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In Growing Numbers, Palestinian Boys Are Choosing the Brief Life of a 'Martyr'

June 10, 2002|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GAZA CITY — The three 14-year-olds were ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in their eighth-grade class. Smart boys, sharp. Ismail abu Nadi helped friends with their homework. He always knew the answers.

Ismail and his two classmates, Yusuf Zegout and Anwar Hamdouna, stole from their Gaza City homes one night this spring and crept toward a heavily fortified Jewish settlement nearby. The boys--armed with knives, a small homemade pipe bomb and a hoe to dig under the settlement's fence--were spotted from a distance by Israeli soldiers and shot dead.

Ismail and his friends were not alone. On that same late-April night, six other boys of similar age also set off to attack the Netzarim settlement. They were stopped by Palestinian police. And a few days earlier, a boy attempting to attack a different settlement was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, while a 14-year-old friend with him turned back at the last minute and was spared.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palestinians have proclaimed their willingness to become "martyrs," to die in the pursuit of killing Israeli Jews. In a society increasingly supportive of suicide bombings and similar attacks, what these children did should not have been particularly surprising. Still, for a time, it gave pause.

Gazans condemned the boys' deeds. Hamas, a Gaza-based radical Islamic organization that normally extols the virtues of dying in the struggle against Israel, branded the acts as futile and banned boys from such missions, though it was doubtful the group took any action beyond its statement. It wasn't the attacks per se that angered Hamas leaders but the performance of them by boys too young to know what they were doing and how to do it effectively.

Ismail, Yusuf and Anwar left behind classmates at Salahudeen School in a middle-class Gaza City neighborhood who, at least publicly, professed horror at how the boys died.

"Maybe when we are old enough we can do these things, like when we are 20," said Riad Muhemar, 14. "Now we should be educating ourselves."

"I don't know why Ismail did this," added Saleh Haib, 15. "He never told me what he was going to do, and I would have told him not to do it if he had. It drove me crazy when I heard."

Fifteen-year-old Mohammed Bamer sat next to Ismail in class for the last three years. "Of course a martyr is something good, but it's not for us," Mohammed said. "Certainly he was under a lot of pressure. But if he had thought more about it, he wouldn't have done it."

Whatever revulsion was triggered in Gaza by the deaths of Ismail and his friends was short-lived. The bomber who blew himself up last month at a park in the Israeli city of Rishon Le Zion, killing two Israelis, was reported to have been 16. Another 16-year-old was stopped by Israeli soldiers at a roadblock in the West Bank a couple of days later and was found to be wearing a belt of explosives.

Palestinians are volunteering at an increasing rate to serve as suicide bombers or to carry out other deadly attacks against Israelis. The groundswell is fed by outrage over what Palestinians see as Israeli atrocities against Palestinian civilians, by the grinding frustration over torturous roadblocks and checkpoints erected by Israeli forces to impede Palestinian attacks, and by despair over the future. A person who dies in an act of "resistance" is assured a place in heaven, as is his or her family, many Palestinians believe. And that's not to mention economic benefits paid to survivors.

Gazan psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj, however, believes that another phenomenon is giving rise to the increase: society's glorification of the "martyr," the person who dies fighting Israel, be it in a simple act of throwing a stone or in detonating a bomb in a crowded discotheque.

With martyrdom, said Sarraj, come status, societal approval and power. And nowhere is that equation more oversimplified than for the young.

"We have here a cultural glorification of martyrs in the eyes of children," Sarraj said. "If you asked children 20 years ago what they wanted to be when they grew up, they'd say a doctor or an engineer. Now they say they want to be a martyr."

Celebration of Martyrs

Martyrs are given status unparalleled in Palestinian society, Sarraj noted. Their pictures are plastered on public walls, their funerals are emotional celebrations, their families often receive visits from state officials. They become almost holy, praised by imams at mosques or over loudspeakers at rallies, where children are often dressed as shrouded dead or as pint-sized suicide bombers. A game called shahid, or martyr, is popular among Gazan children. Many teens have become experts in crafting homemade pipe bombs using elbow-shaped pieces of plumbing.

Many Palestinian children also receive rudimentary weapons training at summer camps sponsored by Hamas or mainstream Palestinian organizations. It was unclear whether Ismail and his classmates received such training, though their crude weapons were easy to obtain or assemble from household goods.

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