GAZA CITY — MUSA ZIADA was a 15-year-old who had everything going for him when he decided to strap a bomb to his chest in February and join a growing list of young martyrs offering their lives in the quest for a Palestinian Islamic state.
Driven by his passionate Islamic idealism, he was convinced by the Islamic militants who recruited him that turning himself into a human bomb was the most noble thing he could do. (Is Pakistan training terrorists? Page 6.)
''It was not difficult to be convinced because I had thought about it a lot before,'' says Musa, sitting behind a desk in the office of his family's window-frame business here.
But a vigilant uncle working for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Intelligence Service intervened after he heard of his nephew's long hours at the mosque and the low profile Musa was keeping with relatives.
Musa's extraordinary story captures the bizarre movement that is gaining ground in the mosques and refugee camps of this garbage-strewn urban sprawl, where a first-phase experiment in Palestinian self-rule is running into ever-increasing problems.
Since the Palestinian-Israeli peace accord was signed in Washington 19 months ago, at least 65 Israelis have died as a result of suicide bombings that began with the first major attack on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv last October.
Last week's double suicide bombings of Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip, which killed eight people, was the latest in a spate of attacks that have all but halted the peace process.
Musa is one of the top pupils at his high school and captain of the soccer team. His father's business is thriving, and Musa lacks little. An intelligent and committed youth, he combines quiet confidence with the uncertainty of adolescence. He began attending mosque regularly at the age of 7 first with family members, then with friends.
Contact made at mosque
His regular mosque attendance, which broke the secular family mold, brought him into contact with activists of a teaching unit of Izzadin al-Qassam, the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for about half of the suicide bombings in the past six months.
These ''friends'' eventually recruited him into a Hamas cell, which is a secret paramilitary unit of about seven members with one leader, and began preparing him for a suicide bombing mission.
''They told me it was better to go to heaven ... that a better life awaited me there. I wanted a better future in heaven,'' says Musa, who now feels that the friends exploited his commitment to Islam rather than his tender age.
If everything had gone according to plan, Musa would have crossed into Israel around the middle of February -- halfway through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan -- and blown up as many Israelis as possible at a yet-to-be-identified site.
After his uncle became suspicious of Musa, he handed Musa over to the Palestinian police where he underwent protracted interrogation. He initially denied that he had been training as a suicide bomber, but later told the whole story.
He had attended two secret sessions of the Hamas cell, and his two main teachers, young activists in their 20s who recruit and train other youths for suicide missions, are now in Palestinian jails awaiting trial in Mr. Arafat's controversial security courts created in February as part of a crackdown on Islamic militants.
Following last week's bombings, the first two Islamic militants arrested for earlier bombings were convicted and sentenced respectively to 15-year and 25-year jail terms.
Musa says he was exhausted after questioning by the Palestinian police and had received a ''few slaps'' but was not tortured or physically harmed.
When he was released after 10 days, concerned relatives rallied around to bring the youth back into the family fold and convinced him that taking one's own life was not serving Islam.
Musa, who was also questioned by Hamas officials from the pro-Hamas al-Watan newspaper in Gaza City between interrogations by the Palestinian police, says that he was fearful of Hamas retribution now that he had exposed their secrets.
Cuts ties with Hamas
Musa has revised his views about the compatibility of suicide bombers and Islam and has cut his ties with Hamas. But he is still wedded to his dream of a Palestinian Islamic state.
Hisham Ziada, Musa's secular father who has worked hard to give his nine children a decent start in life, says he is fortunate that his son is a ''living martyr'' rather than a dead one.
About eight months ago, the family moved from the Bureij refugee camp south of Gaza City to the Darraj neighborhood here, which is closer to the family business. ''I knew that my son was a supporter of Hamas from the age of 11, and that he had friends in Hamas and went regularly to mosque,'' says Mr. Ziada, a jovial man who frequently cracks jokes about the promises that were made to his son by the Hamas activists.
The promises Hamas made to Musa included free entry to heaven for 70 relatives who would be met by 70 virgin brides once they arrived.
''When the suicide bomber died in Beit Lid [venue for the suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that killed 21 Israelis on Jan. 20], Musa said: 'I wish I could die like him,' '' Ziada says.
''He often spoke of martyrdom and going to heaven, but I never suspected that he was receiving training,'' says Ziada, who strongly disapproves of the Islamic militants' methods.
Ziad Abu Amr, a political scientist at Bir Zeit University near Jerusalem, says that Islamic doctrine does not provide a decisive answer regarding the question of martyrdom. ''It depends on the interpreter,'' he says, adding that the reader of the holy book of Islam -- the Koran -- could find enough to either support or condemn suicide bombings.
Musa says he will now devote his energies to his studies. He wants to become a medical doctor when he leaves school and has targeted Germany as his first choice to study medicine.
''He wants to become a doctor so he can treat the people who blow themselves up,'' says Mohamed Ziada, another uncle who attended the interview. Musa tries not to look embarrassed.