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Palestinian Children and the New Cult of Martyrdom

By Justus Reid Weiner

It is Monday, March 24, 2003. Dressed in green and white school uniforms and carrying placards denouncing U.S. aggression against Iraq, several dozen Palestinian schoolgirls, some less than ten years old, march towards Manara Square in Ramallah. “Oh beloved Saddam, bomb, bomb Tel Aviv” they chant as they march through the streets, “Oh Saddam we love you, why don’t you annihilate all the Jews?”1

Their love for Saddam was reinforced by a steady flow of monetary rewards from the Iraqi regime to Palestinian families whose children and close relatives were killed during the Intifada, stoking the unprecedented wave of attacks that has roiled this region for almost three years. Even as Iraq was preparing for an imminent onslaught by coalition forces, checks were being handed out to over 50 families in ceremonies organized by the Arab Liberation Front, a small Palestinian faction affiliated with Saddam’s Ba’ath Party—$10,000 to families of those killed in the fighting, and $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers.2 A large banner hanging in the crowded banquet hall at one ceremony proclaimed: “The Arab Ba’ath Party Welcomes the Families of the Martyrs for the Distribution of Blessings of Saddam Hussein.”3

Tragically, many of these “martyrs” are children and teenagers. The truth about the abuse of these young people by militant Palestinian factions is a sensitive issue—both locally and throughout the Arab world. Retired United States Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner recently assumed his position as head of Iraq’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner is responsible for overseeing the resumption of public services for the people of Iraq, but a visit to Israel over two years ago, and his signature, along with more than 40 other retired U.S. military leaders, on a statement that was critical of the Palestinian abuse of children has now raised a chorus of criticism from Arab and Muslim leaders. The statement that Garner signed criticized the Palestinians for “filling their [children’s] heads with hate” while teaching them “the mechanics of war,”—putting their lives at risk in confrontations with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and “callously using the inevitable casualties as grist for their propaganda mill.” An honest assessment, indeed, but such public acknowledgment of Palestinian child abuse is not welcome in the Arab world.4

How pervasive is this form of child abuse in the present Israeli–Palestinian conflict? How is it inspired? Can it be justified within the context of current international law? What will be the consequences of “education for hate” on the upcoming generation, and for the possibility of peace in the region? This essay will attempt to address these vexing questions.

Child Martyrs: Welcoming Death

From the outset of the current Intifada, Palestinian children and teenagers have assumed an integral role. In the early months children acted as decoys, burning tires and shooting slingshots to attract the television cameras, often making it harder for the world to identify the gunmen lying in ambush. Knowing that Israeli soldiers are ordered not to shoot live ammunition at children, Palestinian snipers hid among and behind the groups of youngsters, on rooftops, in alleys or orchards, often using kids as shields when aiming at exposed IDF soldiers. On some occasions Palestinian gunmen may have inadvertently shot these children from behind.

As the intensity of the Intifada has increased, Palestinian children and teenagers have become more directly involved in terror attacks, especially suicide bombings. On March 30, 2002, a 16 year old Palestinian girl named Ayat Akhras walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and detonated a bomb hidden under her clothing, killing two Israelis and wounding 22 others. Andaleeb Taqataqah was only 17 years old when she was recruited by a terror squad and dispatched to blow herself up in a crowded Jerusalem open air market on April 12, 2002. One week later, three teenagers from Gaza—Anwar Hamduna, Yusef Zakut, and Abu Nada—attempted to crawl under a perimeter fence and attack the residents of the Jewish community of Netzarim, only to be shot dead by guards. Palestinian children, some as young as ten, barricaded themselves in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity for over a month, alongside Palestinian gunmen. In May, 2002, a 16 year old Palestinian boy with a suicide bomb on his body was arrested at an IDF roadblock near Jenin. June 13, 2002, 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, 2002, Israeli security forces arrested another 15 year old Palestinian girl who admitted to having agreed to carry out a suicide attack in Israel.

With the IDF’s successful Defensive Shield operation, the number of suicide attacks has dramatically decreased, as the security forces have interrupted the planning and execution of most of these deadly bombing missions. But children are still being employed in other types of terrorist activities. In some cases they are recruited to carry ammunition and explosives, or are sometimes left behind to trigger booby-traps that terrorists set for troops.5 On January 1, 2003, three young teenagers were sent by the “Popular Resistance Committees” to infiltrate and attack the Jewish community of Elei Sinai. They were killed by an IDF force. A similar incident occurred one week later when two Palestinian teenagers, brothers 14 and 17 years of age, infiltrated the community of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip, armed with knives. They attacked a Jewish boy, entered a house, and were shot. They were finally apprehended by the IDF and hospitalized with light injuries. Brig.-General Yisrael Ziv, the IDF Commander in Gaza commented, “It’s clear that the terrorists did not think that by sending these children they would succeed in killing anyone; instead, their criminal thoughts were that the very [likely] deaths [of these children] would give Israel a bad name.”6 As recently as March 24, 2003, two 13 year olds were shot and killed, one as he climbed on top of an IDF personnel carrier to steal a machine gun, and another who was shot in the act of throwing a Molotov cocktail. Still another youth was burned by his own firebomb.7

Although some elements in Palestinian society oppose using children, or at least their own children, in what they label by the euphemism “martyrdom” operations, these voices remain isolated. In June 2002, Mahmud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, a senior Arafat aide who has recently been designated as Prime Minister in Yassir Arafat’s government, criticized the tactics of Palestinian organizations in Gaza. Abbas told a Kuwaiti newspaper interviewer, “I am against little children going out to die. It is a terrible thing. At least 40 children in Rafah [in the Gaza Strip] lost their arm from the throwing of Bangalore torpedoes [a form of pipe bomb]. They received five shekels [approximately one dollar] in order to throw them.”8

Why are these young people willing to throw away their lives? Who led them to believe that assuming dangerous roles in the violence would result in improving their personal, family, or 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? To find the answers to these questions it is necessary to examine the influences at work in Palestinian society that incite children to violence with the approval and encouragement of their political and religious leaderships, parents, and peers.

Inciting Children to Violence

The close connection between incitement and violence is implicit in all the signed interim peace agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. For example, the Cairo Agreement, signed by Arafat in 1994, obligates the Palestinian Authority (PA) to “foster mutual understanding and tolerance” and “abstain from incitement, including hostile propaganda, [and]… take legal measures to prevent such incitement by any organizations, groups, or individuals.” Yet, various measurements adopted by the Palestinian leadership and media are clearly aimed at provoking children to violence, inciting them in direct contravention of the interim agreements.

While the phenomenon of suicide bombing is usually associated with radical militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, it is the PA—the very Palestinian entity established, empowered, funded and armed to carry out the Oslo peace process—that is the primary force promoting becoming a shahid, the Islamic term for a martyr. Incitement in Palestinian society is both authoritative and nearly omnipresent, and emanates straight from the top of the PA, even from Arafat himself. Television and radio stations, religious sermons, school textbooks, newspapers and magazines, and even summer camp curricula are all directly or indirectly controlled by the PA, which uses them to glorify martyrdom and to convince Palestinian children to engage in dangerous behavior.

PA-controlled television, with its powerful visual and visceral images, is one medium employed to manipulate children’s minds and emotions. Images of blood and dead children are frequently broadcast, followed by scenes of children playing, captioned with the slogan, “Seek Death—The Life Will Be Given To You.” This slogan is also the title of a report recently published by Palestine Media Watch,9 which extensively documents the multi-layered pressures exerted on children to give up life and seek martyrdom. The report features video clips of footage from PA-controlled television that have been specially produced for children. It also includes passages from school textbooks, and quotes from statements made by Palestinian politicians, clerics and educators.

One powerful video clip, shown regularly on PA-controlled TV over the past two and a half years, shows a schoolboy writing a farewell letter to his parents. “Do not be sad, my dear, and do not cry over my parting, my dear father. For my country, I shall sacrifice myself.” The child leaves home and joins his friends in a riot. He places himself in front of the soldiers, is shot in the chest and falls down. His words are sung: “How sweet is martyrdom when I embrace you, my land,” as he falls to the ground, “embracing” the land. As the boy’s mother is seen crying, the letter continues: “My beloved, my mother, my most dear, be joyous over my blood and do not cry for me.” The message is clear: it should be the goal of every Palestinian child to die confronting Israel.10

In another clip, a child actor playing the role of Mohammed Dura, the most well recognized child victim of the fighting, is shown waving to his young viewers, calling on them to follow him to paradise. We then see snippets of his joyous life in heaven with a backdrop of beaches and waterfalls. The actor walks through an amusement park and flies a kite. 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”11 (emphasis added).

Many popular cultural programs “encourage martyrdom and show approval for those who are killed.” Cultural events broadcast on Palestinian television often include elements glorifying violence. According to an article in Israeli Daily Ha’aretz, “television broadcasts include songs and dances accompanied by photographs of violence, all emphasizing how noble it is to die for the sake of Allah.”12 A Palestinian TV children’s show called “The Children’s Club,” which is modeled on the American program “Sesame Street,” aired an episode in which young boys with raised arms chanted “we are ready with our guns; revolution until victory; revolution until victory.”13 On the same show, an eight year old boy announced to an audience of children: “I come here to say that we will throw them to the quiet sea. Occupiers, your day is near, then we will settle our account. We will settle our claims with stones and bullets.”14 In a current television series one young interviewee screams, “They should just give us guns, we ourselves, the children, the young boys and girls, will fight, just give us guns; guns they should give us, we won’t leave even one Jew, won’t leave even one Jew here.” Even commercials on Palestinian TV have urged children to leave their toys, pick up rocks, and join the battle against Israel.15

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 how to stage an ambush. The campers are given camouflage uniforms and imitation guns.16 They parade, and practice infiltration, crawling on their stomachs through obstacles. Tempted by martyrdom, intoxicated by the challenge of being recognized as heroes, and lacking the emotional maturity to calculate the dangers they are assuming, these young people are easily motivated to place themselves in harm’s way.

Arafat himself frequently refers to Palestinian children as “the generals of the stones,” playing to their pride and young egos. Speaking to an audience of children on Palestinian TV, Arafat refers to Faris Ouda, a 14 year old who planned his own death as a shahid, extolling him as an icon for children to emulate. In another television appearance, before a cheering and chanting auditorium full of children, Arafat exhorts them: “You are the peers of Faris Ouda! One of you, a boy or a girl, shall raise the [Palestinian] flag over the walls of Jerusalem, its mosques and its churches…. Onwards together to Jerusalem!” The children call out in response: “Millions of shahids marching to Jerusalem!”17 In Arafat’s words, “The shahid constitutes the fundamental and victorious force of our people.”

In an interview in a PA-controlled newspaper, Youssef Jamah, the Palestinian Minister of Holy Sites, states, “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, Sheik ’Ikrimi Sabri, the PA-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem, believes “There is no doubt that a child [shahid] suggests that the new generation will carry on the mission with determination. The younger the shahid—the greater and the more I respect him.”18

Sermons delivered in mosques frequently include unequivocal calls to violence. The official media broadcasts the sermons of the PA-appointed cleric at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, who has called for his followers to “eradicate the Jews from Palestine.”19 Also heard live on television was a sermon by Dr. Ahmad Abu Halabiya, a member of the PA-appointed Fatwa Council and former acting Rector of the Islamic University in Gaza, who called for Israelis to be humiliated, tortured, and butchered.20 He continued, “Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them. Wherever you are, kill those Americans who are like them—and those that stand by them.”21 Another cleric, Dr. Muhammed Ibrahim Madi, declared on PA-controlled television, “Shame upon he who does not educate his children the education of Jihad. Blessings upon he who dons a vest of explosives belt on himself or on his children and goes in to the midst of the Jews” (emphasis added). Sheikh Abd al-Razak, also on PA television asserted, “Allah has planted within our youth the love of Jihad, the love of martyrdom. Our youth have turned into bombs, they blow themselves up among them [Israelis] day and night.”22 While the sermons are broadcast live from mosques on television and radio, it should be noted that they are also heard directly by those praying in the mosques, an audience that often includes children.

Even in the PA’s public schools, whose textbooks are financed by the European Union, incitement against Israel and glorifying martyrdom are prominent themes embedded in nationalistic aspirations. Needless to say, interest in reconciliation with Israel is notably absent. 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.” Sheik Hassan Yosef, a leading Hamas member, summarized this process of incitement in his own words: “We like to grow them from kindergarten through college.” Palestinian Brig.-Gen. Mahmoud Abu Marzoug reminded a group of tenth grade girls in Gaza City that “as a shahid, 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.23

When the PA assumed responsibility for education in the West Bank and Gaza in 1994, it adopted textbooks from Jordan and Egypt. These schoolbooks contained egregious anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, including overt calls for Israel’s destruction. After much international criticism, a curriculum review project was initiated by the PA, which resulted in the publishing of new textbooks for grades one and six, for the school year 2000–2001. While much of the explicit incitement against Israel and Jews that existed in the old schoolbooks is gone, there is still considerable de-legitimization of Israel, and denying to Jews any historical connection to the land of “Palestine.” Israel is omitted on all maps of the area, and all cities and natural and historic landmarks in Israel are taught as being “Palestinian.” Israel is portrayed as foreign to the Middle East, and is described as a colonialist conqueror, along with a strongly implied message that all such conquered Arab land must be “liberated.”24

This message is pervasive in all subjects, sometimes subtly, almost subliminally, as in the first grade science book in a chapter on “sight.” The young student is instructed to look at little things in a magnifying glass. An illustration demonstrates what would be seen when looking through a magnifying glass at a piece of paper with writing that is barely visible without the magnifier. The part under the magnifying glass can be read clearly: “Palestine is Arab.” In all contexts of the education system, “Palestine” includes all of Israel.25 Note that these are the “new and improved” textbooks.

Other grades are still using the Jordanian and Egyptian imports, which glorify hatred of Israel and Jews, and glorify death in Jihad. For example, in an eighth grade book for “Islamic Education” we find, “The Muslim sacrifices himself for his belief, and wages Jihad for Allah. He is not swayed, for he knows that the date of his death as a shahid on the field of battle is preferable to death in his bed.” A tenth grade reading text claims, “Martyred Jihad fighters are the most honored people, after the Prophets.”26

For some Palestinian children, incitement begins at home. The parents’ role in encouraging their own offspring to become shahids is even more difficult to understand. They believe that the death of their child for the sake of holy Jihad and Islam will guarantee him or her everlasting life and bliss in the hereafter. Such a sacrifice is held in such high esteem in certain segments of Palestinian society that it has become 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 says, “I pray that God will choose him” to become a shahid.27 One mother of a 13 year old who perished as a result of his participation in the Intifada, told a journalist from the (London) Times: “I am happy that he has been martyred. I will sacrifice all my sons and daughters (12 in all) to Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.”28 Another mother boasted that she bore her son precisely for the purpose of participating in such a Jihad, while the child’s father proudly claimed to have provided his son with the training.28 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.

A photograph in the Jerusalem Post on February 26, 2002, showed Palestinian fathers teaching a group of toddlers and young children to properly hold assault rifles while trampling on American and Israeli flags. Most shocking was a recently revealed photograph of a baby dressed as a suicide bomber, complete with a harness of mock explosives and the traditional shahid’s red headband, which was found in the family album of a wanted Hamas militant.30

It is important to note, however, that many Palestinian parents have attempted to restrain their children, and have resisted those who would place them in harm’s way. One public opinion poll of Palestinians living on the West Bank revealed that 74.1 percent oppose the participation of children under the age of eighteen in the Intifada.31 Unfortunately this still leaves 25.9 percent who support the participation of children, which corresponds to hundreds of thousands of parents. Could their reluctance to exercise routine parental authority, by discouraging their children from participating in the violence, be attributable to the threats by armed PA officials?

One courageous Palestinian columnist, Ashraf Al-Arjami, has protested that the patriotism of Palestinian youth is being exploited, as schools and mosques are influencing the children to become shahids. Another Arab journalist, Huda Al-Husseini, has also condemned the tactics of child sacrifice. In the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat she asked: “What kind of independence is built on the blood of children while the leaders are safe and so are their children and grandchildren?”32

The editor of an official PA newspaper, Al Hayat al Jadida, Hafez Barghouti, was quick with a piercing response. He said, “some of the Arab media have become too ‘foreignized’ and subject to the influences of ‘Jewish money.’” He advised Ms. Al-Husseini to “leave the campaign of lead pencils and instead communicate through lead bullets.”33 Barghouti’s attack on Ms. Al-Husseini was clearly intended to intimidate those parents and teachers who attempt to protect Palestinian children by keeping them at home or in school when violence is brewing.

Some in the PA leadership are apparently uncomfortable with the international and local criticism their use of children has engendered, and are beginning to acknowledge the inherent risks of mixing child protesters with Palestinian gunmen. However, their reactions to the use of children in the Intifada are far from uniform or consistent. Mixed signals are still coming from various factions of the PA leadership.

For example, in January, 2003, marches and rallies were being planned by Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO, to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the founding of the movement. Then PA Minister of Interior, Hani al-Hassan warned the Fatah activists against any display of weapons or the wearing of masks (to hide their faces) during the demonstrations. Hassan’s directive was completely ignored, however, and witnesses said that the marchers “carried almost every kind of weapon, turning the celebration into a military parade.” Shots were fired into the air from rifles and pistols. “The shooting continued all day,” said one Palestinian. “It was like being in a battlefront. People were terrified, and it’s only a miracle that no one was killed or injured.” Many Palestinian bystanders were especially disturbed by the participation of several hundred children brandishing Kalashnikov rifles during the demonstrations. Some of the children were dressed in white uniforms, and wrapped in explosive belts to emulate Palestinian suicide bombers.34 Pictures of the children appeared in both local and foreign newspapers, much to the annoyance of the Palestinian Journalists’ Association. The Association has banned journalists from taking pictures of armed children, and threatened sanctions against any journalist, local or foreign, who disregard the ban. Association members are concerned that such pictures damage the image of the Palestinians in the eyes of the world.35

The Relevance of International Law

We live in an era in which the rights of children are widely considered paramount, as superceding other considerations, particularly political causes. “The best interest of the child” is the standard commonly found in matters of controversy concerning children such as child custody, child labor, child abuse, and juvenile criminal procedures.36

The international community has increasingly condemned the utilization of children in armed conflicts. Many non-governmental organizations have been trying to combat this form of child abuse. As one example, a coalition of American pediatricians, Doctors Opposed to Child Sacrifice, has called on the PA to stop broadcasting advertisements and all other programs that glorify martyrdom and call on children to participate in violent acts.37

International law broadly attempts to protect children from the horrors of armed conflict. For example, the use of children as human shields to impede the adversary’s military operations is prohibited by Article 28 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which strictly forbids the use of civilians (of any age) as shields. The cynical use of groups of children as human shields by Palestinian gunmen in confrontations with Israeli soldiers during the early months of the present Intifada, was described earlier in this article. To further encourage youth to participate in such confrontations, the PA declared school holidays for that purpose, and drove busloads of children to hot spots.37 Such activity is in clear violation of Article 28. More generally, with intent to protect civilians, the Geneva Convention proscribes the placing of fighting forces in the midst of civilian populations. The Palestinian practice of setting up bomb factories and centers of operational planning for armed conflict in the middle of densely populated civilian areas, including refugee camps, puts all noncombatants in the vicinity, including children, at great risk.39 This, again, is a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) condemns the recruitment and involvement of children under fifteen years of age in hostilities and armed conflicts. This standard appears to conform to Islamic law, which prohibits children under fifteen from participating in Jihad. Current treaty law not only forbids children to participate in combat, but also proscribes a wide range of other indirect activities. Furthermore, a number of states have raised the minimum age for children to participate in armed conflicts to eighteen.40 However, neither international law nor Islamic law has curtailed the exploitation of children in the current Intifada.

In addition to the above-mentioned Geneva Convention and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, signed official agreements, such as those between the PLO and Israel, constitute additional building blocks in the structure of international law. Yassir Arafat’s letter in 1993 to then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which committed the PLO to renouncing terror and to resolving all differences through negotiations rather than violence, was the beginning, and the raison d’être of the Oslo Peace Process. In return, Rabin agreed to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with what previously had been deemed a terrorist organization.

Beginning with the Cairo Agreement (1994), through Oslo II, (1995), the Hebron Protocol (1997), the Wye River Memorandum (1998), and the Sharm el-Shiekh Memorandum (1999), the importance of ending the incitement that precedes and motivates violence has been stressed. In agreement after agreement, an attempt was made to unambiguously demand the absolute cessation of incitement, and to firmly establish what was meant by “no incitement.” However, though Arafat signed each of the agreements, none of the anti-incitement, anti-violence, or anti-terrorism provisions, not even those pertaining to children, have been honored in practice.

The Cult of Martyrdom: Consequences for the Next Generation and the Possibility of Peace

What is the relevance of the widespread concern for “the best interest of the child,” to the Palestinian leadership and parents? Do parents who encourage their children to become martyrs “for Jerusalem and Islam” have the best interests of their children in mind?

The eager participation of Palestinian youth in acts of violence against Israelis is certainly fueled to some extent by feelings of anger and frustration at seeing enemy soldiers in their neighborhoods, by a desire for revenge for the killing of a family member or friend, or even by a desire to demonstrate their courage and audacity. But the testimony of the children themselves reveals the powerful motivation engendered by the cult of martyrdom. Here are some examples of personal stories that have been featured in the Palestinian media:

  • Wajdi Al Hattab, 14 years old, frequently told his friends in the days before his death in riots: “When I become a shahid, give out Kannafa [sweet cakes].” He always spoke about his uncle who became a shahid....and he yearned to become a shahid like him. He reached the highest levels with Allah. His classmates swore that they would continue in the path of martyrdom until the liberation of Jerusalem.
  • Karam Al-Kard,12 years old, announced his own death [writing]on the walls of his home and attributed to himself martyrdom and its honor... before he died in the fighting.
  • Ramadan Saadi Abd Rabbo, an injured 13 year old, said: “My goal is not to be injured, but rather something higher: martyrdom.”
  • The shahid Muhammad Abu Tahoun wrote down his final words on his notebook: “The shahid will attain paradise and I will be with them, Allah willing.”41

    This passionate desire for martyrdom and death does not come about as a natural consequence of anger or frustration. Children and their parents are indoctrinated through PA-controlled television, religious sermons, school textbooks, and other media sources, to believe that martyrdom is a religious and patriotic obligation, and is rewarded by an afterlife of eternal bliss. They live surrounded in an environment that glorifies the shahid. Martyrs’ pictures hang on walls in homes and schools, and appear, like sports heroes, on cards that are sold and traded among friends. Jewelry and good luck charms are engraved with their names.42 Parents and teachers add their voices:

  • “Intisar [her daughter] fell, and it is an honor for us and an honor for our children,” says one mother.
  • The mother of Abbas Al-Awiwi states, “The greatest present I received this year is the death as a shahid of Abbas.”
  • “The honorable soul has two objectives: achieving death and honor,” claims the Song of the Martyr, a poem that appears in fifth, sixth, and 12th grade PA school books, and is recited by schoolgirls on PA TV.
  • “Our blood is a sign of our fighting for our precious Palestine,” says a teacher standing with her pupils on PA TV.
  • “The shahid Wajdi Al-Hallah responded to the call of Allah and achieved the martyrdom that he yearned for, so that it would clear the way for the liberation of Al Aqsa and Palestine from the defilement of the occupation.... He reached the highest level with Allah,” said Wajdi’s ninth grade teacher.43

    Evidently, Palestinian parents, teachers, and religious leaders who have expressed their support and encouragement for children to seek martyrdom, have concluded either that the goal of martyrdom is, in fact, in the “best interest of the child,” or alternatively, that this standard is subordinate to what they consider to be the interests of Islam and Palestine. Undoubtedly, most individuals from Western cultures, and also many Palestinians vigorously dissent.

    The generation of Palestinian children that has been raised in a popular culture that celebrates hate, killing and death will have a difficult time accepting any plan for peace with Israel. Even more troubling is the spread of the cult of martyrdom, and with it the export of highly developed Palestinian techniques of suicide bombing to other countries in the Middle East, and to other parts of the world.44 Ironically, the generation that was to have matured under the influence of the anti-incitement provisions of the Oslo peace agreements will have to be reeducated to value life more than death. The culture of martyrdom and its pervasiveness in the lives of Palestinian children must be understood and urgently addressed. Islamic values that respect other religions, their histories and traditions, must be emphasized by Islamic leaders. Only then can the true best interests of the Palestinian children be advanced.

    Justus Reid Weiner is an international human rights lawyer and a member of the Israel and New York Bar Associations. He is currently a Scholar in Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an independent policy studies center, and an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew University. The author expresses his indebtedness to Dr. Rita Kropf for her assistance.


    1. Khaled Abu Toameh, “In Ramallah Palestinians Rejoice over Saddam’s ‘Victories,’” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2003.
    2. Hassan Fattah, “Saddam Rewards Palestinian Martyrs,” Jerusalem Post, March 14, 2003; Khaled Abu Toameh, “Checks and Balances,” Jerusalem Post, March 21, 2003.
    3. Perhaps this is why, according to Palestinian friends of the author, so many Palestinian parents have recently chosen the name “Saddam” for their babies.
    4. Pete Yost, “Pro-Israel General to Oversee Iraq’s Reconstruction,” Jerusalem Post, April 13, 2003.
    5. Justus Reid Weiner, “The Recruitment of Children in Current Palestinian Strategy,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, October 1, 2002.
    6. Arutz 7 News (email), January 12, 2003 (Hebrew).
    7. Erik Schechter, “Two Palestinian Youths Shot Dead by the IDF,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2003.
    8. Interview in Alzamin, June 20, 2002 (Arabic).
    9. “Seek Death—The Life Will be Given To You,” Palestinian Media Watch (PMW, http://www.pmw.org.il).
    10. Itamar Marcus, “Palestinian Authority Renews Efforts to Have Palestinian Children Die in Confrontations,” Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin, October 1, 2002.
    11. The theme of “blood” is frequently used in lyrics and pictures $directed towards inciting children.
    12. Nadav Shragai, “Child writes to Mother, ‘Rejoice over My Death,’” Ha’aretz, January 8, 2003.
    13. Matthew Dorf, “Palestinian Children’s Show Sparks Anger in Washington,” Jewish Telegraph Agency, August 17, 1998.
    14. Ibid.
    15. Marion Fletcher, “Palestinian Propaganda Encouraging Children to Join Fight Against Israel,” NBC News Transcripts, May 8, 2001.
    16. John F. Burns, “Palestinian Summer Camp Offers the Games of War,” New York Times, August 3, 2000.
    17. Itamar Marcus, “Arafat Tells Young Children to be Shahids,” Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin, August 21, 2002.
    18. “PA Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine Discuss the Intifada,” Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), November 8, 2000 (http://www.memri.org/).
    19. George Will, “The Downfall of Israel?” Jerusalem Post, October 8, 2000.
    20. “The Palestinians in Their Own Words,” Information Regarding Israel’s Security (IRIS), October 16, 2000, (http://www.iris.org.il/quotes/quote50.htm).
    21. Ibid.
    22. Nadav Shragai, Ha’aretz, January 8, 2003.
    23. Richard Leiby, “Where Rage Resides: For the Ordinary People Of Gaza City, Death Is a Way of Life,” Washington Post, April 24, 2002.
    24. Itamar Marcus, “The New Palestinian Authority School Textbooks for Grades One and Six,” Center for Monitoring the Impact of Peace, November 2000, pgs. 1, 19 (http://www.edume.org/).
    25. Ibid., pg. 6.
    26. Ibid., pg. 20.
    27. Chris Hedges, “The Glamour of Martyrdom,” New York Times, October 29, 2001.
    28. Sam Kelly, “A Deadly Game,” The Times (London), October 19, 2000.
    29. Gerald Steinberg, “Child Sacrifice is Palestinian Paganism,” Jerusalem Post, October 27, 2000.
    30. Ramit Plushnick-Masti, “Palestinian Baby Picture Stirs Anger,” Jerusalem Post, June 30, 2002.
    31. Lamia Lahoud, “Bir Zeit Shows Rising Support for Armed Attacks,” Jerusalem Post, November 14, 2000.
    32. Huda Al-Husseini, “Arab Journalist Decries Palestinian Child-Soldiers,” MEMRI, November 2, 2000.
    33. David Schenker, “An Arab Debate on Child Sacrifice,” Jerusalem Post, November 15, 2000.
    34. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Palestinians Condemn Use of Children at Fatah ‘Military Parade,’” Jerusalem Post, January 2, 2003.
    35. Associated Press, “Palestinian Press Organization Bans Journalists from Taking Pictures of Armed Children,” Jerusalem Post, August 27, 2000.
    36. Philip Alston, “The Best Interests of the Child: Reconciling Culture and Human Rights,” UNICEF, 1984.
    37. Melissa Radler, “PA Ads Encouraging Child Violence Slammed,” Jerusalem Post, May 11, 2001.
    38. Justus Reid Weiner, “The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada: A Legal and Political Analysis,” Temple International and Comparative Law Journal, v.16 #1, Spring 2002.
    39. Muhammad Daraghmeh, “Disarming the Intifada,” The Jerusalem Times, April 17, 2003. This article reports that armed fighters, or “militias,” often rent houses in residential areas which they then use as their headquarters on a daily basis.
    40. General Assembly Resolution 54/263, “Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts,” February 2002.
    41. Itamar Marcus, Special Report #32, Palestinian Media Watch, November 30, 2000. It is also significant that in a survey of 1,000 youngsters age 9-16 carried out by the Islamic University in Gaza, in April 2001, 73 percent stated that they wanted to become martyrs (From “Daily Alert,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, January 22, 2003; http://www.jcpa.org/).
    42. Itamar Marcus, “Palestinian Youth Admire Terrorists,” Palestinian Media Watch Bulletin, August 21, 2002.
    43. See note 41.
    44. In mid-April 2003 U.S. troops found a cache of leather suicide vests in a school room in Iraq. They were fully armed with explosives, metal shards and ball bearings intended to enhance the pain of any victim who was not killed instantly. Carol Rosenberg, “Chaos Still Reigns in Baghdad, “ Miami Herald, Apr. 14, 2003.

  • This Issue

    HIR Notebook
    Compiled by the editors

    What Many Liberals Can't See Arthur Hertzberg

    The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
    Daniel Feith

    Reviving Religious Zionism
    Daniel Shoag

    Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
    Adam Levine

    HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
    Max Davis

    Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
    Eric Trager

    The State of the Jewish State
    An Interview with Efraim Karsh