As life looks bleaker, suicide bombers get younger
NABLUS, WEST BANK
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."
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.