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
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
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
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