The lost boys of Palestine

April 30, 2002

THE SUICIDE NOTE from the 14-year-old implored his mother to be happy for him. It spoke neither of sadness nor pain, but of the gift he had to give: "I am giving my soul for the sake of God and the homeland."

The cult of martyrdom in the Palestinian territories claimed its youngest members last week: 14-year-old Youssef Zaqout of Gaza City and his two childhood friends, Ismail Abu Nadi and Anwar Hamdouna, both 15. The teens, armed with homemade pipe bombs, an ax and knives, headed out one night to attack a Jewish settlement. They had no intention of returning and they didn't: Israeli soldiers fatally shot them outside the settlement.

Their deaths provoked a reaction unlike any other in the many months of suicide bombings and retaliatory attacks by Israeli forces. This insidious dance with death had gone too far, and Palestinian parents lashed out.

The thought that Palestinian militants -- who have sent more than 60 suicide bombers to their deaths in the last 18 months -- may have recruited Youssef, Ismail and Anwar was too much to bear.

It prompted some parents in Gaza to call for an investigation of the groups, to determine if they now were wooing teens younger than 18 to the cause.

And the patrons of suicide bombers -- those who have enticed young men and women to sacrifice themselves, trained and equipped them with their deadly packages, praised them in death -- recognized their reputations were at stake. They issued their own surprising response, according to reports from the region.

Hamas, the militant Islamic group credited with dozens of suicide bombings, publicly urged Palestinian youths "to remember that their lives are precious and should not be sacrificed."

A leader of Islamic Jihad, another exporter of suicide bombers, put it slightly differently: "Children have to be patient and wait until they get older, until they become able to fight."

Welcome words -- but hardly enough to mask reality. Denials notwithstanding, the would-be teen bombers have exposed the corrosive nature of the cult of martyrdom. When teen-age boys want to emulate the 20-somethings engaged in this murderous craft, those marketing this perverse brand of religious glory have been overtaken by their message.

In this context, their strategy to end the Israeli occupation only corrupts the collective soul. When young men aspire to be martyrs before they are old enough to shave, they become neither terrorists nor heroes -- just boys lost in a frenzy of fanaticism.

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