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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Recruitment of Children in Current Palestinian Strategy

Filed under: Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Palestinians, Terrorism
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 8     October 1, 2002

From the outset of the current Palestinian intifada two years ago, children and teenagers have assumed an integral role. Regrettably, this role is not adequately addressed in the recent Amnesty International report entitled “Killing the Future Children in the Line of Fire.”

Knowing that Israeli soldiers are ordered not to shoot live ammunition at children, and face disciplinary procedures or court martial for breaches, Palestinian snipers hide among youngsters or use them as human shields. Three recent developments are also notable:

  • Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Abu Mazen, admitted to a Kuwaiti newspaper in June that Palestinian children have been paid 5 shekels (about $1) for every pipe bomb they throw.

  • Children have been increasingly mobilized during 2002 for homicide attacks; their parents have received cash payments from the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.

  • The attempt at a cover-up: The Palestinian Journalists’ Association has warned members that they would be punished if they photographed armed children.


Sacrificing Children

On March 30, 2002, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl named Ayat Akhras walked into a Jerusalem supermarket and detonated a bomb concealed under her clothing, killing two Israelis and wounding 22 others. On April 23, three teenagers – Anwar Hamduna, Yusef Zakut, and Abu Nada – from Gaza, attempted to crawl under the perimeter fence and attack the residents of the nearby Jewish community of Netzarim, only to be shot dead by guards. For over a month, Palestinian children as young as ten barricaded themselves in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, alongside Palestinian gunmen. In May, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was arrested in a taxi near Jenin with a suicide bomb on his body. On 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 suicide1 attack in Israel. These are some of the latest developments in the intifada, an unprecedented wave of ongoing attacks that has roiled the region for two years. From the outset, Palestinian children and teenagers have assumed an integral role.

Although some elements in Palestinian society oppose using children, or at least their children, in “martyrdom” operations, these voices remain isolated. Just as in previous violent episodes, many Palestinians misuse their children in various ways. Early in the current intifada, children acted as decoys, burning tires and shooting slingshots to attract the television cameras while 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 hide among groups of youngsters, on rooftops or in alleys, often using kids as shields when aiming at exposed IDF soldiers. On some occasions, these gunmen apparently have inadvertently shot Palestinian children from behind. Recently, Abu Mazen, a senior Arafat aide who is the Secretary General of the PLO executive, criticized the tactics of terrorist organizations in Gaza. Abu Mazen 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 5 shekels [approximately $1] in order to throw them.”2 Also, IDF soldiers who participated in the Defensive Shield operation reported that children were sometimes left behind to trigger booby-traps that terrorists set for troops.

But why are these young people willing to throw away their lives? Who led them to believe that assuming dangerous roles in the violence will result in improving their personal, family, and 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?


A Family’s Badge of Pride

The pressure to sacrifice oneself in the intifada often originates at home. Stoked by Arafat’s speeches lauding the role of children in the struggle and the importance of martyrdom, many Palestinian parents have come to view the role of youth in the uprising as useful and, indeed, honorable. Thus, after Ahmat Omar Abu Selmia, a 15-year-old, 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. Martyrs – people who die for the sake of jihad (holy war) and Islam – are held in such high regard by the Palestinian people that at times parents accept the death of their children as 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 said, “I pray that God will choose him” to be a martyr. One mother told a journalist from the (London) Times, “I am happy that he [her 13-year-old son] has been martyred. I will sacrifice all my sons and daughters (12 in all) to Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem.” 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.

Another reason Palestinian parents allow and even encourage their children to get involved is the financial incentive offered to families of “martyrs.” Thus, the Palestinian Authority furnishes a cash payment – $2,000 per child killed and $300 per child wounded.3 Saudi Arabia announced that it had pledged $250 million as its first contribution to a billion-dollar fund aimed at supporting the families of Palestinian martyrs. In addition, the Arab Liberation Front, a Palestinian group loyal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, pays generous bounties to the injured and the families of the dead according to the following sliding scale: $500 for a wound; $1,000 for disability; $10,000 to the family of each martyr; and $25,000 to the family of every martyr suicide bomber – lavish sums, given the chronic unemployment and poverty of the majority of the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.


A Society that Sanctifies Death

Violent death is sanctified throughout the Palestinian areas. The streets are plastered with posters glorifying the exploits of individual suicide bombers. Children trade martyr cards, purchased at their local shops, instead of pokemon or baseball cards, and necklaces with pictures of martyrs are also very popular.4 One favorite wall slogan reads: “Beware of death by natural causes.”5 Suicide bombing is considered a source of neighborhood pride, as streets are named after the perpetrators of these atrocities. There is even a band named “The Martyrs,” whose lyrics espouse the virtues of “sacrificing yourself for Allah.” Under these cultural influences, many children readily admit that they want to become suicide bombers. Some draw pictures and fantasize about the day when they achieve their goal. The young are taught that, as suicide bombers, they will ascend to a paradise of luxury staffed by 72 virgins waiting to gratify the martyrs as they arrive. An American psychiatrist with 22 years of experience studying and treating suicidal patients stresses that suicide bombers – both children and adults – are “tools used by terrorist leaders” with “a whole culture encouraging [them] to die.”6

The Palestinian Authority – the Palestinian entity established, empowered, funded, and armed to carry out the Oslo peace process – uses diverse vehicles to incite the youth to participate in anti-Israeli street violence and even outright terrorism. Incitement in Palestinian society is both authoritative and omnipresent. Palestinian columnist Ashraf Al-Arjami agrees that the patriotism of Palestinian youth is being exploited, and the schools and mosques under Palestinian control are influencing the children. The campaign to incite children emanates straight from the top of the Palestinian Authority. Documents signed with the emblem of the Palestinian Authority and Yasser Arafat’s office feature inciting words referring to Israelis as “land plunderers” and “creators of international terror.” Arafat himself refers to the children as “the generals of the stones,” playing to their pride and young egos.

In a Palestinian Authority-run summer camp, a New York Times reporter observed campers staging the kidnapping of Israeli leaders, stripping and assembling Kalashnikov assault rifles, and learning techniques for ambushes.7 One Palestinian Authority television program clip, aimed at young viewers, features a boy killed in Gaza arriving in heaven where there are beaches, waterfalls, and a Ferris wheel. 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.” In an October 2001 interview in a Palestinian Authority-controlled newspaper, Youssef Jamah, the Palestinian Minister of Holy Sites, stated on Egyptian television, “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 Palestinian Authority-appointed mufti of Jerusalem, said, “There is no doubt that a child [martyr] suggests that the new generation will carry on the mission with determination. The younger the martyr – the greater and the more I respect him.” Not surprisingly, senior Palestinian Authority officials attend the funerals of the “martyrs.”


Educating the “Martyrs of Tomorrow”

Even in the Palestinian Authority’s public schools, incitement to violence plays a major role. Needless to say, interest in reconciliation with Israel is notably absent. The Palestinian Authority’s Deputy Minister of Education, Naim Abu Humus, called on school administrators to dedicate the first class to praying for the souls of those killed during the intifada, saying, “Today we glorify Al-Aqsa and Palestine, and remember the Palestinian martyrs.” Signs on the walls of kindergartens proclaim their students as “the shaheeds [martyrs] of tomorrow,” and 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 by saying, “we like to grow them from kindergarten through college.” Palestinian Brig. Gen. Mahmoud M. Abu Marzoug reminded a group of 10th grade girls in Gaza City that “as a martyr, 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.8

These factors cumulatively explain why young Palestinians are so excited at the prospect of “martyrdom.” “When I become a martyr, give out Kannafa [sweet cake],” one 14-year-old boy was reported to have told his friends in the days prior to his death in the riots. A 12-year-old boy who died in the fighting was reported to have so yearned for martyrdom that he wrote his own death announcements on the walls of his home. An injured 13-year-old boy was reported as having said, “My goal is not to be injured, but rather something higher – martyrdom.” A 13-year-old girl from Egypt tried to sneak into Gaza in order to “join the Palestinian children in anything, even throwing stones.” A week earlier, a 12-year-old boy was stopped at the Israeli border after attempting the same thing.

But why does the Palestinian Authority encourage Palestinian children to become involved in this violence? Clearly, sympathy for the Palestinian cause has been generated as Western media reports have often highlighted instances in which Palestinian children have been killed or injured by Israeli troops or policemen. These knee-jerk reports have generated criticism of Israeli policies, but few in the Western world have thought through the chaos they see on the television news to consider whose interests are served by the casualties.


Shoved into the Front Lines

There seems to be no end to the list of Palestinian children killed after being shoved into the front lines of the conflict by the Palestinian leadership. In February 2002, Nora Shalhoob, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl, was killed while charging a group of Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint with a knife in her hand. Andaleeb Taqataqah was only 17 when she was recruited by a terror squad and sent to her death in a suicide attack on a crowded Jerusalem market on April 12, 2002. As a result of the increasing frequency of such attacks, two points have become clear. The first is that Palestinian children and teenagers are lining up to throw their lives away, and the second is that there is an across-the-board effort by Palestinian leaders, parents, clerics, and educators to turn youthful energy into deadly violence.

Contrary to the above-mentioned Amnesty International’s report, that apparently seeks to equate the killings of Palestinian and Israeli children, numerous dissimilarities cry out for attention. To mention just a few:

  • Israeli parents are not paid rewards by their government or foreign governments when their children are wounded or killed.
  • IDF soldiers do not use Israeli children as human shields when they initiate a firefight with Palestinian gunmen.
  • There is no doctrine in Jewish law akin to that guaranteeing Muslim shaheeds that, after death, bountiful rewards await them in paradise.
  • Israeli schools and synagogues never brainwash children to undertake life-threatening violence against Palestinian civilians.
  • The government of Israel does not have thousands of armed terrorists on its payroll.
  • Israeli parents have never been quoted in the media urging their children to sacrifice their lives for a political or religious cause. Nor do they send their children to the front to riot before the television cameras.
  • Israeli summer camps do not indoctrinate children to kill or instruct them on how to ambush or use firearms.
  • Israeli television children’s programming never features teachers smiling and clapping hands as their pupils sing of their intent to become martyrs.
  • Israeli children do not collect or exchange martyr cards, or listen to music by a group called “The Martyrs.”
  • Senior Israeli political and religious figures do not laud, or pander to, children who engage in violence.
  • And most importantly, Israeli soldiers do not intentionally target Palestinian children (or others not involved in the violence), on buses, in restaurants, discos, etc.


Recently, six children armed with M-16 and Kalashnikov rifles took part in a pro-Iraqi rally in the Gaza Strip. Exposed to such shocking images, including those of Palestinian toddlers wearing mock suicide bomber’s vests, Western public opinion began to shift. Revulsion increasingly replaced curiosity. But rather than fulfill its professional obligation to publicize newsworthy and controversial issues, in August 2002 the Palestinian Journalists’ Association warned its members that it would punish any journalist or photographer who took photographs of armed or masked Palestinian children. This intimidating message, which was faxed to journalists and news agencies, stated that Palestinian journalists employed by foreign news agencies are even responsible for making sure their colleagues act according to the warning. The association further added that it would not defend any journalists that do not implement the new policy, should the Palestinian Authority decide to punish them.9

Blatant child abuse of this kind, and efforts to cover it up, would not be tolerated anywhere else in the civilized world. Where are the children’s welfare advocates to condemn the practices that poison the minds and imperil the bodies of young Palestinians?




* The author is an adjunct lecturer at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University and a Scholar in Residence at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author expresses his indebtedness to Daniel Alpert, David Hessing, and Tal Bialostocki for their contributions to this Issue Brief. For an earlier report on this topic, see the author’s “The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada,” (November 1, 2000). A legal analysis of this topic may be found in the author’s forthcoming article, “The Use of Palestinian Children in the Al-Aqsa Intifada: a Legal and Political Analysis,” in the Temple International & Comparative Law Journal.

1. The popular term “suicide bombing” fails to accurately characterize the intentions behind the act – to kill as many people as possible rather than to carry out a solitary wish to die. Hence, some have called the act “homicide bombing.” Symptomatic of the ideological divide, Palestinians refer to the attacks as “martyrdom operations” or “military operations.”

2. Interview with Mahmud Abas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), Alzamin (Kuwaiti newspaper in Arabic), June 20, 2002.

3. Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) condemns the recruitment and involvement of children under 15-years-old in hostilities and armed conflicts. This provision clearly enunciates, “[s]tate parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” Current treaty law not only forbids children to participate in combat, but it also proscribes a wide range of other indirect activities. Article 3 of the UN Convention states that administrative authorities or legislative bodies of a state shall place “the best interest of a child” as their primary consideration and, with that principle in mind, a number of states have raised the minimum age to 18. Article 36 asserts that state parties shall protect the child against all other forms of exploitation prejudicial to any aspects of the child’s welfare, which logically includes even their voluntary recruitment to participate in a conflict. Ironically, this standard appears to conform to Islamic law, which prohibits children under 15 from participating in a jihad. But neither international law nor Islamic law has curtailed the exploitation of children in the intifada.

4. Sandro Contenta, Toronto Star, June 17, 2002.

5. Amos Harel, Ha’aretz, July 15, 2002.

6. Diane Carman, Denver Post, April 25, 2002.

7. John F. Burns, New York Times, August 3, 2000.

8. Richard Leiby, Washington Post, April 24, 2002.

9. The International Journalists’ Association replied, requesting the Palestinian Journalists’ Association to cancel the ban, identifying the problem as the very existence of these armed children, and not the journalists who are only trying to do their job.