Obeying 'a holy duty' to kill

The Washington Times, May 17, 2002

By Betsy Pisik

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A mother lovingly dresses her 12-year-old son in the homemade costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.

"I encourage him, and he should do this," said the woman, the mother of six. "God gave him to me to defend our land. Palestinian women must have more and more children till we liberate our land. This is a holy duty for all Palestinian people."
Her son, Abu Ali, joyfully marched in a mask on the day commemorating the Nakba, or "catastrophe," as Palestinians call the day of Israel's founding in 1948.

"I hope to be a martyr," he said. "I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself."

The suicide bomber thrives on a culture of fatalism, nurtured in a landscape of poverty and hopelessness, and popularized by a Palestinian government whose policies have demonized Israel.
Millions of Palestinians are encouraged to stay in squalid refugee camps, a rebuke to the Jewish state's existence. Textbooks don't even show Israel on the map.

During the current intifada, or uprising, against Israel's military and economic dominance, the martyr has become the ultimate weapon.

A suicide culture

Between 1990 and 2000 the Israeli police catalogued 35 separate suicide-bombing incidents, including successful hits and failed attempts.

Since January 2000, there have been 119 incidents throughout Israel proper and against Israeli targets in Gaza and the West Bank, Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.

For every Park Hotel — where 29 persons were killed by a suicide bomber on the first night of Passover — there are many more attempts in Jewish settlements in Gaza or at army checkpoints in the West Bank. Few are successful, but they have wide support throughout the Arab world.

"Why are these settlers and soldiers here? They occupy our land. They are legitimate targets," said Ismail Abu Shenab, the political adviser to Hamas, the resistance group responsible for most suicide attacks.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade is an offshoot of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. It was formed after Ariel Sharon, now Israel's prime minister, visited Jerusalem's Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2000. For Palestinians, the visit marks the beginning of the present uprising.

With funding that the Israelis say comes directly from the Palestinian Authority, the brigade has joined Hamas as sponsors of suicide bombers, with military-grade explosives now replacing homemade chemical cocktails. They have also begun to use women, who arouse less suspicion.

Teen-agers as young as 13, drawn in by a complex mix of adulation and anger, have begun to sacrifice themselves at Israeli targets.

The Israelis accuse the Palestinian Authority of perpetuating the cult of the suicide bomber, starting in elementary schools.
"Every single school we went into in Jenin, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Qalqilya or Tulkarm was plastered with posters of the glorification of the [martyrs]," said Col. Miri Eisen, an intelligence officer with the Israeli army. "They are teaching a generation that violence is OK."

This education often begins on the streets and in the home, as in the case of the woman dressing her 12-year-old son in the suicide-bomber costume.

Deadly foes

The Israeli Defense Forces are by far the most sophisticated and powerful military force in the region. The 5,000 or so Jewish settlers and as many soldiers deployed in Gaza have proved to be an irresistible target to the Palestinians.

The army has had to adapt to fight an enemy who expects to die.
"The only real strategy is prevention," said Col. Guy Zur, who is in charge of military operations for the Gaza Strip. "We can only hope to stop them before they get here."

To this end, the Israelis have built an electric fence on its border with Gaza — the launching pad for so much extremism — and all but closed its legitimate border crossings to Palestinians.
The Israelis confronted this new foe in the West Bank during last month's Operation Defensive Shield: Twenty-three Israeli soldiers died in the attack against the Jenin refugee camp, and half of those soldiers were lost in a single ambush in a courtyard.

"These [people] booby-trapped their own houses," said one soldier in disbelief. "It was like they didn't expect to be coming back."

Posters in the Palestinian territories are not advertisements for unaffordable products, but ghoulish celebrations of the men who died in a battle to liberate their land.

One blew up a bus near Tel Aviv. One scaled a settlement wall with two loaded pistols. Another strapped on an explosive belt and headed for a coffee shop in Jerusalem.

Tucked behind a sports club in Gaza City, two dozen members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade train for the day they will face Israeli troops.

Clad in camouflage pants and damp black T-shirts, the men are put though their paces of calisthenics and wrestling.
They are mostly unarmed, although one man handles a yellow grenade and a few hold handguns and rifles.

They anticipate an Israeli invasion of Gaza and expect the battle to be much bloodier than in the Jenin refugee camp last month.
After the workout, the men run through the streets of Gaza City, shouting "Allah Akbar," which means, "God is great." Beside them are little boys, scrambling and singing in emulation.

Anger replaces grief

Funerals here do more than honor the dead. They are a safety valve for the living, an explosive expression of the anger that marks daily life in the Palestinian territories.

Hundreds of men turned out for the funeral earlier this month of Khalid Abu Siamm, a Gazan who was killed by Israeli soldiers at the Church of the Nativity.

The reeking month-old body wa
s draped in a Palestinian flag, sprayed with perfume and paraded through the streets accompanied by loud chanting and gunfire. "By the soul, by the blood, we sacrificed you, martyr," they yelled, surging through the streets of Gaza.

At martyr, or "shehid" funerals, some of the mourners wear masks to hide their faces. Many also wear headbands to show their allegiance to Hamas or Fatah or Islamic Jihad, the three main Palestinian groups. Flags and banners flutter everywhere.
The mood is anger rather than grief, more political than melancholy. And for the rest of the day, the Palestinian town or village feels electrified with an air of possibility and purpose.
"We are powerless against Israeli occupation," says taxi driver Eyad Awal, a day after Mr. Siamm's funeral. "We have nothing; we are nothing until they leave. We will do nothing but fight the occupation, but you know, it's hard, because they have tanks and Apaches [helicopters] and guns, and we have no weapons."
Driving through a city plastered with posters of martyrs, he adds, "We have nothing to do but die."

The martyr painter

The paintings of martyrs that decorate so many Palestinian squares and roadways are done by Bahaa Yassin, a laid-back resident of the Al-Nosairat refugee camp in Gaza.

A newlywed who expects his first child in three months, Mr. Yassin, 24, says it feels no different to paint martyrs than it does a family portrait. Now that stores cannot afford his billboards, the martyrs are his best commissions.

The artist says he doesn't mind if his work is used to glorify suicide bombers. "Personally, I don't care about this. I draw what they bring," he says. "But I think that is the idea of the people who want this work."

Hisham Zaqout, whose nephew Youssef, 15, was killed by Israeli soldiers when he tried to infiltrate a Jewish settlement with a knife, says the family is in mourning.

The Zaqouts are clearly in grief and shock over the unexpected death of their son, but the uncle acknowledges that the hastily printed posters and endless stream of well-wishers, mourners and media have helped ease their pain.

"In Islam, sacrifice is the highest honor," he says. "Youssef did this for all of us to be free."