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How to make a martyr (excerpts)

“The tidy living room of the house where Aayat Al-Akhras grew up has been turned into a shrine. Pictures of her are displayed everywhere… one Friday afternoon last March, she strapped a belt of explosives to her body, slipped across the line that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem, took a taxi to a supermarket in a nearby shopping centre, and blew herself up. As well as herself, she killed the store’s security guard and a customer. Rachel Levy, like Aayat, was 17, lovely, studious and thoughtful with a promising future…
In a cramped office in downtown Jerusalem, half a dozen people are screening television programs broadcast in Arabic. They work for an independent outfit called Palestinian Media Watch, whose director, Itamar Marcus, shows me some video clips of material they’ve compiled from official PA TV. It chills the blood.
In one clip, the hero, a nice-looking schoolboy of about 11, leaves a farewell letter to his parents explaining that he has decided to achieve Shahada [Martyrdom]. The words “How sweet is Shahada when I embrace you, oh my land!” are sung as he falls, serene and bloodless, to the ground. “My beloved, my mother, my most dear, be joyous over my blood and do not cry for me,” the song continues. This particular video, Mr. Marcus says, has been aired hundreds of times.
The most famous child shahid, or martyr, is a 12-year-old boy named Muhammad Al-Dura, who died on Sept. 30, 2000. Rather than commit suicide, he was caught in the crossfire between Palestinian snipers and Israeli soldiers, and his final moments were caught on camera and broadcast around the world. The images inflicted terrible damage on Israel’s reputation.
After that, Mr. Marcus says, the leaders of the intifada figured dead children made for good public relations. In another commemorative video, a young actor portraying the dead boy calls upon more children to share his fate. The tape opens with a full-screen message in Arabic that reads, “I am waving to you not to part, but to say follow me,” specifically to paradise, depicted as a fun-filled place with amusement parks, kites and beaches.
Recruitment aimed at teenage girls is relatively recent, but the glorification of female terrorists has deep roots. One of Palestine’s cultural heroes is Dalal Mughrabi, a young woman who blew up a bus (but not herself) in 1978, killing 36 people. Today, summer camps, schools and college courses are named after her. Her life has been featured in a TV documentary and an 18-part newspaper series, and her name features in quiz shows and crossword puzzles. “Dalal,” as the narrator of the documentary puts it, “is a symbol for the Palestinian nation.”
Just over a year ago, Wafa Idris became the first Palestinian woman to blow herself up. Soon after she died on Jan. 27, 2002, a lavish concert video in her honour was broadcast on TV. “My sister Wafa,” goes a song dedicated to her. “Oh, the heartbeat of pride, Oh, the blossom who was on the Earth and is now in Heaven.” A school has been named after her, as well as a university course. The subject of the course is democracy and human rights.
The same process has begun with Aayat. Posters of her are plastered everywhere. A children’s summer camp was named for her. And a few months after she died, there was a new television video, featuring a pretty teenage girl in military dress. She resembles Aayat. “I will even willingly fall as a shahid!” she sings, as teenagers throw stones and dance in the background.
Curiously, while all these messages emphasize martyrdom, they barely mention nationalism. “Shahada is not connected to any other goal,” Mr. Marcus explains. “It is the goal.”
The kids have bought the message. Last July, Palestinian TV broadcast an interview in which two bright, well-spoken 11-year-old girls expressed their longing for martyrdom. “Shahada is very, very beautiful,” said a girl named Walla. “Everyone yearns for Shahada. What could be better than going to paradise?”
“What is better,” asked the host, “peace and full rights for the Palestinian people, or Shahada?
Shahada. I will achieve my rights after becoming a shahida,” the little girl responds.
Asked their opinion of Aayat, the girls express admiration – although one says she thinks the teen should have finished her education first…