeli or Palestinian security.
“God willing, if I saw my son again, I wouldn’t talk to him. I worked 15 years in Tel Aviv to build this house, only to have Muhi destroy it,” said the elder Sharif. “We are totally against these suicide bombings.”