As life looks bleaker, suicide bombers get younger

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sixteen-year-old Iyad Masri started to withdraw from everyone. He read loudly from the Koran until well after midnight, and blasted tapes of Koranic verses from behind his bedroom door.

His parents knew he was distraught over his younger brother's death two months ago. But they never imagined that Iyad would consider strapping a belt of explosives around his waist. In early January, he met with members of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group that rejects all compromise with Israel. He asked them to prepare him to be a martyr, a suicide bomber. Iyad died days later when the belt went off accidentally, killing only himself.

The Masri family's tragedy is part of a trend that many Palestinians see as a worrisome mark of desperation: younger and younger Palestinians enlisting for suicide missions against Israel.

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Earlier this week, a group of Palestinian boys - ages 12, 13, and 15 - were caught trying to sneak into Israel with plans to gun down Israelis in the coastal town of Afula. They left behind a note telling their families to celebrate their martyrdom if they didn't make it home. The Israeli military says the boys were recruited by the Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigades.

"It's easier to convince the young ones to be suicide bombers," says Mrs. Masri, a thin, drawn woman who, until late January, was a mother of five. "They wash their brains, telling them about going to Paradise. These organizations incite them to be suicide bombers, and teenagers aren't able to make such decisions."

Glorifying the martyr

Children here have increasingly grown to idolize suicide bombers and others who are seen as having sacrificed their lives for the Palestinian cause, says Dr. Eyad Serraj, a psychiatrist in the Gaza Strip. The reason, he says, is that they see "martyrdom" as the ultimate redemption. In a poll last summer, 36 percent of 12-year-old boys in Gaza said they believed that the best thing in life was to die as a martyr, according to Dr. Serraj.

"In their minds, the only model of power and glory is the martyr," he says. "Palestinian society glorifies the martyr. They are elevated to the level of saints and even prophets. Out of the hopeless and the inhuman environment they live in, there is the promise that they will have a better life in heaven."

The martyr's image, he says, contrasts sharply with the way Palestinian youth view their fathers, Serraj says. In studies he's conducted, fathers are seen as "helpless, unable to protect his children in the face of bombings."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is seen as an equally powerless figure, he adds. "There is a very big pool of potential martyrs. They are queuing," he says, "and that happens because hope is diminishing."

For many young Palestinians, analysts note, the normal pressures of growing up are compounded by a mix of problems, personal and political. The past 3 1/2 years of intifada have brought a steady stream of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as a growing sense of lawlessness as Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority continues to lose control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Iyad's parents say that his frustration grew with a long period of school closures here, and he refused to return to school last year. He decided to work in construction instead. For his middle-class family, members of one of this city's largest and most well-established clans, it was a disappointing choice. But more disappointment and hardship was to come.

Iyad's 14-year-old brother, Amjad, was shot by Israeli soldiers in the courtyard near their house Jan. 3, during an Israeli raid in Nablus. At the funeral, Mr. Masri says, one of their cousins was also shot and killed while carrying Amjad's body to his grave.

"We knew [Iyad] was very sad. We told him, 'OK, it's terrible we lost your brother, but we'll find you a wife and build a house for you,' " says Masri, a clean-shaven man who does accounting for a local pharmacy. "I told him, 'We'll help you.' I tried to give him some hope."

Iyad was already looking for it elsewhere. A week before his death, he went to a professional photo studio. Just before going on suicide missions, would-be bombers often have themselves photographed with guns and Islamic imagery.

But in his last picture, Iyad looks more hip-hop than Hamas, wearing a black ski hat and a sports jersey. His father doesn't believe that he meant it to be his last photo, but he cannot be sure. "How we know him is completely different from what he was inside, really," he says.

It's the sort of comment that might be made by the parent of a teenager anywhere in the world. But here in particular, the question of where to place grief and anger is rarely discussed. At schools, the topic of suicide bombings are kept out of the curriculum entirely - although the Masris say it would be better if it were open for debate.

"It's a real problem here, that we can't talk about it," says Mr. Masri. "If you say you're for it, the Israelis will drag you away. But if you say you're against it, the whole community will isolate you."

Rules of recruitment

Yousef Aref, a teacher in Nablus, says he never broaches the subject of suicide bombings in school because he must check his politics at the door. Outside work, however, he is a prominent member of the political wing of Islamic Jihad, and speaks in defense of the assistance others in the organization gave to Iyad.

"When the people are under foreign occupation, there are no special rules to choose the strugglers in the resistance," says Mr. Aref between Arabic classes. On the wall the school's administrative office, a crayon drawing by one of his students shows Israeli tanks and helicopters attacking Palestinian homes.

"Nobody is recruited by force - they come voluntarily. They don't recruit teenagers. But young teenagers are motivated and want to be recruited, so they put pressure on the older ones to recruit them," he says. The general guidelines are as follows: anyone under 20, an only son, or a young man who has lost his brother is supposed to be turned away. Or not.

"He [Iyad] was pushing for it," says Aref, a fair-skinned rotund man with a trim, white beard. "He wanted to be a suicide bomber. He threatened them [Islamic Jihad officials] and said, 'If you don't take me, I'll just go to others for help.' "

When the bombers are teenagers, he says, "it causes a catastrophe to the family. Palestinian organizations avoid recruiting them. But if they succeed, our society will see them as superheros."

Images of martyrs here are ubiquitous, appearing on bedroom walls where sports icons and movie stars might otherwise be. But Aref says he would encourage minors interested in martyrdom to be patient. "I tell them, 'It's early for you. You still have time. Wait.' "

On the steps of the Ar-Rawda School, which teaches students through their second year of college, most young men are quick to offer support to teenagers who become suicide bombers or otherwise participate in what is commonly known here as amiliyyat istishadiyye - martyrdom operations. "Two or three of my friends have been suicide bombers. It's a sad feeling because you lose a friend," says Mustafa Farah, a 20-year-old student. "But I also think it's good. It's an expression of emotions. It shows the world the right picture about our lives."

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