"... We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.... We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."
Golda Meir, former Israeli Prime Minister, 1972
What kind of a society consciously and purposely sacrifices its own youth for political gain and tactical advantage? Suicide bombers are an escalation of a small-arms war introduced during the first Intifada (1987-1993 Palestinian’s uprising) and championed by Palestinian leaders, even prior to Arafat’s arrival from Tunis in July 1994. Today the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs nurture a blind hatred of Israel. They created a cultural milieu of vengeance, violence and death - preparing their children to be sacrifices in a death cult. Proud parents dress up their toddlers not in clown costumes, but with suicide belts,1 and countless others celebrate their children’s deaths with traditional sweet holiday cakes and candies.
Around the world, children are precious gifts to their parents and keys to the future. The loving care we invest in our own children is a human trait that unites different cultures: rich and poor, traditional and hi-tech. The toughest job parents have is to raise their children while making everyday sacrifices and decisions for them. We hug them, love them and watch them grow up, praying that they will come to no harm, and doing everything we can to ensure that.
From the poorest barrios in South America to the most wretched slums of Cairo, parents strive to make sure there is food for their children and money for their children’s education. Parents everywhere walk a fine line between the need for parental guidance and youthful independence, setting rules for what their children can and cannot do, trying to ensure that their children will not make mistakes that endanger them. Parents raise their children with the hope that they will grow into happy, responsible, caring, and contributing members of society. That is what unites the Family of Man from Caracas to the Caucuses, from Timbuktu to Katmandu.
It is clear that in Palestinian society something has gone dreadfully wrong. Children in Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza are turned into ‘self-destructing human bombs’ capable of carrying out casualty terrorist attacks in the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis - a phenomenon whose seeds can be traced to the first Intifada.
It happened because Arab communities within the civil jurisdiction of self-rule under the Palestinian Authority (which includes 97 percent of the Arab residents in the West Bank and 100 percent of those in Gaza) foster a culture that prepares children for armed conflict, consciously and purposely putting them in harm’s way for political gain and tactical advantage in their war against Israel. The PA buses children to violent flashpoints far from their neighborhoods and Arab snipers often hide among the young during battle, using children as human shields. Teenaged perpetrators of suicide attacks have become the norm.2
In the first Intifada, a similar pattern surfaced, in which women and children led riots while young men in their late teens and early 20s, armed with rocks, sling shots, Molotov cocktails and grenades operated from the rear.3
There were thousands of Molotov cocktail attacks, more than 100 hand grenade attacks and more than 500 attacks with guns or explosive devices over the course of the first Intifada. Children in elementary and junior high school were encouraged to stone Israelis using rocks and slingshots, knowing that Israeli soldiers could do little beyond taking the youngsters into custody and fining their parents in the hopes they would ground their children. Instead, Palestinian parents sent their children back onto the streets. Some were killed. Others were maimed.
Palestinian society praised the transformation of its children into combatants during the first Intifada, dubbing them fondly “the children of the rocks.” Mahmud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet laureate, wrote a poem after the outbreak of the first Intifada, which sanctioned and sanctified their deaths, and praised “Arab youth on the road to victory, each with a coffin on his shoulder.”4 The poem eventually was set to music, encouraging countless Palestinian children to endanger themselves as a form of socially-condoned conduct that would bring them fame and prestige should they be hurt. This nihilistic bent took an even more destructive path in the second Intifada, as the ‘weapons of choice’ moved from rocks to explosives and the role of the children moved from reckless life-threatening behavior to conscious premeditated suicidal acts.
Clearly horrified by the use of children in armed conflict, Israeli author and peace advocate Aharon Megged wrote during the first Intifada:
“Not since the Children's Crusade in 1212 … has there been a horror such as this – no people, no land where adults send children age 8-9 or 14-15 to the front, day-after-day, while they themselves hide in their houses or go out to work far-far away. They continue, and send them time-after-time, and don't stop them even when they know they are liable to be killed, maimed, beaten or arrested.”
But the use of children to fight grownup battles, which germinated in the first Intifada in 1987, has run the full course - not only teaching and training children to kill, a crime shared by those behind an estimated 300,000 child soldiers around the world, but indoctrinating their own offspring to take their own lives.5
Under self-rule on the West Bank and Gaza, child sacrifice has turned into a normative part of the socialization process as the phenomenon of suicide bombers has escalated to epidemic proportions.6
From an early age, children are fed anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish and anti-Western hate propaganda. Mosques, schools, summer camps, and even children’s television programs are exploited to encourage children to become martyrs in an act that will bring them respect and parental pride:
One of the most chilling examples of Palestinian role modeling occurred in the case of Aziz Salha, age 20, a participant in the lynching of two Israelis at the Ramallah police station in October 2000.13 The London Telegraph reported how Salha “choked one of the soldiers while others beat him. When he saw that his hands were covered in blood, he went to the window and showed them to the crowd below.” This unforgettable scene, captured by a foreign news crew, is used as the focus for adoration and reenactment14 in Gaza kindergartens, much as children in American public school might reenact the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Throughout the Palestinian territories, walls are plastered with posters of young martyrs who are idolized by Palestinian youth the way other teens worship rock stars.
Against such a backdrop, Wajdi Hatab, age 14, told his classmates days before being killed: “When I become a martyr, give out kannafa (traditional cake).”15
B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors Israeli conduct toward Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, sharply rebuked Palestinian leadership for making little effort to keep children away from potentially violent confrontations.16
Bassam Zakhour, a bereaved Palestinian father, was far more frank. He blamed Palestinian Authority television for enticing his 14 year-old son to run off with two other schoolmates ‘to kill Jews.’ The trio was chosen by Hamas handlers because their ‘innocent’ looks would not arouse suspicion. They entered a Jewish settlement with knives and explosives packed in their schoolbags.17
Indeed, the age of children volunteering for suicide missions is dropping from men in their 20s to children in their teens and preteens.
At the same time, the scope of violence between the first Intifada and the second has escalated. Where Palestinian children threw rocks in the 1980s, they began throwing firebombs in 2000. In more than three years of guerrilla warfare since 2000, Palestinian leaders use children in warfare against Israel in other ways as well.
Toddlers have served as cover for terrorist activity by hiding munitions in their clothing. Paramedics found an explosive belt with 21 kilograms of explosives hidden under the pad of an ambulance stretcher carrying an ill Palestinian child.18 The Hezbollah weekly journal reported19 that children had helped make weapons and ammunition in the Jenin refugee camp, and then clashed with Israeli forces after they were armed with grenades and explosives. In July 2003, two Palestinian assailants posed as a family, accompanied by a female accomplice with a 4-year-old child (her niece). The accomplice and child were used as bait in the knife-point kidnapping of a Jewish cab driver. Later, another child passed through Israeli checkpoints while carrying supplies to the kidnappers.20
The milieu that encourages hatred and revenge and glorifies death draws more and more children into violence. On January 11, 2003, two children, ages 8 and 14, who had armed themselves with knives, were apprehended in an Israeli settlement after trying to stab a Jewish passerby.23 Are these isolated incidents? A survey of 1,000 Palestinian children between the ages of 9 and 16, conducted by the Islamic University in Gaza, found that 73 percent of the children surveyed wanted to be martyrs.24
Countless Palestinian parents support, encourage and praise the sacrifice of their children in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks.
Arab culture holds these child-soldiers in such high regard that parents accept the deaths of their children with pride. A June 2002 public opinion survey conducted by the independent Arab-polling institute Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, found 68 percent of Palestinian adults support suicide bombing operations.25 The father of a 13- year-old says, “I pray that God will choose him [to be a martyr].” The father of another youth who carried out a June 2002 attack outside a Tel Aviv disco declares: “I am very happy and proud of what my son did, and frankly, I’m a bit jealous.”26 Financial incentives to families of suicide bombers also provide parents with reason to acquiesce, especially given the poverty of a majority of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, where living standards have plummeted since September 2000.
Moral support also comes from other Arab nations. The Saudi ambassador to Great Britain wrote an ode to a 17-year-old female suicide bomber. One of the most frightful messages among those who justify young suicides came from Dr. Adel Sadeq, chairman of the Arab Psychiatrists Association and head of the department of psychiatry at Ein Shams University in Cairo. He wrote an open letter to President George W. Bush entitled, “Class Isn’t Over Yet, Stupid” that declared:28
“Don't you understand, stupid, that when a girl of 18 springs blows herself up, this means that her cause is right, and that her people will be victorious sooner or later?”
In an interview on Egyptian satellite TV Iqraa, Dr. Sadeq further clarified:
“Our culture is one of sacrifice, loyalty and honor. … Bush was mistaken when he said that the girl was killing the future when she chose to kill herself. On the contrary: She died so that others would live. … When the martyr dies a martyr's death, he attains the height of bliss.... The message to Israel is that we will not cease. … It is very important to convey this message. … The child who threw a stone in 1993 today wraps himself in an explosive belt. … Either we will exist or we will not exist. Either the Israelis or the Palestinians - there is no third option.”29
Some parents and social organizations do protest the barbaric use of children as warriors, although not necessarily criticizing suicide bombing as a tactic. Unfortunately, they are small voices in the wilderness.
Some Arab parents have condemned the use of children as combatants, but their voices are isolated and they carry the risk of being ostracized and vilified. In December 2000, a local group of Palestinian women trade unionists called on the Palestinian Authority to stop using children as cannon fodder: “We don’t want to send our sons to the front line, but they are being taken by the Palestinian Authority,” said a mother of six from the West Bank city of Tulkarem.30 A nurse from Gaza who spoke out on television was condemned in the Arabic media as a traitor. Others reveal that they have been threatened by armed Fatah officials for discouraging their children from participating in clashes.31
While Palestinian leaders exhort the public into volunteering their children for suicide missions, they make sure their own children are not among the volunteers.
Many Palestinian leaders who tell parents that it is their patriotic duty to sacrifice their children32 have sent their own offspring abroad (as have other Palestinians with the financial means), while others keep their own children under close supervision to ensure their safety.
Past’s PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, for instance, sent his wife and young daughter to Paris, where they reportedly lived on a generous monthly PA allowance of $100,000, The Palestinians’ First Lady Suha endorsed suicide operations: “There would have been no greater honor” than watching her son take his own life for the Palestinian struggle for independence – if only she had a son, the Sorbonne graduate told a London-based Arabic paper.33
In October 2000, a London-based Lebanese columnist, Hodo Husseini, condemned Palestinian leadership in the pan-Arab daily Al Sharq al-Awsat by asking: “What kind of enlightened independence will rise on the blood of the children, while the leaders [and] their [own] children and grandchildren are sheltered?” She and other critics were branded as “too Westernized to understand” in an editorial published in the PA’s state-controlled daily Al Hayat al-Jadida.
One of the most poignant protests against turning children into warriors came from Abu Saber, a bereaved father. He wrote to the London Arabic daily Al-Hayat about his eldest son who had been convinced to become a shahid, and how he learned that his dead son’s friends “were starting to wrap themselves like snakes around my other son, not yet 17, to direct him down the same path … to avenge his brother’s death.” He asked in anguish:34
“By what right do these leaders send the young people, even young boys in the flower of their youth, to their deaths? Who gave them religious or any other legitimacy to tempt our children and urge them to their deaths?... Why until this very moment haven’t we seen one of the sons or daughters of any of these people don an explosive belt and go out to carry out in deed, not in words, what their fathers preach day and night?”
In his letter, Abu Saber cited by name sheikhs and leaders who had sent their sons abroad “the moment the Intifada broke out” – including the son of the past head of Hamas in Gaza – the late Dr. Abdul Al-Rantisi,35 whose wife, he charged, “has refrained from sending her son Muhammad to blow himself up. Instead, she sent him to Iraq, to complete his studies there.”
Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (adopted in 1989) condemns the recruitment and involvement of children in hostilities and armed conflicts. In 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted a treaty that raises the age limit for compulsory recruitment and participation in combat to age 18. Article 36 of the same UN document calls on states to protect children against any kind of exploitation.36
United Nations Under-Secretary-General Olara Otunni condemned terrorist groups’ use of children as human shields, gunmen and suicide bombers. At a UN Security Council debate on January 14, 2003 devoted to measures to protect children in armed conflict, he said:
“We have witnessed child victims at both ends of these acts: Children have been used as suicide bombers and children have been killed by suicide bombings. Nothing can justify this. I call on the Palestinian authorities to do everything within their powers to stop all participation by children in this conflict.”37
The UN could do much more. Although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (or UNRWA) funds nearly all PA-controlled schools in the West Bank and Gaza, UNRWA rejects criticism that it allows Palestinian pedagogues and educators to propagate hatred of Israel and identification with suicidal martyrdom, saying UNRWA has no mandate to set curricula or means to control terrorist activity within its camps.38
When Arab children are killed or injured, it makes headlines in Western media reports. But rather than investigate who is behind the participation of children in armed confrontation, Western journalists tend to report what they see on the streets.
Moreover, the age-old news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is all the more true when the victims are children. No matter what the circumstances, the sight of a wounded or dead child is heartrending.
Journalists in Palestinian areas also are subject to threats and intimidation, and their film is confiscated if they take what Palestinian leadership considers “unflattering” footage that “undermines” the PA’s message.39 Aware that manipulation of children gives them a bad image abroad, Palestinian leaders have tried to hide their role in enticing children to endanger or kill themselves from Western cameras. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, a union of Arab journalists, forbids its news photographers from taking pictures of children who carry weapons or participate in activities sponsored by militant groups. Those who ignore the ban are threatened with disciplinary procedures.40
In the meantime, the cynical manipulation of Palestinian children continues unchecked.
Five months into the first Intifada in 1988, a Palestinian leader told an Israeli reporter: “We will make you cruel.” He said the use of women and children on the front lines, leading violent riots, would make Israelis look bad in the eyes of the world and make the Israelis hate themselves because Israel is morally sensitive.
In the first Intifada, the strategy of sending children into battle worked on both fronts: it produced painful headlines and anguished Israelis, leading to negative coverage of Israel abroad, including articles by American Jews who worried that Israel was losing its soul. The feeling of having been ‘tainted’ was reflected in a letter sent by an Israeli medic in the reserves to MK Haim Oron, writing that while his unit’s behavior was devoid of any case where “soldiers or officers stepped out of bounds,” the unpleasant task of apprehending rock-throwing youth was unbearable. “But now the Palestinians hate me and I hate myself. So what the hell do I do?”41
While the mobilization of children on the front lines did not have the effect Palestinians ultimately sought – a unilateral Israeli withdrawal without peace – Palestinians did note the success the strategy had in demonizing Israel in the eyes of the world and the Israelis themselves. This so-called success encouraged Palestinians to enlarge the role of their children by using them as human shields, direct combatants and suicide bombers and by glorifying, rather than mourning, their deaths.
As long as the deaths of children serve the Palestinian cause, Palestinian leaders will continue to employ this strategy. If deploying Palestinian children as combatants and targeting Israeli children is to halt, the world community must take a clear moral stand.
The death of Arab children on the front lines – extolled as shahids or martyrs – has become a cynical weapon in the arsenal of Arab leaders. They have learned that when their children are killed, they gain world sympathy, especially in Europe and North America - where the death of any child is viewed as a tragedy and portrayed as such in the media, regardless of circumstance.
In January 1990, at the close of the second year of the first Intifada, an Israeli journalist wrote of the sacrifice of Palestinian children and what seems to fuel it:42
“The numbers are horrendous. However these child victims of the Intifada are not targets. They are weapons. Few … in the West stop to ask – Who sends children to the front with coffins on their shoulders and potentially lethal projectiles in their hand? … The Intifada is unconventional warfare, using women and children as weapons, because it is a psychological war … [for] the hearts and minds of world opinion … to erode traditional support of Israel by the diaspora … to victimize Israelis by manipulating moral sensibilities inherent in Jewish ethics and Western society to undermine motivation and paralyze the Israeli body politic by systematic de-legitimization of our self-image … The only way to break this brutal and vicious circle and put an end to Palestinian moral-mental blackmail is to get to the source and recognize that the youthful victims and their elder victimizers hail from the same camp.”
Not much has changed since then except that the Palestinians’ exploitation of children has reached new heights. Their 1988 threat to Israel – “We will make you cruel” – hangs in the air. With sometimes 20 or more tips of planned terrorist attacks in their final stage of execution every day, Israelis are forced, against their will and against their humanitarian instincts, to take extreme measures to protect their own children from these onslaughts. Perversely, Israel is condemned for protecting herself from these lethal ‘children.’ To add insult to injury, the hapless victims are often not mentioned by name in the world press – not even in short obituaries - while the young perpetrators are the focus of compassionate coverage, with long, empathetic profiles like the one about the suicide bomber in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. It described the killer as a person who “raised doves and adored children.”43
A 2002 Washington Post editorial headlined “Death Wish,” following a conference in which 57 Islamic nations rejected the idea that Palestinian ‘resistance’ to Israel had anything to do with terrorism, said:
“In effect, the Islamic conference sanctioned not only terrorism but also suicide as a legitimate political instrument.... It is hard to imagine any other grouping in the world’s nations that could reach such a self-destructive and morally repugnant conclusion.”44
The Post castigated Muslim states and suggested their behavior was liable to be the seeds to their own destruction. It concluded:
“The Palestinian national cause will never recover – nor should it – until its leadership is willing to break definitely with the bombers.
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