When they go to die

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A first glimpse at Diya Taweel’s life gives no hint of why he chose to end it. Just a month shy of 20, this young man had a seemingly-promising future. He had just picked a major in electrical engineering at Birzeit University, he lived in a comfortable home in Al Bireh and had a loving family surrounding him. That is why, when news that the body severed at its middle on the main street of Jerusalem’s French Hill belonged to him, no one could believe it.

Until they took a closer look.

“He became more religious after he started university,” says his sister Neda, in retrospect. “When you go to university, you change,” she maintains, in reference to her brother’s new Islamic-affiliated acquaintances. But Neda says she never would have guessed that this would climax with her brother strapping his waist with explosives and detonating them outside an Israeli bus. “I was really shocked,” she says frankly.

The bomb that Diya detonated killed only him and wounded 30 Israelis in the vicinity. Other bombers before and after Diya have been more effective, taking scores of Israelis with them. The most deadly of these operations was the nail-studded bomb detonated by 22-year-old Said Hutari from Qalqilya, which killed 21 Israelis waiting to enter a discothéque on the Tel Aviv waterfront last month. In all, 35 Israelis have been killed by Palestinian bombers since the beginning of the Aqsa Intifada last September.

Suicide bombers – or more favorably put, those willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause – are no anomalies in history. Japanese resistance during World War II was highlighted by the dramatic introduction of the Kamikaze fighter, men who piloted bombs from a single seat parent aircraft, intentionally blowing themselves up upon impact. This method was first used against enemy ships in 1945.

In more recent history, the Sri Lankan Tamil Tiger rebels, who have long fought for an autonomous homeland in the northeastern part of Sri Lanka carried out suicide attacks against the government-backed Sinhalese. In 1996, Tamil rebels rammed into a Sri Lankan gunboat, killing 12 sailors and themselves.

But in the Arab-Israeli conflict, suicide bombers have only come on the scene in the past 20 years. First introduced by the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party in Lebanon during the eighties, the young volunteers who knowingly sacrificed their lives for the struggle against the Israeli occupation of their country were Christian, ironically enough. Almost concomitantly, Islamic movements in Lebanon adopted the same method of resistance.

In 1996, Palestinians tried their hand at these gutsy operations. After the massacre of 29 worshippers in Hebron’s Al Ibrahimi mosque by a Jewish settler, a young Palestinian man blew himself up in the Israeli town of Afula, taking nine Israelis with him.

And so began a new chapter in the Palestinian resistance. Commonly dubbed as “suicide bombers” by Israel and the Western media, Palestinians vehemently reject this naming.

“It is usually the enemy who calls them suicide bombers,” says Sheikh Bassam Jarrar, director of Al Noon Center for Quranic Studies. “Do they call their heroes who fought in WWII, who defended Britain and sacrificed themselves ‘suicide bombers’? Do you think if a Jew did this, they would say he committed suicide?”

Neda agrees. “Anyone who commits suicide cannot do anything good for himself or his country,” she says. “That is someone who is sick, not someone who can sacrifice his life for others. It must be a great feeling to be able to do that,” she contends.

The stigma of this label also stems from the fact that suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam. “O ye who believeédo not kill yourselveséIf any do that in rancor and injustice, soon shall We cast him into the Fire,” reads the Quran (Surah an-Nisaa).

In Arabic, the bombings are called “martyrdom operations” and those who carry them out are martyrs. In many ways, it is earning this title that plays a major role in the decision to become a bomber.

“The concept of martyrdom is the denial of the self for the benefit of the whole. This is the epitome of human qualities,” says Sheikh Bassam. “There are rewards, certain enticements.” Jarrar explains that although the spiritual reward is the most bountiful, more “simple” people are lured by the physical rewards of martyrdom, or what they believe them to be.

When the traditional three days of mourning began for Diya, women ululated and congratulated his mother on her son’s martyrdom, which in Palestinian tradition is synonymous to wedding festivities. “There will be 70 beautiful maidens waiting for him in paradise,” they consoled. “He will go to heaven and take 70 members of his family with him.”

Jarrar says that such notions do not come straight from the Quran. Rather, the hadith or Prophet Mohammed’s sayings mention material compensation, which can be interpreted in various ways. “Many people care more for the material rewards,” he says, almost lamenting.

It is the spiritual compensation, he continues, that should be sought after. “In the Quran, martyrs are not considered among the dead,” says Jarrar. “They are alive and they shall be rewarded by God.”

In the minds of these young men and the political factions that recruit them, the political achievements accomplished by such bombings are no less rewarding.

“Unlike other operations that can be better contained by the Israeli army, thus detaching the Jewish people from the feeling of injustice done by their state, these operations make the Israeli citizen feel that the danger is close to him,” says Sheikh Bassam. “He will start to ask questions. He will ask, ‘why would a person kill himself in this wayéexplode into a million pieces? What did I do to him? There has to be a reason’.”

Jarrar continues that these bombings are successful on a number of levels. “Anyone thinking of immigrating to Israel will think twice. Anyone considering investing in Israel will think again and anyone who is considering leaving the country will think even harder.”

But religion and politics aside, what is it that urges a person to knowingly end his life?

“I think two factors play a role. The first is that these people must not have very close personal relationships in their lives,” says Shafiq Masalha, clinical psychologist and lecturer at Tel Aviv University. He says that what connects us to life are our intimate relationships with certain people.

“The second factor is that they must have an absolute conviction that there is an afterlife and that this afterlife is better than the present one,” he maintains.

Masalha, who recently conducted research on the dreams of Palestinian children between the ages of 10 and 11, says there is an abnormally high percentage of children who dream of becoming martyrs.

“Fifteen percent is very high and this is an indication of two things: the first is that this life is very difficult, to the point that children are starting to think of death. The second thing is it seems that a certain image has been drawn in people’s minds – especially those of children – that the martyr will enjoy a wonderful life in heaven.”

Masalha says such ideas, coupled with deteriorating daily life, naturally produce those who want to be transferred from this life to a better one. “This is especially true because there is such a great difference between reality and what they are ‘promised’.” Masalha says that these concepts, deeply embedded in a person’s psyche, explain why such a high percentage of young Palestinians want to become martyrs.

On the ground, the Israeli occupation is no doubt a decisive factor. Most bombers are young Palestinians who have lived their entire lives under the oppression of the occupation. Even if they did not lose a loved one or experience the humiliating conditions of Israeli prisons, every Palestinian, without exception, has felt the suffocating strangle of Israeli military control on their lives.

For Diya, it could have been the view of the Jewish settlement Psagot from his veranda that triggered a thirst for revenge. It could have been the many roadblocks on his way to Birzeit University or the friends he saw wounded or imprisoned. But one thing was definitely clear. Resistance to him was not a stone thrown at a powerful military machine. It had to be much more.

“Once I asked him if he threw rocks,” recounts his sister Neda. “He said he didn’t because there was no point. He said if you go to throw a rock you are committing suicide because a rock doesn’t do anything. If you want to face their guns, you have to have something better than a rock.”

The majority of these bombers’ families seem not have had an inkling of their sons’ plans. Although likely becoming more introverted and religious, the bombers usually keep their most intimate secret all to themselves.

“I had an idea that he was amazed by people who do this,” admits Neda about her brother. “But I had no idea [of his intentions]. If I even had a doubt, I would have done something,” she concludes, her voice trailing off.

Neda tells how her brother left the house on March 26, supposedly going over to a friend’s house to study, and never came back. “He was the mu’azin [person who calls Muslims to prayer] at the university. When he didn’t call for prayer for two days, I began to worry.”

Neda says even after the news of the blast, they didn’t know it was Diya. “People would come and ask us if he left the house angry. I thought he had been arrested at a checkpoint or something. It was as if God was preparing us for this.”

When they were finally sure that the bomber (whose remains were whisked off to the forensic autopsy institute in West Jerusalem) had been identified as their son, the Tawils began their period of mourning.

“People were telling me to ululate,” recalls Neda sadly. “I don’t know how I could ever do that. My brother and I were very close. We miss him a lot.”

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