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Tales of a Fourth Grade Suicide Bomber

Suspicious of his oversized clothes and nervous movement, Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint ordered Hussam Abdu to stop and lift his hands. “I don’t know how to get this off,” Abdu shouted, tugging at the explosive belt around his waist. “I don’t want to blow up.” It was March 24, 2004 and the would-be suicide bomber, subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison, was fifteen.

This unsettling scene sets the tone of Brooke Goldstein and Alistair Leyland’s documentary The Making of a Martyr, a look at the recruitment and induction of child suicide bombers. At the time the film was made in 2004, there had been 28 Palestinian suicide bombers aged 18 or younger, comprising roughly 30 percent of all Palestinian suicide attacks since 2000. Over the course of 60 minutes, the film makes the case that it is not only the extremist Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade or Islamic Jihad who are responsible, but Muslim society at large. Goldstein and Leyland look at the way cartoons, school curricula, and local murals throughout the West Bank propagate the myth of the martyr. The pair spent hours interviewing parents of suicide bombers, school-age children, psychologists, teachers, and Jihadists to demonstrate how unwitting children are indoctrinated and exploited.

The film itself is not unlike watching the nightly news—we are shown upsetting, chaotic footage coupled with overwrought voiceover. The strongest moments are the interviews in which young Palestinians, including Abdu, speak as casually about martyrdom as if talking about sports, and Jihadist leaders freely admit to welcoming children into their ranks. Suicide bombers have become folk heroes in parts of the Muslim world, so recruiting children is not difficult. Indeed it took all of 48 hours, and $20 dollars, to convince Abdu to go to the checkpoint.

Goldstein is not religious but considers herself a Zionist. She made the film as her thesis for Cardozo Law School, and she’s fanatic about the subject. While there is no excuse for sending children to their deaths, one wonders if she isn’t being somewhat disingenuous when she argues that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “completely irrelevant” to the issue. The film itself is filled with charged images of the conflict—bloodied bodies from the Second Intifada, Sharon on the Temple Mount, the failed Camp David Accords. Arguing on behalf of children will always be the right thing to do, but it is impossible to forget that this troubling situation is the outcropping of a complicated war.

Jewcy recently sat down with Goldstein, 26, at a café near Washington Square Park in New York City to discuss the film.

When did you first consider taking on this issue?

I was in my second year of law school studying international human rights law when I heard about Hussam’s case. It occurred to me that there was a legal argument that nobody was making about the incitement and recruitment of children to become suicide bombers. Instead of seeing Hussam as a murderer, I viewed him as a child victim of state-sponsored infanticide. From infancy, he was taught that the greatest thing he could amount to was a shaheed.

So I decided to do my thesis on it. I wanted to collect visual evidence from the perpetrators and victims in order to raise public awareness, with the ultimate goal of getting together a group of attorneys to prosecute this case.

Who would you prosecute?

You could go after the direct criminal perpetrators—the terrorist groups, people like Zachariah Zubedi, Al-Aqsa, Fatah—but obviously you can’t exactly go to the West Bank and slap handcuffs on them. It’s easier to pursue the financiers and the government parties that are enabling it. The Palestinian Authority (PA) creates television programs and buys school textbooks encouraging martyrdom, so you could sue them for libel. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) funds schools run by Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups without regard to curriculum. This has been done before: The Holy Land Foundation was taken down because it had financial ties to terrorist groups.

Attorneys can also help raise public awareness by getting groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to condemn the issue, or at least speak in a language that signifies to the public that this is an abuse. Instead of calling Al-Aqsa “militants,” they should be called “child murderers” or “terrorists” or “criminals.” The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has actually gone on record stating that there’s no proof that children are recruited to become suicide bombers, regardless of all the evidence collected by people like me.

Why do you think that is? Why hasn’t there been a critical mass, or at least why hasn’t it received the kind of media attention of child soldiers in Africa?

It could be intentional, willful ignorance by organizations like the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, whose bias against Israel is so strong that they won’t even condemn the murder of Palestinian children by their own community. These are organizations that advocate themselves as the defenders of the Palestinians against Israeli aggression. Surely they should also be outraged by the murder of Palestinian children by the very people who are supposed to be protecting them.

Why wouldn’t Israeli or even other American news outlets exploit this? It’s so sensationalist.

Certain further-right organizations do cover it. I think the New York Sun does a very good job covering international issues, as does Fox, but other news outlets are biased. Look at the way the BBC covered the quote-unquote massacre in Jenin. They have a policy of using the term “militants” as opposed to “terrorists.” So does the New York Times.

But the reason we focused on children is to get around that political issue—to say, “Even if you have your opinion about the Pandora’s box of the Israel-Palestine conflict, can you at least bring yourself to condemn this?” That way you can see the true motivations of people who do condemn it and those who don’t.

How did you get access to Zubedi?

Initially we didn’t intend to go into the West Bank, but we were introduced to a Palestinian fixer who was able to get us access to the things we wanted to see. He liked who we were, he liked that we were young (I was 24 when we started filming), and he thought that it was a worthy cause. For a daily rate, he operated as our friend, our translator, guide, driver, and security guard.

Were you afraid at any point?

Terribly afraid. There are such horrific scenes in the movie that here in North America, we can’t show it to children under a certain age. It’s ironic—we can’t show a movie about how children live elsewhere to children here because it’s too disturbing. There was one scene where we’re talking to five masked men. There’s a loaded gun on the floor facing me, and if I make one move they just lift it up. In interviews with Zachariah Zubedi we regularly had five or six armed men watching us. It was a petrifying experience.

Did you have to agree to any conditions in order to speak with certain people? Or were you ever threatened?

Well, obviously there were conditions about what I wore and how I acted. As someone collecting evidence you need to present yourself as a party who’s willing to listen. I wasn’t going to argue with a bunch of armed crazies who kill people for a living. At the same time, they were reluctant to speak openly with us. Zachariah knew I was Jewish. Our interview with him lasted three hours, and the first two were all anti-Israeli propaganda. But by the third hour he opened up and told us, “Yeah, of course children come to me, yeah I push them away, the first, second, third time, but the fifth time I give them a bomb belt, I send them to the field.”

Our subject matter afforded me the opportunity to be completely honest with people with whom I would otherwise disagree on every single level. I was there to protect their children. It was a subject that we were able to talk about at great length without having to go into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general.

You say that the desperation and the politics are irrelevant to the issue, but it’s impossible to watch your film and not notice the IDF’s destruction of so much of the West Bank.

That’s why we separate child bombers from the argument about adults. The adult suicide bomber is a completely different species than the child suicide bomber.

As a side note, though, you have to steer clear of making generalizations about why people kill themselves. Look at Wafa Idris, who is pretty much the only adult suicide bomber who we talk about. She’s a divorced, barren woman, an adulteress threatened with an honor killing but given an ultimatum: Either we kill you and you bring shame upon your family, or you can go blow yourself up in an Israeli pizza parlor, we’ll pay your mother $30,000, and your family can hold its head high again. For adults it’s various reasons: pressure, politics, religion. But this is a whole different species and I’m not an expert on that.

What’s very important to me is the motivation of the child suicide bomber. It’s not out of desperation; it’s out of aspiration. Not one child—and I interviewed tons of children in school, children in prison, their families—told me that he was doing it because of Sharon’s policies or because of the failed Camp David Accords. They were doing it to kill Jews, for religious reasons, for Allah; they were doing it to secure places for their family in Paradise; they were doing it for fame, for candy, for money. The child suicide bomber is purely a result of a shrewd brainwashing and recruitment strategy by the PA, its affiliated terrorist organizations, and societal influences. If the children were taught peace they would not be blowing themselves up.

In the film you show Wafa’s mother’s home after Wafa has killed herself, and it’s been half demolished by the IDF. Do you think that’s a good strategy to demolish the homes of suicide bombers’ families?

It’s Israeli policy to discourage families from encouraging their children to blow themselves up. But that’s also where the money from Fatah or Al-Aqsa comes in. Those organizations give the families an exorbitant amount of money to rebuild their homes. Then again, that’s another reason why children are now being used by terrorist organizations: Because they’re cheaper. Hussam was paid $20. You don’t need to give children much incentive, because they are so easily manipulated—but that’s why children are afforded special protection under international law. These children are being manipulated and murdered by their own community. That is unprecedented in human history.

What about the child soldiers in Uganda or Sudan?

Child soldiers are stolen from their parents by non-governmental military groups in village raids. You do have instances where governments are recruiting children as soldiers—even Britain did it at one point—but the societies aren’t advocating the death of their own children. Their goal is to give the child a weapon and have that child live to fight the next day. Whereas the primary goal of child suicide bombers is to kill that child. And it’s not just Palestinian children but Muslim children throughout the world.

Also, in this case, it’s systemic; it’s society encouraging its own children to die. They’re not being kidnapped. You could argue that some more fanatic members of society are hijacking the children of moderates, like Hussam’s parents. Because he has the hold of Jenin that he does, Zachariah Zubedi can take children against their parents’ will. But ultimately this is a societal problem.

In the film you show cartoons advocating martyrdom.

Yeah, they’re being produced by Iranian TV, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia. Egypt is horrible when it comes to printing children’s textbooks.

How often are the cartoons aired?

They’re inescapable. “Little Moon” is played every single Friday when the kids get out of school—primetime. The issue is systemic. Zachariah Zubedi said it to me himself: “This is the culture of Jenin. This is what we believe in. It stems from religion.” Okay? And it’s pervasive—you walk through the West Bank and there’re martyr posters of dead children brandishing weapons everywhere,

What has the response been to the film among Palestinians?

Well we did a very interesting thing at Cardozo, my alum. I invited Alan Dershowitz to speak with me, and we debated Hamid Dabashi. Hamid Dabashi is a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, a very controversial figure.

As is Alan Dershowitz.

Obviously Dabashi had brought his cronies along. I can’t say if they were Palestinian but they were Muslim, and they shouted horrible things like, “You’re the type of Jew that should have died in the Holocaust” in my direction and Alan’s direction, or “You should be assassinated.” Then we played the film. It was quite calm after that.

When Hamid tried to engage me in a debate about how the IDF is supposedly injuring Palestinian children or violating human rights, we were able to say that’s completely irrelevant. The argument against child suicide bombers is so powerful that even people from the completely opposite spectrum of the debate will agree.

Do you think it’s really going to be possible for people to divorce themselves, ideologically, from the conflict?

They have to. These ten-year-olds are the ones who are going to control the future. If the Muslim community itself isn’t willing to save its own children, then there’s nothing we can do politically that is going to help with the situation.

Child suicide bombing is not the result of any IDF policy, any American policy. Also, you have to note that when you talk to a child and he talks about “infidels,” he doesn’t just mean Jews. He also talks about Americans, the British, non-Muslims who don’t agree with their fanatical way of thinking. So it’s not just an Israeli-Palestinian problem, it’s not a Muslim-Jew problem, it’s a clash of two ideologies.

What kind of responses have you received at synagogues, when you screen the film to Jewish audiences?

Jews, like human beings throughout the world, like to have faith in humanity, and agree with me that there is no justification for the intentional murder of any innocent child. So obviously there’s sympathy and sadness and horror.

To return to the film once more: Do you have any idea what’s going on right now with Hussam and with other children who have been involved with planning for these bombings?

I keep in touch with my fixer, who has visited Hussam a couple of times with other journalists. He told us that during the election, Hamas adults in the prison would tell the child prisoners to call their parents and say, “Hey Mom and Dad, I’m having a good time in jail, no one is harming me, but that’s because of Hamas. Hamas is protecting me, so vote for Hamas or I’m not going to have that protection in jail any longer.”

Hussam is still in jail. Like you saw at the end of the film, he became more cocky, more sure of himself. There’s no real rehabilitation in the prisons because Israel doesn’t have the funds to set up a fancy rehabilitation center. And then what? When they get released they just go straight back into the community that tried to murder its own children.

Why do they become more militant in jail?

You have a bunch of delinquents, so to speak, festering in very small areas, talking to each other freely. Like you would in any jail, you join a group. Here in America you join the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Neo-Nazis, or whatever group. So in Israel you have Al-Aqsa, Fatah, Hamas, etc., and that’s how they live.

You interviewed one young man, Nasir, who convinced Hussam to do this. And he said that he was told that he wouldn’t have to worry about prison, or that it wouldn’t be more than one or two years.

Another example of how these kids are being abused. He was lied to! Kids aren’t doing this because of their huge desire to be politically active against the Israelis; they’re doing it because they’re a bunch of teenagers looking for cool things to do. They get manipulated by older cooler kids who are giving them money, saying “Hey, you want to be a big shot?” They give them live ammunition, they give them guns, they let them play with explosives. It’s like any fourteen-year-old boy’s fantasy, and they exploit that. If they’re willing to go and strap a bomb on a kid—and now, by the way, they’re using remote control bombs—then of course they’re willing to lie to them and tell them they’re not going to be punished.

Nasir seems more thoughtful, or self-reflective than the others.

Nasir is interesting because he regrets what he did—not because he thinks it’s wrong, but because he was caught. Same with Hussam. We asked him in the first interview, why didn’t you blow yourself up? “Because I’m going to miss my family, out of love for my family.” But do you still believe in martyrdom? “Of course I believe in martyrdom!” They’ve succeeded in brainwashing these kids to make them think that death is not martyrdom, it’s two completely separate things. When you blow your limbs apart you’re not going to die, you go to heaven and heaven is actually a real place with Ferris wheels. Children have no problem describing to you what their house is going to look like in heaven, how they’re going to have a marble floor, how there’s going to be lots of candy.

Hussam liked to talk to us about the virgins. He was obviously a marginalized teen, he’s dwarfed, he’s a “loser,” he was excluded, he never had a girlfriend, so he took pleasure in describing the virgins to us. It’s a child’s notion of what a fairy-tale paradise is. That’s the crime. It’s important to know that the crime isn’t blowing yourself up; the crime being committed against the children is this brainwashing. It’s a dangerous crime because at a certain point it becomes irreversible and it’s destroying the Palestinian community.

Why would society make such an effort to indoctrinate and prop up this myth? Is this because of the efficacy of a child suicide bomber—that’s it’s less complicated, that they’re cheaper?

Technically, it’s because they’re cheaper, they’re more impressionable, they’re less detected by the IDF at checkpoints—which is changing now. First we had men, then the IDF started getting used to men; then they used to women; then we had pregnant women; then we had children; and now we have mentally handicapped children, so what’s next? Infants?

What are the motivations of the adults of the PA? What was the motivation of Arafat when he held a child over his head and he said a million die on the way to Jerusalem? Now you’re getting into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a whole, but I’m focusing as a student of the law, and as an advocate of children’s rights. These people who are killing children in this matter are child murderers regardless of what the motive is. And guess what? I don’t care. I don’t care what the political motive is, I don’t care what the religious motive is. Why? Because there is no justification whatsoever for the intentional murder of an innocent child.

Do you see any positive developments since the release of the film?

If they continue to educate their children in this fashion and we continue to ignore it and allow it to be funded, then the future looks very bleak. If they’re not willing to save their own children, what can we do? There are two quotes I like to repeat a lot. Nelson Mandela says, “There can be no keener revelation into a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its own children.” And another quote that I think rings very true is what Golda Meir said: “There will be peace when terrorists love their children more than they hate whoever their perceived enemy is.”

[Brooke Goldstein and Sarah Goldstein are not related — they're just both Jews. Read more by Brooke Goldstein on her blog]

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