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Young Bombers Despair Mid East*
Young Bombers Nurtured by Despair
Among Palestinians, a Growing Attitude of Little to Live For
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 23, 2002; Page A01
BEIT WAZAN, West Bank -- Before she shopped for someone to supply her with an exploding belt, Dareen Abu Aisheh had a long series of Socratic debates with her uncle, Jasser Khalili, over the rightness and wrongness of suicide bombing.
To every argument Khalili made against killing civilians and one's self, Abu Aisheh answered with questions: Aren't we being shot down like dogs? Do you feel like a human being when the Israelis control your every move? Do you believe we have a future? If I'm going to die at their hands anyway, why shouldn't I take some of them with me?
"I admit I had no defenses against some of her words," said Khalili, who was sitting at a wake for her. "I tried to explain to her it was wrong to target other people. In the end, my arguments were weak. And she did what she did."
Abu Aisheh, 21, traveled in a car to a military checkpoint near the West Bank settlement of Modiin on Feb. 27 and detonated explosives wrapped around her body. She injured two Palestinians and two Israelis. Only she died.
Before that, she had worked hard to find someone to turn her into a human bomb. Two Islamic groups had rejected her, one on the grounds she was female, before al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization that is basically secular, provided explosives to strap to her body.
An estimated 59 Palestinian suicide bombers have killed 125 Israelis, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the nearly 18 months of the uprising against Israeli occupation in the two territories. The pool of potential bombers seems far from exhausted among despairing, hostile youths in Abu Aisheh's generation.
While many Palestinian teenagers and twentysomethings say they would not go so far as to blow themselves up for the cause of independence, their words otherwise closely echo Abu Aisheh's attitude. Conversations with young adult Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza reveal a striking identification with suicide bombers.
Palestinian researchers have begun to study the phenomenon. They are discovering a generation of young people who believe they have no future and who feel their lives -- and deaths -- are out of their control. Many respond with empathy to killings of Israelis, including through suicide bombing.
"The suicide bomber is only the extreme case," said Rita Giacaman, a Palestinian public health worker and researcher from Ramallah who is studying attitudes of students at Bir Zeit University, the leading Palestinian institute of higher learning. "We found that our students generally have an inability to dream, or to visualize a better future than their miserable current life."
More than half the students surveyed complain of instability in their lives, she said. About 40 percent report feelings of futility, loss, disappointment or an inability to cope. Symptoms include being unable to concentrate, sleeplessness, trembling, headaches and temperamental outbursts.
Suicide bombing is only one aspect of behavior Giacaman qualifies as "para-suicidal," which she believes results from generalized despair. She includes youths who get killed or maimed throwing stones at heavily armed Israeli troops. "These young people are killing themselves, too," she said, by inviting fire from the troops.
Giacaman has begun surveying students at Bir Zeit not because they are representative, but because, on the contrary, they reflect the best and the brightest. "There is a myth that only the poorest and uneducated are desperate, but that's not necessarily the case," she said.
Abu Aisheh, for instance, was an English major at al-Najah University in Nablus, a West Bank town adjacent to her home village of Beit Wazan. She was active on the student council and in the Islamic Resistance Movement. The group, known by its Arabic-language acronym, Hamas, rejects peace talks with Israel. Its military wing has dispatched numerous suicide bombers to Israel, although it rejected Abu Aisheh's self-recruitment.
Relatives said she became angry and depressed by the death of a cousin, Safwad, who blew himself up at a Tel Aviv bus station in January. She wrote articles about the hardships of his life, how he had worked from the age of 10 as a garbage collector and had tried to raise chickens for a living but lost money because of the difficulties delivering them during the conflict. Khalili and Dareen's father, Mohammed Abu Aisheh, say they believe she was driven over the brink by the wounding of a pregnant woman at an Israeli military checkpoint near Nablus on Feb. 25.
"This was definitely the breaking point," Mohammed said. "She spoke about it constantly."
Abu Aisheh left a suicide note in which she imagined the loss felt by mothers whose sons have been killed. In particular, she recalled the death 17 months ago of Mohammed Dura, a young boy shot dead by Israeli soldiers while walking with his father in Gaza.
"Our duty is to take the soldier's life," she wrote, "in the same manner they take ours."
"She had long stopped talking about the future," Khalili said. "She said she did not concentrate at school. I visited her during a holiday season. I asked her to look to the future. It's a duty to God, children and ourselves. She answered only, 'I'm sure Safwad is having a good holiday.' "
It is not hard to come across similar expressions of depression in this generation. Among the most common themes is the contrast between high hopes during the early 1990s, when peace seemed probable, to the decline in confidence after 1996, when Israel all but stopped withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Talks stalled until their collapse in the summer of 2000 and the explosion of the intifada in September that year.
Viola Raheb, a child development expert who oversees Lutheran Church schools in the West Bank and Jordan, said she sees disturbing symptoms of distress among young teenagers and elementary school students. They are becoming withdrawn and fearful, and have lost faith in the ability of their parents to protect them. Bed-wetting, dizziness and nausea are increasing. Like Giacaman, she has found anecdotal expressions of empathy with suicide bombers.
"It is so frightening that very young people already believe that the best they can do is end their lives," Raheb said. "If you don't value your own life, how do you value the life of others?"
In the West Bank town of Tulkarm, a 15-year old girl named Noura Shalhoub took a knife from her kitchen last month and rushed a soldier at a checkpoint near her town. The soldiers shot her. She bled to death where she fell. Her father, Jamal Shalhoub, said her mood had changed after a neighbor was killed in an Israeli helicopter attack on the town.
Noura began to read political manifestoes over the loudspeaker at school. She also became fatalistic. Once, a blast in the town caused a window to collapse over her bed. She said, "God is great. I feel martyrdom nearing."
Shalhoub, who is a veterinarian, lectured his children on the need to keep studying during the conflict. He sent his children to school in a car to make sure they did not wander into trouble on the way to and from home. Noura had never been to the checkpoint outside Tulkarm.
"I was overprotective. I felt her anger, but when I heard the news, I was shocked. I learned after that she inquired with her friends and sisters about the checkpoint. She knew what she was going to do," he said.
The day before her mission, Noura's mother tried to show her the new bedroom she would have in a house her father was building. Noura refused to go see it. "The whole generation is acting like this. They are withdrawing from life," said Khaled Shalabi, Noura's uncle.
Noura left a suicide note. She wrote about avenging "martyrs" and listed several people killed by the Israelis.
Publicly, suicide attackers are regaled among Palestinians as war heroes. Yet, simmering beneath the surface is the issue of the role of Palestinian leaders in arranging suicide bombings. Other than exceptional cases, most suicide bombers are outfitted and dispatched by organized groups: Hamas, Islamic Jihad or al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. While it is easy to hear despairing comments about the state of youthful minds, it is harder to find criticism of the agents who, confronted with disturbed persons, send them out to kill and be killed.
At Dareen Abu Aisheh's wake, a reporter asked for opinions about the people who might have sent her to her death.
There was silence for a moment, then random talk about the breakdown of leadership, injustices to Palestinians, large numbers of Palestinian deaths and deep economic problems. In the end, there was no criticism of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas or any other group. The flags of each organization waved over the wake, as did the red, green and white Palestinian banner.
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