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A generation that wants to die

by Elizabeth Rubin
Issue date 04.15.02


Civilians prone to be not so innocent

Dawn broke in Bethlehem on Tuesday with the roar of F-16 fighter jets and the thud of heavy machine-gun fire, as Israeli tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets to seal off every neighborhood. At the Bethlehem Star Hotel, a five-minute walk from Manger Square, journalists and international protesters were drinking tea in the fifth-floor panoramic restaurant, peering out at the armored vehicles rumbling down the street. A shot rang out, and as the window shattered, a piece of glass lodged in the neck of an AL-JAZEERA correspondent. "Keep down," shouted a French photographer. "They are shooting anyone they see."

- Generation of Arabs in Israel growing up with a culture of violence _

Indeed, at 7 a.m. downtown Bethlehem was declared a military zone, and anyone seen moving on the streets was a target. A dozen or so Israeli troops could be seen running in the direction of Dheisheh refugee camp, a hotbed of Palestinian militants. A few minutes later, Richard Elias, the blond-haired, Palestinian-Swedish hotelier whose family owns the Star, received a phone call from his cousin. An elderly man had been found shot dead on a nearby street. "There is a martyr in Bethlehem," he announced. A little while later the next call came in. "The Santa Maria Church's been shelled," Elias reported, "and Father Jacques has been martyred." This latter rumor proved untrue, but the anxiety with which it was received was a testament to the mood all over the city. "Martyrdom" is on everyone's mind these days. Indeed, for more and more young Palestinians it is becoming a fervent aspiration.

A few days earlier I'd sat with other journalists in a living room in the Dheisheh camp--a warren of cinderblock and stone houses--talking with Shireen, a tall, 14-year-old Palestinian girl suffering the early stages of muscular dystrophy.

The day before, her sister's 18-year-old best friend, Ayat Akhras, had blown herself up at the entrance to a Jerusalem supermarket, killing two Israelis--and thus securing her fame not only in Dheisheh, Bethlehem, and the West Bank but also, according to TV reports, across the Arab world.

When we asked Shireen what she thought of Ayat's "martyrdom operation," she smiled. "It's great," she said in English, opening her arms. "It's sensational. Anyone would want to be in her place." Confident, articulate, wearing blue bell-bottom stretch pants and an olive-green chenille cardigan over her turtleneck, Shireen seemed almost high on the news of Ayat's courage. "If I had the means," she said, "I would have done it yesterday."

Shireen's father told her she is too young to become a bomber. When she grows up, he said, she can choose her own path. And so, with martyrdom not an option now, Shireen spends her time studying science and math and listening to Palestinian nationalist songs. "If I can't become a martyr," she said, "I want to be a doctor in a Palestinian hospital." When she insinuated that she would only treat Palestinians, her father interrupted. "You have been treated by an Israeli doctor. And my life was saved by an Israeli doctor in 1984 when I had a car accident. A doctor mustn't make distinctions between patients." And then he said to us, "You see, we're losing control of our children."

Ayat and Shireen are the cutting edge of the new intifada: secular, educated Palestinian teenagers who are joining the ranks of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Whereas such attacks were once the province of religious extremists promised eternal paradise by fundamentalist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, increasingly they are motivated by simple nationalism--often combined with an element of generational rebellion and, in some cases, a kind of feminist pride.

The generational divide came through as clearly in a conversation with Ayat's father, Abu Samir, as it had with the father of Shireen. Abu Samir was clearly shocked by the news of Ayat's suicide attack, which he received from a TV report and which was confirmed when members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade saluted the family's sacrifice by firing their weapons in front of their apartment house. But while convention calls for a father to take pride in his child's martyrdom, Abu Samir was instead grief stricken. "I can't express my feelings," he said. Ayat was the best student among his eleven children, was expecting a scholarship to study journalism at Bethlehem University, and was engaged to be married in August. Abu Samir teared up as he showed us a portrait of Ayat that happened to be one of those studio photographs taken in front of a cityscape of lower Manhattan, the twin towers of the World Trade Center above her head.

Looking for some explanation for his daughter's decision, Abu Samir recalled Ayat's reaction to the death of their neighbor Issa Faraj just a few weeks earlier. "He was playing LEGO with his daughter when he was shot through the window," during the Israeli army's incursion in early March, Abu Samir said. Ayat's brother recalled, "When Ayat saw me and our cousin carrying Issa past the doorway, she screamed out in pain, and I told her to get back inside." On the living-room wall hung a reminder of another possible influence on the young Ayat: a large portrait of Mahmoud Mughrabi, a student of hotel management who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in December 2000 while planting a bomb on a road that runs past several Jewish settlements near Bethlehem. (During the last incursion, the Israeli army demolished the homes of Mughrabi's brother and father.) But in the end, these explanations for Ayat's suicide attack didn't really make sense to Abu Samir. "I supplied [my children] with everything possible to have a decent life," he said. Nor does Abu Samir share his daughter's hatred of the Israelis. He noted that he is himself in business with an Israeli construction firm, building homes in the neighboring Jewish settlement Beitar Illit. "This phone," he said scrolling through his mobile's menu looking for the number of one of the Israeli employers, "is from the company. I worry about their children. They worry about mine."

But Abu Samir's view seems hopelessly outdated. The lure of dying in an attack rather than defenseless at home has an empowering appeal to many Palestinian adolescents, who've been politicized since the day they were born. For children and teenagers suffering the normal psychological problems of adolescence, martyrdom is also an instant way to gain love and respect. One teacher told me about her friend's son, a little boy who had begged his father to let him become a suicide bomber. When his father asked why, the boy said, "Nobody loves me or pays attention to me. If I die a martyr, I'll have my picture all over the walls, and everyone will know me and love me." Indeed, all day long, AL MANAR, the TV network of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement, broadcasts graphic montages from the intifada throughout the West Bank, accompanied by inspirational martial and religious music. And every house is adorned with hagiographic posters and photographs of those killed in the uprising. "Up until now we haven't had a martyr below the age of seventeen," said Yahia Abdullaziz Dahajla, an English teacher in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. "But already in the fourth grade you have kids who are Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine."

In recent months the aspiration to become a suicide bomber has become particularly prevalent among Palestinian girls, many of whom seem to take pride in proving themselves as brave, or braver, than men. According to Shireen's older sister Shukruk, the talk among girls at school has been about following the examples of Ayat's predecessors, Wafa Idris and Dareen Abu Aisheh, two women who blew themselves up earlier this year. "It's become a wish among many girls to go and execute suicide operations," she said. Vivian Khamis, a Palestinian professor of psychology and former chair of social sciences at Bethlehem University, describes the use of female suicide bombers as a natural progression of the intifada. "There's been a big change in the role of women in our daily life," she says. "Today women are the first to confront the Israeli soldiers at checkpoints and at home, because the men are hiding." The effect has been ironically liberating for Palestinian women. Khamis notes that Idris, a 28-year-old paramedic, was unpopular before her suicide bombing because she was seen as too secular--she wore makeup and perfume, and she was divorced. But Wafa's attack outside a Jerusalem shoe shop on January 27 had a major impact not only among Palestinians but also in the Arab world at large, where she was widely celebrated in the press. "Since last Christmas, the girls don't want dolls anymore as gifts," Khamis says. "All they want are guns and tanks."

Khamis was particularly awed by the video Ayat taped before her death. In it, she intoned: "I am going to fight instead of the sleeping Arab armies who are watching Palestinian girls fighting alone." Khamis noted that during the attack Ayat was so composed and determined that she quietly shooed away two Arab women selling their herbs outside the entrance of the Jerusalem supermarket. Five minutes later, she detonated.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed Ayat as one of its own. Until January, Al Aqsa, the military wing of Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement, restricted its operations to ambushes and drive-by shootings of settlers and soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving suicide bombings to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. But now they are a secular phenomenon as well. "Even Christians are talking of martyrdom," Khamis says. Indeed, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has even started a special unit for female recruits--unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which forbid women from carrying out suicide attacks. (Asked about the prohibition, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, answered


that for now there are plenty of men available but indicated that he would allow women to become bombers when the men ran out.) Dareen Abu Aisheh, an English student at Nablus University who was considered brilliant by her classmates, tried in vain to join Hamas earlier this year. After she was rejected, she joined the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and blew herself up when asked for identification at a checkpoint near Jerusalem, injuring three policemen.

The day after Ayat's suicide attack, Dheisheh camp was nearly deserted. Israeli tanks were massing at the entry points to Bethlehem, and most of the residents had fled in anticipation of the expected onslaught. I saw Ayat's father in front of a bakery, leaving town in a beat-up car with a picture, taped to the windshield, of his daughter draped in a flowing keffiyeh and brandishing a pistol. In nearby Manger Square, gunmen from Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade milled about nervously, some of them dressed in full battle gear. "The difference between Israeli fighters and ours is that when they die, they cry. When we die, we celebrate," said one. He added that if Arafat is harmed or expelled from the country, the suicide bombers will rise from five or six per week to five or six per day.

Elizabeth Rubin is covering the war in Afghanistan for TNR.

- Big joke to kit up a baby like a suicide bomber -
A photo released by the IDF of a toddler dressed as a suicide bomber - found in a house of  an Arab militant in the Israeli city, Hebron.
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