In recent months, three attacks involving teenagers have been thwarted: a suicide attack in Israel by a 17-year-old male who blew himself up near Jinspot, a village east of Qalqilya; a shooting attack in Afula by three teenagers 13-15 years old, who were arrested near an army roadblock in Jenin; and an attempt to smuggle munitions from Egypt in the Rafah area by teens aged 11-14 years.
These incidents highlighted once again the exploitation of children and teens by terrorist organizations: young people who were instilled with messages of hate and incitement against Israel were recruited from the beginning of the current conflict to carry out attacks, including suicide bombings, and to participate in violence and terrorism-supporting activities (demonstrations; confrontations with soldiers; smuggling; spying; digging tunnels). This phenomenon has attracted sharp criticism in the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian society, but the PA has not taken any effective steps against it and even uses injured children and youth for propaganda purposes at home and abroad.
Terror-related events in which minors were involved
Recently, three cases in which youth were exploited by terrorist organizations were identified and thwarted:
- A planned shooting attack in Afula by youths 13, 14 and 16 years old. The three, who were from Tubas (northeast of Nablus), were arrested on 26 February 2004 at an army roadblock near Jenin, with improvised pistols in their possession. They revealed during their interrogation that they were on the way to carry out a shooting attack in Afula. The oldest one (16) told that the Islamic Jihad of Palestine recruited him and that he recruited the other two boys. According to an AP report from Nablus, the three left a letter in which they requested that no one mourn for them if they were killed because they would become shaheeds. In the letter, two of the boys identified themselves as members of the Fatah/el-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the third as a member of the Islamic Jihad of Palestine. The families and senior PA officials condemned the sending of the boys to perpetrate the attack (see below).
- A planned suicide bombing by a 17-year-old male: on 11 January 2004, Ayad Belal el-Masri, a high school student from Nablus, blew himself up near IDF soldiers in the vicinity of Jinspot, east of Qalqilya. The soldiers were not injured. The youth, who was alone and equipped with an explosive belt, was sent to perpetrate a suicide bombing in Israel, but lost his way, saw the soldiers and blew himself up (panicked? detonated the belt by mistake?). The Fatah/el-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Islamic Jihad of Palestine both claimed responsibility for the act. The boy's death was criticized by his family and by the Palestinian media (see below).
- The attempted smuggling of munitions with the aid of boys aged 11-14 years: On 12 February 2004, a group of four teenagers tried to cross the border into Egypt from the Palestinian side of Rafah, in an attempt to smuggle munitions into Israel from Egypt. The youths were recruited by the smugglers in exchange for a paltry sum. One of the boys was slightly injured by IDF shooting, and the other three were arrested by the IDF and taken in for questioning. It should be noted that in the area in which the youths were apprehended, there is an extensive smuggling network run by terrorist organizations that use teenagers for smuggling as well as for digging the tunnels through which arms and explosives are smuggled.
In addition to the above, children and teenagers continue to take active part in demonstrations and violent events, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes at the initiative of terrorist groups. They frequently get caught in the middle of fighting between the terrorists and IDF soldiers. In a recent case (11 February), children and youth were injured as they crowded together with masked rioters who were exchanging fire with an IDF force in the northern Gazan neighborhood of el-Shajaya.
Characteristic features of the exploitation of minors by terrorist organizations
The use of children and youth by terrorist organizations to carry out attacks, including suicide bombings, is well known. As part of the practice of including them in violent activities and in terror-supporting operations, children and youth are sent to participate in demonstrations and in confrontations with the army (at times they are taken out of school for this purpose). Terrorist groups also use them for smuggling, digging tunnels, spying and intelligence-gathering. The terrorists exploit their innocent appearance, which allows them to pass more easily through IDF roadblocks and to approach soldiers and Israeli settlements, the fact that they are easy to influence and recruit because of their tender age and the intensive incitement to which they have been exposed, and the tendency of Israeli soldiers to refrain from harming children and youth.
It should be noted that the recruiting of young people and their integration into operations that include suicide bombings reached a peak in 2002. Since then there has been a decrease in the exploitation of teens for use in terrorist operations, but the phenomenon still exists, as was demonstrated recently. The use of children and youth for terror-supporting activities is continuing, as is the encouragement to participate in demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli soldiers.
These children and teenagers, who are often used as "cannon fodder" by terrorist groups, grow up in an environment that instills in them hatred of Israel and a "culture of The Struggle" against Israel. Palestinian Arab children absorb these values at home, from the games they play, in the mosques, from television (which frequently shows programs of incitement and fomentation featuring children and teenagers), from educational frameworks (formal and extra-curricular), at summer camps, and in a variety of other ways. Some of these children, after they have grown up, supply the manpower for terrorist organizations. Some of them participate in violent activities and terrorist operations while they are still minors, either out of nationalist and religious motives (the desire to be a part of the struggle against Israel and the willingness to die a martyr's death for the sake of Allah), or out of economic motives (living in conditions of poverty make them ripe for temptation, even of relatively small sums of money).
This exploitation of children and youth by terrorist groups has been sharply criticized in Palestinian society (see below), even by officials in the PA. Police commissioner Ghazi el-Jebali issued guidelines in 2002 stating that school children should not be sent to confrontation areas, in order not to endanger them. However, by not taking effective steps to keep children and youth out of the violence, the PA has ensured that these guidelines remain on paper only. This is consistent with Arafat's and the PA's strategy of avoiding conflict with the terrorist organizations as well as their interest in maintaining the momentum of the fight against Israel as well as their desire to reap the propaganda benefits from wounded children and youth.
Accordingly, the PA has adopted a public relations strategy that emphasizes the role of children and youth in the Intifada, while exploiting the injuries caused by the IDF (unwittingly) or by Palestinian fire to children caught in the midst of the fighting. As part of this strategy, Israel is often presented on television as a "conqueror without restraints" who does not think twice about hurting children while, to strengthen the message, horrific pictures of dead and wounded children are shown in the background. Some of the children killed at the beginning of the Intifada have been turned into symbols of the Palestinian struggle, and books, articles, songs and movies have been devoted to them. Their deaths have been exploited for profit on the world public opinion market, to fan the flames of hatred and revenge and to cultivate the Palestinian street's consciousness of the violent struggle.
Encouragement vs. Criticism
The terrorist organizations, particularly the Hamas, very often use militant Islamic messages to encourage children and teenagers to join the conflict and to participate in military operations, including suicide bombings. Some examples follow:
- Salah Shehada, who was one of the leaders of the Hamas in Gaza, stated in an interview (on the website Islam On-line, 26 May 2002), that children should be properly trained before they are sent on a mission and that they should be recruited into a special unit of the military arm of the Hamas in order to instill in them the culture of military jihad and to teach them to distinguish between good and evil.
- Dr. Padhl Abu Hin, a psychology lecturer, was interviewed on this subject for a television movie entitled "Child Patriots and a Martyrs' Death". He noted that the Palestinian child understands that, by means of the shahada (a martyrs' death for the sake of Allah), through the perpetration of attacks, he/she can win honor and appreciation, without life being ended. [The concept of] Shahada, according to him, encourages children to take an active part in the conflict against Israel (Palestinian TV, 27 June 2002).
- Rasha el-Rantissi, wife of Abed el-Aziz el-Rantissi, told the Arab media that she is educating her children to resistance and jihad. She added, "I hope that my husband, my children and I will receive the shahada so that we may prove that we are the first to sacrifice our children for Allah;" "Allah is generous with us, because our children die as fighters, and we wait with them for death for Allah's sake any minute" (el-Bian, 16 June 2003).
Furthermore, Islamic terrorist organizations are not the only ones to instill in children the value of dying for the sake of Allah (shahada); Arafat and the Palestinian Authority indulge also. Thus, Arafat's speech on the occasion of "Palestinian Child Day", broadcast by Palestinian television (1 June 2003), in which Arafat conveyed a militant Islamic message to the Palestinian child, based on Islamic tradition, encouraged the children to be fighters on Islam's front line (rabat) and to die as martyrs for Allah, while bestowing special status on the ones thus killed (shaheeds).
On the other hand, harsh criticism has been leveled against endangering the lives of school children, and especially against sending young people on suicide missions. The criticism comes from officials in the PA, the children's families, and figures in the Palestinian media. For example:
- The families of the three teenagers sent to carry out a shooting attack in Afula (26 February 2004) and senior PA officials expressed anger at the dispatching of the boys. Palestinian minister Saab Ariqat said (AP, Nablus), "Our children should be our hope and future; they must not turn into suicide terrorists. We want them to be doctors or engineers…" The family of one of the boys, Tarek Abu Mahsan, were infuriated that the Islamic Jihad of Palestine recruited the three for a mission that would almost certainly have led to their deaths. Regarding the letter left by the three, the boy's mother, Amira Abu Mahsan, noted that "my son doesn't know how to write a letter like that and has never belonged to one of the organizations. Some grownup wrote the letter for him" (AP, Nablus).
- The family of Ayad el-Masri, a 17-year-old student killed near Jinspot, published an unusual announcement in the newspaper el-Ayyam (14 January 2002) demanding an investigation of the circumstances of their son's death. The family expressed their opposition to sending their son on the mission, described his death as "a senseless death that raises legitimate questions" and claimed that their son "was sent to carry out a hopeless suicide attack, the consequences of which were known from the outset."
- This teenager's death near Jinspot stimulated sharply critical articles in the Palestinian media. For example, Hafet el-Barghouti, the editor of the daily PA newspaper el-Hyat el-Jadeeda (16 January 2002) noted that the circumstances of el-Masri's death "raise anew the question of recruiting people in their teens, when it is known that the prophet Mohammed himself refused to recruit young boys for his raids..."
- On 23-24 April 2002, three Palestinian schoolchildren from Gaza aged 12 to 14 attempted to enter Netzarim for the purpose of carrying out a suicide attack there. On the Hamas website (24 February 2002) it was revealed that these youths were sent by the Hamas following the decision to conduct a jihad against the Jews. Their deaths aroused resentment at the time among the residents of Gaza, who began to be concerned about their children in Gazan schools; special lessons were devoted to combating this phenomenon. In January 2003, against the background of the criticism that arose following the attempted infiltration of Elei Sinai by three youths armed with knives, senior Hamas officials spoke out against using teenagers to perpetrate attacks.
- The newspaper el-Ayyam reported (31 April 2002) that during this same period, in which the phenomenon reached a peak, the participants at a conference of the journalists union in Gaza came out against youths carrying out suicide missions. At the conference, ways were discussed to deal with this negative phenomenon, including women and children becoming "living bombs," that had swept through Palestinian society.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry