JENIN, West Bank The Home of Martyrs-in-Training : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

The Home of Martyrs-in-Training

Daniel Williams Washington Post Service Wednesday, August 15, 2001 In Jenin, There Is No Shortage of Men Willing to Die for Palestine JENIN, West Bank The two suicide bombers in waiting stood silently as their Islamic Jihad mentor bade them a tranquil good evening. "And don't forget to say your prayers," he gently reminded them. The men were hosts to a foreign visitor in a modest living room, hospitably serving coffee and venting their hostility toward Israel.

Israelis consider them the most dangerous of Palestinian adversaries. Islamic Jihad is an organization devoted to attacks on civilians, and the two potential bombers had been recruited for the deadly task of attaching explosives to themselves, infiltrating crowds of Israelis and detonating the charges. Here in the current capital of Palestinian terror tactics, it is not hard to find such young men. They volunteer readily to strap on explosives lined with nails, screws and other bits of hardware.

Nor is it hard to find Palestinians who justify the assaults. The argue that Palestinians, overwhelmed by Israel's military power and hemmed in by the enemy's continued hold on most of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, regard suicide bombs as a weapon of last resort.

"People feel that to do nothing is a kind of suicide," said Abu Samer, a political activist who, in the days when peace talks were on track, organized reconciliation meetings with Israeli citizens in his home. "They believe they are up against an immovable force, and that at least this is one thing Israel can't stop."

Even Tuesday's predawn Israeli tank assault on the center of the town, in retaliation for a pair of suicide bombings recently carried out by Jenin-area men, seemed not to reduce the enthusiasm. "We got their attention. They came, they shot, they left. We are happy," Mr. Samer said.

Israeli security officials identify Jenin as a seedbed of terrorists for Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, another militant Muslim organization. There have been about two dozen suicide bombings in the past 10 months of Israeli-Palestinian combat, all but a handful of them this year. Fifty-one Israelis have been killed. Israel security forces have headed off at least three attempts, Israeli officials said.

Of the assaults in the past two months, at least nine have originated from Jenin and the villages around it.

Jenin-based terrorists carried out the two most recent suicide bombings: the attack last Thursday on a Jerusalem pizzeria that killed 15 people as well as the bomber, and the attack on Sunday of a café in Haifa that wounded 21 people.

"Jenin has become a city of bombs," said Lieutenant General Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Army's chief of staff.

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, squarely blames the Palestinian Authority, which controls Jenin and its surroundings, for not cracking down on either Hamas or Islamic Jihad. Dore Gold, a Sharon spokesman, justified the tank operation as "an act of accountability."

"Israel has sent a signal to the Palestinian Authority: Stop the terrorism," he said.

Palestinians don't dispute Jenin's reputation. This low-rise town of blocky buildings and potholes is overflowing with bitterness about Palestinian fatalities in the past 10 months. Anger blends with a mystical belief in a divine sanction for martyrdom under Muslim tradition.

"It is something people have begun to take pride in. We are not second to Nablus or Gaza in struggle," said Ramadan Bitta, the Jenin district governor.

He said that the recent call for an end to attacks on civilians by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, influences almost no one. "People here understand it only in one context: that both sides must stop. If the Israelis don't end killing, the Palestinian people don't see why they should, either," he said.

Jenin sits at the northwest corner of the West Bank, its back up against high hills, its agricultural skirts spread west toward the Mediterranean Sea. The flatlands are fertile and Palestinians prize Jenin wheat. Fig and olive groves dot the hills that separate the city from the Jordan valley in the east and Nablus to the south.

During the intifada, or uprising, against Israel in the 1980s, Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization's largest faction, dominated Jenin. After peace talks dragged through the 1990s, as residents became disillusioned with the pace of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza, Islamic organizations gained a following.

At the beginning of the current conflict, the revolt in Jenin was limited to stone-throwing assaults on the main Israeli checkpoints west of the city. The protesters paid a heavy price: 30 people were killed from September to December 2000.

Fatah gunmen soon appeared on the streets and surrounding villages, but Israeli targets were few and out of reach. Settlements and roads designated for their use are few in the region.

"This is an isolated spot, the end of the Palestinian earth. Most people have no way to confront the Israelis, and the Islamic parties offered a way," said Mr. Bitta, the district governor. "The competition is clear and the people are the judge," said the Islamic Jihad leader, who was in the company of two candidate suicide bombers in his living room. "If the PLO's way worked, they would stay with them," he said. "But they are coming to us. Our way is effective."

He spoke anonymously. He said he feared assassination: Israel has killed numerous Jihad, Hamas and Fatah leaders and terrorism suspects with rocket and helicopter attacks, and sometimes with bombs hidden in telephones.

Suicide bombers, including the two aspiring comrades at his side, are strictly volunteers, the Jihad leader said. "They come once and we send them home," he said. "If they come again, we send them home, but begin to check them out. Are they clean? Nationalist? Do they follow Muslim tradition? Do they pray at the mosque?

"Muslim belief is the most important thing. It just can't be an impulse. For us, it is important to know that this life is short, but the next life is for eternity."

If the candidate seems suitable - people just looking to avenge the death of a relative need not apply - Jihad activists tap him to become suicide bombers. Women are not excluded, but "it hasn't come to that," the Jihad leader said.

Some Palestinians criticize Jihad and Hamas for sending terrorists out to die, asking: Why not give them a weapon and at least a fighting chance? The leader's answer: "When a martyr dies, we don't lose a follower. We gain dozens of them."

One of the potential bombers spoke up and said he had been ordered not to kill children. "If we see them on the bus or in the area, we have to stop the mission," he said. Otherwise, he had no qualms about targeting civilians, on the grounds that everybody does it.

"Our people are getting killed every day," said his companion. "Maybe tomorrow, even our Palestinian Christians will become suicide bombers. To be a suicide bomber is tops." The pair left - it was almost time for early evening prayers. Their overseer stayed behind and put both a religious and political stamp on Jihad's activities.

"We believe Allah favors the martyr," he said. "You have them, too, no? Did not soldiers invade Europe knowing they were going to die, and did not Christian priests bless them?

"We are not acting irrationally. We have goals. We don't want Jews to immigrate here. We want them to leave. We want to remind Israel and the world that Palestinians are alive. We have examples of Islamic success in armed struggle - the Iranian revolution and Hezbollah in Lebanon," he said. Israeli intelligence officials say that Iran funds Islamic Jihad, along with Hezbollah. Hezbollah has inspired many Palestinians to embrace armed warfare because it expelled Israel's troops in south Lebanon after a prolonged guerrilla fight. "There are no other options for us," the Jihad leader said.

He acknowledged that operationally, the suicide bombers are deficient; numerous suicide attacks have resulted in the death only of the bomber.

"We have so many volunteers and sometimes we feel the need to attack quickly, and so have not taken enough care to train the martyrs," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, August 17, 2001

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