Culture of martyrdom starts early in Palestine

Sunday, July 21, 2002

JERUSALEM - A winsome 11-year-old girl smiles shyly at a talk-show moderator and answers questions about her ambitions.

"Martyrdom is a beautiful thing. Everyone longs for martyrdom," the girl says. "What could be better than going to paradise?"

The show aired early last month on the official television station of the Palestinian Authority and is just one example of how the concept of the martyr has become thoroughly infused in Palestinian culture and the official media.

Suicide bombers are celebrated in television programming, popular music, religious sermons and textbooks. A poem in a seventh-grade reading book says, "I see my death, but I hasten my steps toward it." The faces of the latest martyrs smile with childish innocence from posters on the walls of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Many Israelis charge that the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat has deliberately cultivated the culture of the martyr in a cynical attempt to recruit children as terrorists.

Doing what's expected

Two separate polls published last month show that more than 60 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings within Israel. But many are also concerned about the phenomenon and the impact on their children.

Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group that scans the Arab media for examples of incitement, released a report last week accusing the Palestinian Authority of using ancient religious concepts of human sacrifice for political purposes.

Among the examples was the show "Letters From Our People," which aired last month on the authority's Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. The show featured Palestinian youths ranging in age from 11 to 19 discussing suicide bombing.

According to a transcript released by the group, 11-year-old Wala is asked by a moderator, "What is better, peace and full rights for the Palestinian people or martyrdom?" "Martyrdom," the girl replies.

"Of course martyrdom is better," Yussra, 11, adds. "We don't want this world, we want the afterlife. Every Palestinian child says, 'O Lord, I would like to become a shahid.' "

"There is no doubt that the people who carry out suicide bombings believe they are doing what is expected of them by their society and their God. It is what they are taught by Palestinian television. They are brainwashed. They need deprogramming of the most urgent nature," said Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch.

Palestinian broadcasting executives counter that their programming simply mirrors the sentiments of society at large.

"We have to reflect what is going on and what the people believe in," said Saadu Sabawi, who is chief news editor and director of foreign news coverage for the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. "We are not inventing the crisis."

The children who become martyrs don't do it because of television. They do it because of what the Israelis are doing to them because of the violence and the humiliation." Sabawi said he was not familiar with the particular programs that the Israelis criticized but that they did not sound unusual.

Israelis have frequently complained about the Palestinian media. In October 2000, a few weeks into the nearly 22-month wave of violence that has engulfed the region, one of the first targets of Israeli bombing was the main broadcasting tower for the West Bank. The Palestinian Broadcasting Corp., which was briefly off the air, has since moved its operations to the Gaza Strip.

At the Dahaisha refugee camp near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, several boys recited song lyrics about the heroics of martyrs that they said they heard on a private Christian-owned station in Bethlehem called Nativity Television. "Atef challenged the enemy fire by himself, and the enemy was defeated," one song goes.

Many of the boys said that while they admired the martyrs, they wouldn't necessarily want to be one. But there were exceptions. Mutasem abu Ajamiyya, 9, spoke with a seriousness that made it seem entirely plausible that he would carry out his ambition.

"I want to become a suicide bomber. I want to kill as many of them as possible. I will go to the bus station and explode myself in front of them," said Mutasem, adding that he has not told his parents of his plans. "This is my wish. I will keep it to myself until I grow up." Among Palestinian adults, the debate over suicide bombings focuses not on ethics but on the effectiveness of this type of "military operation." They rarely use the term "suicide bombing." "These operations do not help our national plan for freedom and independence. On the contrary, they strengthen the enemies of peace and give pretexts to the aggressive government of (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon to pursue his furious war against our people," read an open letter signed by 55 prominent Palestinians that was published last month in the Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds.

But even some of those who signed the petition refuse to condemn the bombers themselves and believe there is some merit to the attacks. "It is frustrating to see them (Israelis) having a relaxed life, going to the beach, going to the cafes when their sons in the army are doing these atrocities," said Isla Jad, a professor at Ramallah's Birzeit University.

And many Palestinians who had been considered prominent in the peace movement in the past refused to sign.

"People were laughing at those 55 who signed the petition. It was an embarrassment," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of Passia, a respected Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem.

-(Optional add end)- Over the past two years, Israel has counted 133 Palestinian suicide bombers, 91 who succeeded and 42 who were captured. The youngest one captured was 14 1/2 years old. Israeli military intelligence believes that there is a virtually unlimited pool of Palestinians ready to sacrifice their lives.

Another chilling omen was a videotape that the Israeli army seized in April in Nablus that contains a nearly three-hour-long lesson on making a suicide bomb. In the highly technical tape, a masked instructor demonstrates how to construct a belt of explosives and lectures on the best place to stand on a bus to cause the maximum casualties. The cassette, which also includes Islamic prayers, is believed to have been made by the military wing of Hamas, an Islamic militant movement.

An Israeli military intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the logistics of carrying out a suicide bombing are still so difficult that a rash of attacks carried out by freelance operatives is unlikely.

"They have more potential bombers than they have explosives," said the officer.

"They think of it (suicide bombing) as their only weapons. A great weapon, a cheap weapon ... but it still requires an infrastructure, money, materials."

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