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Boy With Bomb Stokes PR War

Palestinians and Israelis exchange charges over who dispatched the teen to a checkpoint.

March 26, 2004|J. Michael Kennedy and Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — The boy who wore the bomb said he wanted to be a hero.

He was a poor student, his mother said, never quick in his thinking. And he hardly looked his 16 years as he stood in front of Israeli soldiers, an 18-pound explosives vest strapped around his midsection, surrounded by Palestinians trying to make their way through a checkpoint.

The images of teenager Hussam Abdo, captured by a TV cameraman who happened to be there, illustrated how children have become a central element of the propaganda battle in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In a matter of hours, there were charges and countercharges about who might have put the boy up to such an act -- a sign of the media war raging between the Israelis and Palestinians. In 3 1/2 years of conflict, the offensive to win international public opinion, a campaign waged through news releases and the Internet, has been as hard fought as the combat on the military and diplomatic fronts.

Israeli officials immediately began calling foreign news reporters to make sure that the story was covered. Abdo's image was broadcast worldwide, even the tears that pooled when he could not immediately free himself from the bomb using a pair of scissors.

The blitz came near the end of a week during which Israel had been criticized around the world for ordering the assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound spiritual leader of the Hamas militant group.

On Thursday, Palestinian and other Arab commentators suggested that the incident of the boy at the border might have been concocted by the Israelis to deflect negative publicity after Yassin's death. The Arab TV channel Al Jazeera on Thursday quoted Palestinian officials who rejected the Israeli story that the boy had been offered 100 Israeli shekels by Palestinian militants to blow himself up.

"We know for sure this is a fabricated story from A to Z," Yaqub Shahin, director of the Palestinian Authority's Information Ministry, told Al Jazeera. "Would you believe that a 13- or 14-year-old would agree to blow himself up for 100 shekels, which he would receive after his death?"

On Thursday morning, Abdo's home in the West Bank city of Nablus was inundated with journalists trying to interview the boy's family. The crowd clearly bewildered his mother, Tamam, 50, who said her son had been acting oddly the day before the incident. She said that, among other things, her son went to the mosque for evening prayers, a rarity for him.

"When he came back, he kissed my hands and asked for my blessings," she said. "He was acting very strange."

The mother and other members of her family repeatedly said the teenager was not a bright lad. Tamam Abdo said that on Wednesday morning, her son put on a blue shirt and jeans jacket and left the house for school.

What happened between that time and the moment her son came to be standing in front of the camera is unclear, but Israeli investigators Wednesday arrested three more youths who attended the same school as the teenager.

The events that captivated television viewers were a sequence of shots in which the boy first raised his hands after being stopped by Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint outside Nablus, a hub of Palestinian militant activity. Soldiers had intercepted an 11-year-old boy with a bomb at the same checkpoint last week.

Abdo was ordered to place his hands on top of his head, while soldiers used a robot to pass scissors to him.

After a great deal of difficulty, Abdo cut through the material encasing the bomb, telling the soldiers that he was afraid he might blow himself up. Then, Abdo was ordered to strip to his underwear to prove that he had no more explosives on him.

One of the major questions being asked by Palestinians on Thursday was how a cameraman happened to be at the checkpoint just as the drama was unfolding. Palestinian cameraman Abed Khabeisa, who shot the footage for Associated Press Television News, said he was heading from his home outside Nablus into the city when he arrived at the closed checkpoint.

He said that when he saw what was going on, he got permission from a soldier he knew there to start filming. Asked whether he thought the bomb was genuine, he replied, "Many people have asked me the same thing. I can't say. This is what I saw. Is it real? I don't know."

A local chapter of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade had claimed that it dispatched the youth. But by Thursday, the main group, affiliated with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, withdrew the claim when it became clear Palestinians were deeply angered over the apparent use of a teen to attack Israelis. The group later said Israel had staged the incident to discredit the militants.

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