Creating suicide bombers
In Palestine, the young and impressionable are easy targets for becoming “suicide recruits.” On my first visit to occupied Bethlehem in 2008, I learned from two university “drop-outs” how readily frustration becomes hopelessness that makes suicide seem liberating.
After walking from class at Bethlehem University, I rest in Manger Square, the plaza adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, Sitting so close to the birthplace of the “Prince of Peace,” myth and reality settle on peace in the heart of the holy land. I watch local Palestinians, feel their mix of acceptance and hostility of the occupiers. Bethlehem’s “living stones,” they are Palestinian descendants of the rulers and the ruled, survivors on land trod by centuries of invaders, Israel merely the latest.
I was particularly amused by watching the antics of two teen aged boys who drifted aimlessly around the plaza, arm in arm, sometimes singing or laughing, seemingly in a world all their own. I was surprised when quite suddenly they were standing before me.
“Hello, welcome, how are you,” the older boy said in clipped English.
“Fine and how are you?”
“You American?” He was tall and thin and had an engaging smile, a tangle of dark curly hair framed deep set dark eyes.
“Yes. Weren’t you outside the University a while ago?” I challenged.
The two boys looked at each other sheepishly and did not answer.
“Are you students?” I demanded suspiciously.
“Not now,” said the younger boy.
He was short and frail and wore a T-shirt—its faded letters Princeton barely legible. A look of hurt showed in large eyes of a striking amber color.
“We can’t go to class, but go to see friends there when we can,” the younger boy said softly.
The older boy interrupted.
“We see you come alone from the class. He wants you should to talk with him, only he’s very shy.
“No! Not my idea, his!”
There was a likable non-threatening innocence about their suppressed smiles and uncertain looks they exchanged as they bantered.
“You ask, no you,” they teased.
Annoyed, I asked sharply, “Why were you following me? .
“We want to practice English!”
Tricky Arabs, I thought recalling the warnings of well-meaning friends who had cautioned me before I left for Palestine. Some of them had been on holy land tours that warned against leaving their group and associating with local Palestinians. But what can happen in a crowd here?
With time to spare before dinner with my host family, and no article assignment from the media center where I volunteered, I agreed to spend time to help them with their English.
“Well let’s start with introductions,” I said, leading the way to an outdoor table in front of a small café where I ordered drinks. Sipping mint ice tea in the shadow of Nativity Church with my young companions began a modern day Holy Land story.
“My name is Kees, it is spelled q-a-i-s. I am 19 and I was a student at Bethlehem University.”
“My name is Iyad,” the younger boy said, spelling it, then adding that the first letter I sounds like the English letter ē so is pronounced eead.
“I am 17.”
The conversation began with slow formality as if they regarded me as their teacher about to grade their English. I told them they spoke quite well. Listening to broken English, I encouraged and ignored errors. “Being understood is the main point,” I said, occasionally asking them to repeat so as to make sure I understood.
Encouraging conversation, I asked about their education. They said English is taught in elementary school along with French and sometimes Hebrew.
“We learn Hebrew from the soldiers. They yell at us and we yell back and make fun of them because they do not know Arabic.”
Conversation became serious when they talked about life under Israeli control. They said they had to quit school because delays at the checkpoints made them late or caused them to miss classes. they insisted the soldiers deliberately held them so they would fail and have to drop out.
Qais said he is from the town of Abu Dis and explained that wall construction of the West Bank Barrier began in 2004. The route between the town and Jerusalem east of the Green line made it difficult for residents of Abu Dis to get to Jerusalem without a permit. The barrier took over 6,000 dun-um [approximately a third of an acre] of the city’s land and severely disrupted access to services such as schools, hospitals and work.
“Israel claims the route of the barrier is necessary for security but it is really to make it hard for us. I could not get to school because soldiers would hold me to make me late,” said Qais, anger rising as he spoke.
“We like Americans but not your government,” Iyad chimed in. “I will hate America when I see that children are arrested for throwing stones at soldiers. They stay in the prison for six months for that. Bush considers himself judge and executioner,” said Qais.
I asked about their families.
Qais says his father is Christian and his mother is Muslim but they do not practice. Iyad says his father died and his mother is Muslim but is secular.
“We are Palestinian. This is our country. I want to be free to meet girls and go where I want and to live a young person’s life,” Qais says pleadingly.
“I feel a hundred years old. I feel like my grandfather in his grave but I can only sit confused in my home.”
Qais has uncles in Israeli prisons and says his father was imprisoned for several years but is out and cannot find a job.
“In Israel there are high taxes and high salary jobs. In Palestine, there are high taxes and low paying jobs,” Iyad added. “And there is no American Consulate here.”
“I would leave this country if I could, because there is no work and no opportunity.” Clenching his fists, Qais’s eyes became slits, his words venom. “I had a connection in Jerusalem tried to get a visa to visit an uncle in the U.S. It was denied. Israelis can always get a visa—not us.”
“If someone gave money to my mother for my brothers and sisters, I would give my life for my country. Here is no hope. My father is too down from no work. My mother tells me get an education, I think, what for? For no jobs? I cannot tell her I do not go to the school and break her heart. She has only her dreams.”
Iyad said, “There are people who say to join them and fight, but I don’t trust anyone, but maybe I can go if a friend goes too.” He looked at Qais, who said, “I think about what my mother says and think to get back to the school so I could work to build houses in the Jewish settlements.”
“I think it better to be dead,” Iyad replied, looking into his glass of dark pomegranate juice.
Though it was my job at the media center, it was a story I could not write, one that wrestles in the hearts of many Palestinian youngsters. Their words haunted and I told no one, fearing they could be traced and get in trouble.
At the end of that first year, on my way to the airport, the driver told me, “Israel loves it when there are suicide bombings: they ask for foreign aid for security and get it,” he chortled.
I did not see the boys again. The last suicide bombing occurred the following year in 2009 and I wondered.