By Justus Weiner, October 5, 2002
The writer is an adjunct lecturer at the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv
University and a scholar in residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article was adapted from a paper published by the Institute for
Contemporary Affairs, a joint project of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
and the Wechsler Family Foundation.
From the outset of the current Palestinian intifada two years ago, children and
teenagers have assumed an integral role. Regrettably, this role is not adequately
addressed in the recent Amnesty International report entitled “Killing the Future
Children in the Line of Fire.”
Knowing that Israeli soldiers are ordered not to shoot live ammunition at
children, and face disciplinary procedures or court martial for breaches,
Palestinian snipers hide among youngsters or use them as human shields. Three
recent developments are also notable:
- Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Abu Mazen, admitted to a Kuwaiti newspaper in
June that Palestinian children have been paid NIS 5 (about $1) for every pipe
bomb they throw.
- Children have been increasingly mobilized during 2002 for suicide attacks;
their parents have received cash payments from the Palestinian Authority, Iraq,
and Saudi Arabia.
- The attempt at a cover-up: The Palestinian Journalists’ Association has
warned members that they would be punished if they photographed armed
On March 30, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl named Ayat Akhras walked into a
Jerusalem supermarket and detonated a bomb concealed under her clothing,
killing two Israelis and wounding 22 others.
On April 23, three teenagers Anwar Hamduna, Yusef Zakut, and Abu Nada from
Gaza, attempted to crawl under the perimeter fence and attack the residents of
the nearby Jewish community of Netzarim, only to be shot dead by guards.
For over a month, Palestinian children as young as 10 barricaded themselves in
Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, alongside Palestinian gunmen.
In May, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was arrested in a taxi near Jenin with a
bomb strapped to his body.
On June 13, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl, arrested for throwing a firebomb at
IDF soldiers, admitted during interrogation that she had previously been
recruited as a suicide terrorist.
On July 9, Israeli security forces arrested another 15-year-old Palestinian girl
who admitted to having agreed to carry out a suicide attack in Israel.
These are some of the latest developments in the intifada, an unprecedented
wave of ongoing attacks that has roiled the region for two years. Although
some elements in Palestinian society oppose using children, or at least their
children, in “martyrdom” operations, these voices remain isolated. IDF soldiers
who participated in Operation Defensive Shield, for example, reported that
children were sometimes left behind to trigger booby-traps that terrorists set for
But why are these young people willing to throw away their lives?
Who led them to believe that assuming dangerous roles in the violence
will result in improving their personal, family, and political situation?
How did the celebration of violence against Israelis become so deeply
ingrained in Palestinian culture?
What cause, no matter how deeply held, can motivate a society to
sacrifice its children, its future?
A Family’s Badge of Pride
The pressure to sacrifice oneself in the intifada often originates at home. Stoked
by Arafat’s speeches lauding the role of children in the struggle and the
importance of martyrdom, many Palestinian parents have come to view the role
of youth in the uprising as useful and, indeed, honorable. Thus, after
15-year-old Ahmat Omar Abu Selmia was killed on his way to attack the Israeli
community of Dugit, his father celebrated his “martyrdom” at a street festival
attended by about 200 men.
Martyrs people who die for the sake of jihad (holy war) and Islam are held in
such high regard by the Palestinian people that at times parents accept the
death of their children as a badge of pride. Parents of toddlers proudly recount
their little children saying they want to become martyrs, and a father of a
13-year-old said, “I pray that God will choose him” to be a martyr.
One mother told a journalist from The Times in London, “I am happy that he
[her 13-year-old son] has been martyred. I will sacrifice all my sons and
daughters (12 in all) to Al-Aksa and Jerusalem.”
Another reason Palestinian parents allow and even encourage their children to
get involved is the financial incentive offered to families of “martyrs.” The PA
furnishes a cash payment $2,000 per child killed and $300 per child wounded.
Saudi Arabia announced that it had pledged $250 million as its first contribution
to a billion-dollar fund aimed at supporting the families of Palestinian martyrs.
In addition, the Arab Liberation Front, a Palestinian group loyal to Iraqi President
Saddam Hussein, pays generous bounties to the injured and the families of the
dead according to the following sliding scale: $500 for a wound; $1,000 for
disability; $10,000 to the family of each martyr; and $25,000 to the family of
every martyr suicide bomber.
Lavish sums, given the chronic unemployment and poverty of the
majority of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A Society that Sanctifies Death
Violent death is sanctified throughout the Palestinian areas. The streets are
plastered with posters glorifying the exploits of individual suicide bombers.
Children trade martyr cards, purchased at their local shops, instead of Pokemon
or baseball cards, and necklaces with pictures of martyrs are also very popular.
One favorite wall slogan reads: “Beware of death by natural causes.” Suicide
bombing is considered a source of neighborhood pride, as streets are named
after the perpetrators of these atrocities. There is even a band named “The
Martyrs,” whose lyrics espouse the virtues of “sacrificing yourself for Allah.”
Under these cultural influences, many children readily admit that they want to
become suicide bombers. Some draw pictures and fantasize about the day
when they will achieve their goal.
The young are taught that, as suicide bombers, they will ascend to a paradise
of luxury staffed by 72 virgins waiting to gratify the martyrs as they arrive.
An American psychiatrist with 22 years of experience studying and treating
suicidal patients stresses that suicide bombers both children and adults are
“tools used by terrorist leaders” with “a whole culture encouraging [them] to
The PA the entity established, empowered, funded, and armed to carry out the
Oslo peace process uses diverse vehicles to incite the youth to participate in
anti-Israeli street violence and even outright terrorism. Incitement in Palestinian
society is both authoritative and omnipresent.
Palestinian columnist Ashraf Al-Arjami agrees that the patriotism of Palestinian
youth is being exploited, and the schools and mosques under Palestinian control
are influencing the children.
The campaign to incite children emanates straight from the top of the PA.
Documents signed with the PA emblem and Arafat’s office feature inciting
words referring to Israelis as “land plunderers” and “creators of international
Arafat himself refers to the children as “the generals of the stones,” playing to
their pride and young egos.
In a PA-run summer camp, a New York Times reporter observed campers
staging the kidnapping of Israeli leaders, stripping and assembling Kalashnikov
assault rifles, and learning techniques for ambushes.
One PA television program clip, aimed at young viewers, features a boy killed in
Gaza arriving in heaven where there are beaches, waterfalls, and a Ferris wheel.
He is saying, “I am not waving goodbye, I am waving to tell you to follow in my
footsteps.” On the accompanying soundtrack a song plays, “How pleasant is
the smell of martyrs, how pleasant the smell of land, the land enriched by the
blood, the blood pouring out of a fresh body.”
In an October 2001 interview in a PA-controlled newspaper, Youssef Jamah,
the Palestinian minister of holy sites, stated, “The suicide bombings are a
legitimate means through which the Palestinians fight the enemy….The attacks
are the command of Allah.”
Although some Islamic authorities oppose suicide bombing, Sheikh Ikrimi Sabri,
the PA-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, said, “There is no doubt that a child
[martyr] suggests that the new generation will carry on the mission with
determination. The younger the martyr the greater and the more I respect him.”
Not surprisingly, senior PA officials attend the funerals of the “martyrs.”
Educating the “Martyrs of Tomorrow”
Even in the PA’s public schools, incitement to violence plays a major role while
interest in reconciliation with Israel is notably absent. The PA’s deputy minister
of education, Naim Abu Humus, called on school administrators to dedicate the
first class to praying for the souls of those killed during the intifada, saying,
“Today we glorify Al-Aksa and Palestine, and remember the Palestinian
Signs on the walls of kindergartens proclaim their students as “the shaheeds
[martyrs] of tomorrow,” and elementary school teachers and principals
commend their young students for wanting to “tear their [Zionists’] bodies into
little pieces and cause them more pain than they will ever know.”
Posters in university classrooms proudly remind the world that the Palestinian
cause is armed with “human bombs.”
Sheikh Hassan Yosef, a leading Hamas member, summarized this process of
incitement by saying, “we like to grow them from kindergarten through
Palestinian Brig. Gen. Mahmoud M. Abu Marzoug reminded a group of
10th-grade girls in Gaza City that “as a martyr, you will be alive in Heaven.”
After the address, a group of these girls lined up to assure a Washington
Post reporter that they would be happy to carry out suicide bombings or other
actions ending in their deaths.
These factors cumulatively explain why young Palestinians are so excited at the
prospect of “martyrdom.”
“When I become a martyr, give out Kannafa [sweet cake],” one 14-year-old boy
was reported to have told his friends in the days prior to his death in the riots.
A 12-year-old boy who died in the fighting was reported to have so yearned for
martyrdom that he wrote his own death announcements on the walls of his
An injured 13-year-old boy was reported as having said, “My goal is not to be
injured, but rather something higher martyrdom.”
A 13-year-old girl from Egypt tried to sneak into Gaza in order to “join the
Palestinian children in anything, even throwing stones.”
A week earlier, a 12-year-old boy was stopped at the Israeli border after
attempting the same thing.
But why does the PA encourage Palestinian children to become involved in this
Clearly, sympathy for the Palestinian cause has been generated as
Western media reports have often highlighted instances in which Palestinian
children have been killed or injured by Israeli troops or policemen. These
knee-jerk reports have generated criticism of Israeli policies, but few in the
Western world have thought through the chaos they see on the television news
to consider whose interests are served by the casualties.
Shoved into the Front Lines
There seems to be no end to the list of Palestinian children killed after being
shoved into the front lines of the conflict by the Palestinian leadership. In
February, Nora Shalhoob, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, was killed while
charging a group of Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint with a knife in her
Andaleeb Taqataqah was only 17 when she was recruited by a terror squad and
sent to her death in a suicide attack on a crowded Jerusalem market on April 12.
As a result of the increasing frequency of such attacks, two points have
become clear. The first is that Palestinian children and teenagers are lining up to
throw their lives away, and the second is that there is an across-the-board
effort by Palestinian leaders, parents, clerics, and educators to turn youthful
energy into deadly violence.
And contrary to the above-mentioned Amnesty International’s report, that
apparently seeks to equate the killings of Palestinian and Israeli children,
numerous dissimilarities cry out for attention.
To mention just a few:
- Israeli parents are not paid rewards by their government or foreign
governments when their children are wounded or killed.
- IDF soldiers do not use Israeli children as human shields when they
initiate a firefight with Palestinian gunmen.
- There is no doctrine in Jewish law akin to that guaranteeing Muslim
shaheeds that, after death, bountiful rewards await them in paradise. Israeli
schools and synagogues never brainwash children to undertake life-threatening
violence against Palestinian civilians.
- The government of Israel does not have thousands of armed terrorists on
- Israeli parents have never been quoted in the media urging their children
to sacrifice their lives for a political or religious cause. Nor do they send their
children to the front to riot before the television cameras.
- Israeli summer camps do not indoctrinate children to kill or instruct them
on how to ambush or use firearms.
- Israeli television children’s programming never features teachers smiling
and clapping hands as their pupils sing of their intent to become martyrs.
- Israeli children do not collect or exchange martyr cards, or listen to music
by a group called “The Martyrs.”
- Senior Israeli political and religious figures do not laud, or pander to,
children who engage in violence.
- And most importantly, Israeli soldiers do not intentionally target
Palestinian children (or others not involved in the violence), on buses, in
restaurants, discos, etc.
Recently, six children armed with M-16 and Kalashnikov rifles took part in a
pro-Iraq rally in the Gaza Strip. Exposed to such shocking images, including
those of Palestinian toddlers wearing mock suicide bomber’s vests, Western
public opinion began to shift. Revulsion increasingly replaced curiosity.
But rather than fulfill its professional obligation to publicize newsworthy and
controversial issues, in August, the Palestinian Journalists’ Association warned
its members that it would punish any journalist or photographer who took
photographs of armed or masked Palestinian children.
This intimidating message, which was faxed to journalists and news
agencies, stated that Palestinian journalists employed by foreign news agencies
are even responsible for making sure their colleagues act according to the
warning. The association further added that it would not defend any journalists
who do not implement the new policy, should the PA decide to punish them.
Blatant child abuse of this kind, and efforts to cover it up, would not be
tolerated anywhere else in the civilized world. Where are the children’s welfare
advocates to condemn the practices that poison the minds and imperil the
bodies of young Palestinians?