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Bombers nurtured despair { March 23 2002 }

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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

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

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

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.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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