Palestinian youths make eager martyrs

Culture of sacrifice firms resolve, makes peace more difficult

January 08, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Faras Oda's family keeps a television tuned these days to Al-Manar TV, beamed from Lebanon by the Hezbollah guerrilla group. Periodically, the station broadcasts a quick video showing the 14-year-old hurling a rock toward a tank, along with a caption written in Arabic to arouse Palestinians and in Hebrew to taunt Israelis: "He's stronger than you."

Inam Oda must have seen the same clip scores of times, but she still bursts into tears at the sight of her son. He was killed by Israeli gunfire eight days after the camera captured him confronting the tank. After watching it, she pulls her 2 1/2 -year-old nephew close and asks him who shot Faras."`A Jew," the child replies.

Where?

"In his throat. I'm going to shoot the guy who shot him."

Where is Faras now?

"In paradise."

Among families of young Palestinians gunned down in clashes with Israelis, the pain and bitterness of losing a child is coupled with pride in giving up a martyr to the cause of an independent Palestine. It's part of a seemingly pervasive culture of sacrifice, constantly reinforced by a mounting death toll, that heightens pressure on Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership not to compromise in ending the 50-year conflict with Israel.

The most recent outbreak of violence has claimed at least 330 lives, including 275 Palestinians, 13 Israeli Arabs and 41 other Israelis. Since 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura died in his father's arms at Netzarim Junction outside Gaza City on Sept. 30, two days into the latest chapter of violence, more than 70 boys younger than 18 have died, engulfing each of their families in grief and celebrity.

In rapid sequence, each new victim's flag-draped body is held aloft in a funeral procession as teen-age peers chant a pledge to avenge his death; posters are printed with his face against a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim shrine in Jerusalem; well-wishers line up to pay respects at a mourning tent, and political factions spray-paint neighborhood walls with condolences.

At the end of December, as the Muslim majority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip ended the four-week Ramadan fast with the feast of Eid al Fitr, East Jerusalem's Al Quds newspaper encouraged Palestinians to forgo their usual celebrations. Visit the families of martyrs and injured, it urged, and let the Eid be a message to "continue the struggle."

The "struggle" runs deep in Faras Oda's family, which has lost 10 men in fighting against the Israelis over the years. Many of the youngest Palestinian victims lived here in the Gaza Strip, home to hundreds of thousands of poor refugees passing on resentment and dreams of return from one generation to the next.

Young Faras followed the news of the uprising. "They're killing us," he would exclaim as he followed news of the uprising. Skilled with a rubber slingshot, he slipped out of his house or school at every opportunity to join the rock-throwing mob at nearby Karni Crossing, for weeks a flash point between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

But he wanted to do more. He watched Al-Manar, which shows films of Hezbollah guerrillas training in southern Lebanon and exhorts Palestinians to follow their example and drive out the Israelis with force. "I want to be like them," he would say.

"I used to go to Karni three times a day to bring him back," his mother said. Sometimes she wouldn't tell his father, who would beat Faras out of fear that he would end up disabled.

On the day of his death, the teen climbed a school wall and shouted to a friend who refused to join him, "Go tell the headmaster: Faras is martyred." His mother thinks that was his wish. That afternoon, his mother got a call from the gas station near Karni, announcing that he had been shot. Later she heard from his friends that the bullet struck him as he stooped to reach for a sandal that had fallen off his foot as he ran from Israeli gunfire.

`I want to be a martyr'

At the home of Mohammed al Ejlah, another young victim, younger siblings play barefoot, scampering across the chill wet ground of a yard framed by their small two-family house, a gate and a shed for the goats.

Mohammed carried a flag at the funeral of his cousin, Nabil Arier, a bicycle bomber who had blown himself up trying to attack an Israeli military position at a Jewish settlement. Now their pictures hang together in the front room, along with that of an uncle who died in an Israeli prison.

Khater Al Ejlah, Mohammed's father, says he tried to get his son to become a carpenter and stay away from the clashes. But from the moment the boy learned of young Mohammed al-Dura's death, he refused to listen, heading every day first to Netzarim Junction, and later to the Karni Crossing.

"I followed him saying, `Mohammed, don't go - what's a stone going to bring us?'" says his mother, Somaya. "His attitude was, `I don't care. I want to be a martyr.'"

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