Skip to main content

'Martyrdom' Dreams Take Root Early in the West Bank (excerpts)

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 thoroughly the concept of the martyr has infused 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 unlined faces of the latest “martyrs” smile with childish innocence from posters plastered on the walls of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A furor erupted last month when the Israeli army released a photograph, seized during a West Bank raid, of a Palestinian infant dressed in the outfit of a suicide bomber, with a red scarf around his head and a belt of fake explosives around his waist. Although a relative dismissed it as a gag photograph snapped at a family party, the “baby bomber,” as he was dubbed by the Israeli media, struck Israelis as proof positive of a deadly craze…
Many Israelis charge that the Palestinian leadership under Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has deliberately cultivated the culture of the martyr in an attempt to recruit children as terrorists. Two polls published last month show that more than 60% of Palestinians support suicide bombings within Israel. But many are also concerned about the phenomenon and its impact on their children.
“I am afraid to let my son watch television,” said a Palestinian translator, who asked not to be quoted by name. “My son is only 4 years old. All the time, he used to say that he wants to be a journalist when he grows up. His grandfather – he is a cardiologist – keeps saying, no, he should be a doctor. We were joking with him a few days ago, asking which will it be? And he says, ‘I want to be a shahid [a martyr].’ … I really went nuts. I couldn’t believe it.”
Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli group that scans the Arab media for examples of incitement, is releasing a report accusing the Palestinian Authority of using ancient religious concepts of human sacrifice for political purposes. Among the examples was the talk 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, who were 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.’
Palestinian television also aired a provocative Islamic sermon in March, shortly before a deadly wave of bombings. “We must yearn for martyrdom and request it from God,” declared cleric Ahmed Abdul Razek. “God planted within our youth the love of jihad [holy struggle], the love of martyrdom. Our youth have turned into bombs. They blow themselves up day and night.”
Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, said the broadcasts go a long way toward explaining how it is that so many youths have volunteered to become suicide bombers. “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,” Marcus said…
Israelis have frequently complained about the Palestinian media. In October 2000, a few weeks into the wave of violence that has engulfed the region for nearly 22 months, 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.
…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,” Mutasem said, 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 that was published last month in the Jerusalem newspaper Al Quds with the signatures of 55 prominent Palestinians.
…Over the last two years, Israel has counted 91 Palestinian suicide bombers and says it has captured 42 would-be bombers. The youngest one taken was 14. Israeli military intelligence believes that there is a virtually unlimited pool of Palestinians ready to sacrifice their lives.
In April, the Israeli army seized a videotape in Nablus that contains a nearly three-hour 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…”