July 20, 2002
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
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
“This madness has become an epidemic in Palestinian society.
In other places they want to become football players. Here
they want to blow themselves up,” said Eran Lehrman, a former
Israeli army intelligence officer who works for the American
Jewish Committee in Jerusalem.
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
“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, released a report last week
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
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.
Palestinian broadcasting executives counter that their
programming simply mirrors the sentiments of society at large.
“We have to reflect what is going on and what the people
believe in,” said Saadu Sabawi, chief news editor and director
of foreign news coverage for the Palestinian Broadcasting
Corp. “We are not inventing the crisis. The children who
become martyrs don’t do it because of television. They do it
because of what the Israelis are doing to them … because of
the violence and the humiliation.”
Sabawi said he was not familiar with the particular programs
the Israelis criticized but said they did not sound unusual.
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.
At the Dahaisha refugee camp near the West Bank city of
Bethlehem recently, several boys recited song lyrics about the
heroics of self-sacrifice that they said they heard on a
private Christian-owned station in Bethlehem called Nativity
Television. “Atef challenged the enemy fire by himself, and
the enemy was defeated,” one song goes.
Many of the boys said that although they admired those held up
as martyrs, they wouldn’t necessarily want to be one. But
there were exceptions. 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
“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.
But even some of those who signed the petition refuse to
condemn the bombers themselves and believe that there is some
merit to the attacks. “It is frustrating to see them
[Israelis] having a relaxed life, going to the beach, going to
the cafes when their sons in the army are doing these
atrocities,” said Isla Jad, a professor at Ramallah’s Birzeit
And many Palestinians who had been considered prominent in the
peace movement in the past refused to sign.
“People were laughing at those 55 who signed the petition. It
was an embarrassment,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of
Passia, a respected Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem.
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. The
cassette, which also includes Islamic prayers, is believed to
have been made by the military wing of Hamas, an Islamic
An Israeli military intelligence officer who spoke on
condition of anonymity said the logistics of carrying out a
suicide bombing are still so difficult that a rash of attacks
carried out by freelance operatives is unlikely.
“They have more potential bombers than they have explosives,”
said the officer. “They think of it [suicide bombing] as their
only weapons. A great weapon, a cheap weapon … but it still
requires an infrastructure, money, materials.”