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'Martyrdom' Dreams Take Root Early in the West Bank

July 20, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — A winsome 11-year-old girl smiles shyly at a talk-show moderator and answers questions about her ambitions.

"Martyrdom is a beautiful thing. Everyone longs for martyrdom," the girl says. "What could be better than going to paradise?"

The show aired early last month on the official television station of the Palestinian Authority and is just one example of how thoroughly the concept of the martyr has infused Palestinian culture and the official media.

Suicide bombers are celebrated in television programming, popular music, religious sermons and textbooks. A poem in a seventh-grade reading book says, "I see my death, but I hasten my steps toward it." The unlined faces of the latest "martyrs" smile with childish innocence from posters plastered on the walls of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A furor erupted last month when the Israeli army released a photograph, seized during a West Bank raid, of a Palestinian infant dressed in the outfit of a suicide bomber, with a red scarf around his head and a belt of fake explosives around his waist. Although a relative dismissed it as a gag photograph snapped at a family party, the "baby bomber," as he was dubbed by the Israeli media, struck Israelis as proof positive of a deadly craze.

"This madness has become an epidemic in Palestinian society. In other places they want to become football players. Here they want to blow themselves up," said Eran Lehrman, a former Israeli army intelligence officer who works for the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem.

Many Israelis charge that the Palestinian leadership under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has deliberately cultivated the culture of the martyr in an attempt to recruit children as terrorists.

Two polls published last month show that more than 60% of Palestinians support suicide bombings within Israel. But many are also concerned about the phenomenon and its impact on their children.

"I am afraid to let my son watch television," said a Palestinian translator, who asked not to be quoted by name. "My son is only 4 years old. All the time, he used to say that he wants to be a journalist when he grows up. His grandfather--he is a cardiologist--keeps saying, no, he should be a doctor. We were joking with him a few days ago, asking which will it be? And he says, 'I want to be a shahid [a martyr].' ... I really went nuts. I couldn't believe it."

Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group that scans the Arab media for examples of incitement, released a report last week accusing the Palestinian Authority of using ancient religious concepts of human sacrifice for political purposes.

Among the examples was the talk show "Letters From Our People," which aired last month on the authority's Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. The show featured Palestinian youths, ranging in age from 11 to 19, who were discussing suicide bombing.

According to a transcript released by the group, 11-year-old Wala is asked by a moderator, "What is better, peace and full rights for the Palestinian people or martyrdom?"

"Martyrdom," the girl replies.

"Of course martyrdom is better," Yussra, 11, adds. "We don't want this world, we want the afterlife.... Every Palestinian child ... says, 'O Lord, I would like to become a shahid.' "

Palestinian television also aired a provocative Islamic sermon in March, shortly before a deadly wave of bombings. "We must yearn for martyrdom and request it from God," declared cleric Ahmed Abdul Razek. "God planted within our youth the love of jihad [holy struggle], the love of martyrdom. Our youth have turned into bombs. They blow themselves up day and night."

Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, said the broadcasts go a long way toward explaining how it is that so many youths have volunteered to become suicide bombers.

"There is no doubt that the people who carry out suicide bombings believe they are doing what is expected of them by their society and their God. It is what they are taught by Palestinian television. They are brainwashed. They need deprogramming of the most urgent nature," Marcus said.

Palestinian broadcasting executives counter that their programming simply mirrors the sentiments of society at large.

"We have to reflect what is going on and what the people believe in," said Saadu Sabawi, chief news editor and director of foreign news coverage for the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. "We are not inventing the crisis. The children who become martyrs don't do it because of television. They do it because of what the Israelis are doing to them ... because of the violence and the humiliation."

Sabawi said he was not familiar with the particular programs the Israelis criticized but said they did not sound unusual.

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