'a holy duty' to kill
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
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 was
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."