The first hours of March 11, 1978 were unusually stormy off the South Lebanon coast. Into the teeth of the foul weather, 13 Palestinians launched a small vessel in the dark waters near Sidon. Several miles from shore, they transferred to a pair of rubber dinghies and headed south toward the Israel coast. Along the way, one of the crafts sunk, drowning two of its occupants.
Undeterred, the survivors squeezed into the remaining dinghy and continued, finally landing in a mid-afternoon drizzle at a nature preserve near Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael, about 35 miles north of Tel Aviv.
The Palestinians moved inland from the beach. They had planned on landing closer to Tel Aviv and had not a clue where they were. But good fortune lay just ahead. For also at Ma'agan Michael that afternoon was Gail Rubin, a New York City-born nature photographer. She was stalking rare birds at one of her favorite haunts.
The Palestinians approached her. The lone woman among them, Beirut social worker Dalal Mughrabi, asked the way to the capital.
A reporter later wrote of Rubin: "It was probably the New Yorker in her that provided them with thorough directions."
Route in hand, the Palestinians were prepared to hike up to the Haifa-Tel Aviv road. First, Dalal Mughrabi had some unfinished business. She raised an AK-47 assault rifle and pointed it at Gail Rubin.
Her likeness stared out from a battle-scared building in West Beirut, pasted up like a circus poster. Its presence there was a tell-tale sign: Only through violent death do you join the many faces that peer from concrete walls throughout this wounded city.
She was a dark-featured beauty with piercing, almost black eyes that demanded a closer look. The eyes dominated the picture, suggesting uncommon determination.
Her portrait hung in factories, too, and in offices, hospitals and homes.
"Her name is Dalal Mughrabi," said a guide named Saleh. "She's a Palestinian martyr...our first woman martyr. If you like, we can visit her family. Her brother, Mohammed, is a friend of mine."
It was 1979. Four years of civil war had turned Lebanon from the region's most sophisticated city into a barbaric den. Death by violence was as common as a cup of morning coffee. Yet, considering what would follow during the next 12 years, it was a relatively peaceful time.
The Mughrabis' single-story cinderblock home was squeezed between several apartment buildings and retail shops in West Beirut's Sabra district. Sabra's residents were mostly Muslim Lebanese and Palestinians. Within a Frisbee toss of the Mughrabi house was the Chatila refugee camp, home to more than 12,000 Palestinians.
Mohammed answered the door and welcomed us into the Mughrabi home. He was fair-skinned and slender and wore jeans and a T-shirt. A sparse mustache grew below a broad nose on which rested large wire-rimmed glasses.
Inside, Dalal's mother sat knitting on a tattered sofa. As she rose to greet her guests, two young boys, who had been playing in a corner of the room, suddenly dashed for refuge behind her portly figure. They clung to their mother's dress like a couple of koala bear cubs.
On a far wall was the familiar picture of her daughter. The most conspicuous picture of Dalal, however, rested atop the Mughrabis' TV. A sparkling gold medal attached to a red, green and white ribbon covered the frame.
"That's the Martyrdom Medal of Honor," Mohammed said. "It's our country's highest honor."
"Our country" meant Palestine, which exists only on old maps - and in the minds of three million refugees.
In a cool, damp room off the courtyard, Mrs. Mughrabi served Turkish coffee - thick, dark, biting stuff in cups the size of a shot glass. Mohammed blew on his - it was hot - and began his painful story.
'It's been some time now since she left us," he whispered. "She was special. Very special."
Saleh, the guide, spoke up. "Show him the book, Mohammed."
"Yes, the book," Mughrabi said, sounding relieved. He left the room and quickly returned carrying a photo album. "Dalal left this with us before she went away."
In the first pages were pictures of the Mughrabi children playing in the Lebanon mountains. It was easy to pick out Dalal.
"There are 11 of us," Mughrabi said.
There were snapshots of Dalal and her friends hamming it up, and several of her perched on her late father's lap. Papa Mughrabi smiled. Dalal did not.
"My father was from Haifa," Mughrabi said. "He left with the others in 1948 and came to south Lebanon. He ended up here."
Mughrabi changed places with Saleh so he could help turn the pages. Her now famous high school graduation picture was next.
Mughrabi: "After she finished school she began working with kids in the refugee camps. Dalal loved children."
He flipped the page. Suddenly, there was a different Dalal. She wore olive green fatigues. Around her neck was a black and white kufyieh [headdress], and her once neatly coiffed hair was frizzy. She confidently gripped an AK-47. Her eyes retained the same determined look.
Clearly, there would be no more fun and games for Dalal Mughrabi.
"She felt like she wasn't doing enough to help our people," he brother explained. "She wanted to do more."
There were pictures of Dalal and her comrades. She seemed misplaced among the dark young men, whose beards made them appear older than they were. They must have guessed at their fate - few ever return from such missions - but they smiled and even mugged for the camera.
"Near the end of 1977, Dalal left us for two months to train in the south," Mughrabi said. "She returned for a couple of weeks and then left for good in early March."
A piece of paper fell out of the album. Mughrabi picked it up. "She sent this to a friend of hers after she left," he said, handing it to Saleh for translation:
"I am calculating the hours and the minutes until the Israeli army will know exactly who is the Palestinian girl, and my picture will enter every house, and the people will be amazed from it. Tell my mother and my father and all my sisters and brothers to stop their tears and sadness, for I have died for our homeland. Dalal."
Near the back of the album, there was a map of the mission route - a series of dots and dashes connecting various towns. There was a large red X on Tel Aviv.
Ma'agan Michael, Israel
Gail Rubin was up early on March 11, a rainy Saturday. As a nature photographer, she frequently worked from dawn to dusk scouring her adopted country for pictures of elusive wildlife. She decided to drive north to the nature preserve near Kibbutz Ma'agan Michael. It was a good spot to photograph birds.
She had come to Israel nine years earlier, leaving behind an unsettled life. The only children of a wealthy Jewish family, she was an heir to Krasdale Foods, a company her grandfather founded.
As a youngster, Gail demonstrated a knack for music, learning the piano by age 6. At 10 she dabbled in photography, filling up album after album with Brownie snapshots of birds and animals taken in Central Park, across the street from the apartment building in which she was raised.
Her parents directed her to private schools; she earned degrees from the Dalton School and Finch College. Following graduation, she worked for several publishers and in advertising. Eventually, she became engaged.
At 29, Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her physician recommended a mastectomy. She balked, concerned about disfigurement and convinced the surgery would not prevent her from dying.
She recovered, but the scare apparently altered her priorities. She quit her job, broke off her engagement and left for Israel, where after several weeks she decided to remain.
Finding work was difficult, but her new surroundings stimulated her creative instincts and she returned to photography. Gail learned quickly; news organizations began calling. She soon found herself immersed in the Middle East conflict. Gail was one of the first civilians to cross into Egypt with Israelis troops during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Her combat pictures were widely published.
But she soon found the aggressiveness that photojournalism demanded inappropriate for her contemplative personality. She returned to the work of her youth, beginning with still-lifes of tree bark, then adding flowers, birds and other wildlife.
By 1977, she was good enough to have her work exhibited at the Jewish Museum in New York. Later that year she began photographing Israel's various ethnic groups, beginning with desert-living Bedouins.
But nature photography remained her passion. So it was fitting that when her parents visited in December 1977, one of the places Gail took them to was the nature preserve at Ma'agan Michael.
* * *
Dalal Mughrabi pulled the trigger, instantly killing Gail Rubin.
The Palestinians then hiked to the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway and quickly pulled over a bus. Its passengers tried to flee. A number of them were shot by the Palestinians, who also fired wildly at other passing vehicles. A taxi was halted, its passengers killed.
Finally, the Palestinians herded many of the remaining passengers back into the bus and directed the driver toward Tel Aviv. Along the way, one of the Palestinians knocked out a rear window and continued firing. The commandos stopped another bus; its passengers became hostages on the first.
Israeli soldiers and police responded by placing barriers on the highway, but the driver, with a gun barrel firmly pressed against his right temple, sped past every one. At one such barricade, near Hadera, a policeman fired at the bus. A burst of fatal gunfire sent him sprawling from his jeep.
In front of the Tel Aviv Country Club, on the outskirts of the city, the Israelis erected a large roadblock. As the bus neared, the soldiers opened fire, shooting out the vehicle's tires and bringing it to a halt.
Accounts of what followed vary. At some point, Israelis shot at the bus. At some point, the Palestinians threw grenades and fired automatic weapons. It is unclear which began first. As the fighting intensified, some of the passengers managed to escape through the rear exit. Others, their hands reportedly tied behind their backs, huddled in the aisles.
After 10 minutes, the bus exploded. One Israeli soldier said he threw a grenade. Others said the Palestinians, realizing their mission failed, detonated explosives.
The only thing known for certain was that the raid, known as the Coastal Road Massacre, left 34 Israelis dead, 25 of them passengers on the bus. Another 76 Israelis were injured.
All but two of the Palestinians perished. Dalal Mughrabi was not among the survivors.
On Sept. 14, 1979, the two surviving commandos, Hussein Fiad and Khaled Hussein, appeared before a military court in Lod. The case was concluding its first week.
During the hearing's initial days, the courtroom had been filled with Israeli survivors of the raid and grieving relatives of the victims. The spectators, according to the Jerusalem Post, "cursed and spat" at the defendants. On that day, however, there were only eight observers.
"We have no more strength," one told a Post reporter.
They listened as Hussein and Fiad recounted the details of their mission. The commandos said they came to Israel to seize a large Tel Aviv hotel. Once in control of the hotel, they were supposed to swap their hostages for a group of imprisoned Palestinians.
Their lawyers, Ibrahim Nasser, a Palestinian, and Lea Tsemel, an Israeli, argued that most of the victims died as a result of overaggression by the Israelis.
During questioning, Fiad agreed with his attorneys' assessment.
"We didn't come to kill anyone but to release five of our brothers," he said.
Fiad then told the court that he didn't know why the woman among them, sister Dalal as he called her, had killed the photographer, Gail Rubin.
"She had a good heart," he said, according to the Post. "Ask whoever was left alive among the bus passengers. She gave one child a chocolate bar she had brough from Lebanon."
Queens, New York
Gail Rubin was buried one week after her death at Union Field Cemetery in Queens, New York. She was 39.
In his eulogy, family friend A.H. Raskin, an author and a journalist, described her as a "golden girl," not only because of her copper-colored hair, but as a result of her many achievements.
According to the New York Times' account of the service, Raskin told more than 500 mourners, including a delegation from Tel Aviv, that Gail was an innocent victim of a savage conflict.
He related a conversation they had before her first visit to Israel about the perils of living in a country at war.
Gail told Raskin: "It's a risk I'm running. I just hope that if anything happens I won't suffer."
Raskin also read from the many letters received by her parents. One said, in part: "I know I will never forget Gail Rubin."
"So say we all," Raskin concluded.
Dalal Mughrabi was 20 when she died, either from gunshot wounds received during the fighting or from the flames that engulfed the bus. She and her fellow commandos were buried in a single, unmarked grave. The locations of such burial sites are never revealed. The Israelis fear they would become shrines or serve as gathering places for some of the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Israel and its occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
Why Dalal Mughrabi in a violent struggle waged by Mohammeds, Ahmeds and Alis? On the inside back cover of the album she left behind, she wrote: "Because I loved my country's sky and the faces of the children, they killed me. Because I loved the wheat fields and the warm sun. I'll put the revolution on the sand of my homeland Palestine, between the trees and the flowers. I will dance because I am the source of the revolution which will never finish, and from my blood I will irrigate the land of my homeland, Palestine."
At a Palestinian girls elementary school, a teacher asked this reporter: "Would you like to hear some of our songs?"
Fatima, a slight, bony woman with a loud and frequent laugh, spoke to a young girl in the front row of her classroom. "Layla, will you please come up here and sing for our guest."
She had brown eyes as large as nickels, and her dark, braided hair reached half way to her waist. She was a tiny girl, but there was nothing small about her voice. Layla faced her classmates and sang - no, shouted - lyrics of surprising strength and passion.
"Songs of Palestine," Fatima called them, pointing to familiar themes - revolution, bloodshed, sacrifice, homeland.
Midway through Layla's final song, two words suddenly stood out from the otherwise unintelligible Arabic.
After Layla returned to her seat, Fatima was asked about the last song.
She explained: "It's about a young Palestinian woman who was part of a mission into Palestine. She was killed and has become a hero to all our people...especially to our women and children."
Queens, New York
To reach Union Field Cemetery, you take the BMT Carnarsie line out of New York's Union Square station. You transfer to a No. 18 bus at Wyckoff and Myrtle, in Queens. The bus route, out Cypress Avenue, takes you past neighborhoods filled with five-bedroom homes and cemetery after cemetery. Manhattan has little room for its dead.
It was a curious journey to Gail Rubin's gravesite.
Union Field is a sprawling cemetery, so big you need a detailed map to find your way. It was a short walk up Cedar Avenue, past scores of hefty tombstones - Mendelson, Cohen, Davis, Meyer - to section 52M.
Left up a narrow dirt path lined with red maple, oak and spruce to Cherry Path, and there on the corner is a large granite stone marked Rubin. There are six Rubins present. Gail and her father, Jonathan, lie side by side. Neatly trimmed evergreen shrubs cover the graves. Granite markers identify each tenant.
"A loving man," was the tribute to Gail's father, who died in July 1980.
"My daughter was a pure person who became a victim of pure innocence, brutalized by evil forces," he told a New York times reporter after Gail's death, two years before his own.
It was Rubin who decided his daughter's body should be returned to New York.
"[Even though] she had a deep love and attachment to Israel, I wanted her buried in her home country," he said.
Gail's stone read, "Psalmist with a camera."
An Israeli park ranger had once pointed out to her that she could read about storks, pelicans and other birds in the Bible. His passing remark led to her finest work.
"An idea hatched," she wrote. "A safari to photograph those birds and animals mentioned in the Hebrew Bible which are still present in the Holy Land. So with my camera in one hand and a Biblical guidebook in the other, I set out on my safari."
Following Gail's death, her mother, Estelle, showed her work to editors at Abbeyville Press. The result was a book that reached four printings. The book served as an inspiration for a TV documentary on Israeli wildlife, which appeared on NBC in 1981.
The photographs continue to be exhibited in museums and are widely printed in magazines. Proceeds from her work help fund several projects. There's an annual Gail Rubin Award to the most promising woman photographer at Jerusalem's Hadassah Community College. There's also a field school directed by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel that's known as Gail's House.
The school is at Kibbutz Ma'agan, near the beach where she died.
Estelle Rubin, a retired psychotherapist, manages Gail's business from her Fifth Avenue apartment. A garden in front of the building was replanted in her daughter's honor in 1980, paid for, in part, by the tenants.
A bronze plaque set in the wall reads: "This garden is a living memorial to Gail Rubin."
Gail's friends continue to lament her passing.
"There was a huge amount of potential that's lost," said Susan Goodman, who helped organize Gail's exhibit at the Jewish Museum.
Added John Kay, who printed Gail's exhibit work: "She was such a lovely person. Very gentle. You could see herself in the stuff she did...a nice, thinking person."
* * *
No single part of Union Field's 56 acres has as thick a concentration of trees as the area surrounding the Rubin plot. The trees attract crows and blackbirds. They seem particularly fond of a towering spruce near Gail's grave. The birds make a lot of racket.
Last week, Gail's mother talked of her final visit with her daughter. They had driven into the desert, and Gail began making loud noises.
"She did it to attract the birds," Estelle Rubin said.
Several months later, as they lowered Gail's coffin into the ground, an eerie moment occurred that Estelle Rubin has not been able to forget.
"There was a loud bird cry," she said.
Reported by George J. Tanber email@example.com
[Publisher's note: This article was first published in The Anniston [Ala.] Star on Nov. 3, 1991. The author traveled to Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, and New York City to report the story.]
[Postscript: Mughrabi was later identified as the leader of the Palestinian commando unit, which elevated her already lofty status among Palestinians as their first woman martyr to be involved in such an operation. In photographs that later surfaced, Mughrabi's body is shown being held for photographers by the Israeli Army leader of the unit that stopped the bus that day, Euhad Barak. Barak later became prime minister. It is clear from the picture that Dalal died from injuries other than burns. http://arabist.net/hatshepsut/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/788726376.jpg After years of contentious discussion and debate between Lebanese militants and the Israelis over body exchanges, Israel returned Dalal's remains to her family as part of a larger exchange in 2008, 30 years after her death. The Mughrabis wanted no part of the deal, according to published reports. They preferred that Dalal's remains stay on what they viewed as home soil. Although Gail Rubin's photographs remain visible, her name is not as widely discussed as Mughrabi's, in part because she has no immediate surviving family. Her mother, Estelle Rubin, died in 1993. She is buried with her daughter and husband at Union Field Cemetery. Gail's life and work were recounted in a 2005 posting on the Jewish Woman's Archive website. http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rubin-gail Following her death, an appreciation by Amy Stone and some of Gail's photographs were published in a publication that is untitled but available on the Web. Included is a often-published picture of Gail, taken shortly before her death. http://www.lilith.org/shop/download/v05i00_1978-09.pdf