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By Hala Jaber  (in the Jordan Times)

GAZA - At precisely 8pm last Saturday a battered car
blinked its headlights twice as I waited on a dark and
dusty road in the Gaza Strip. My journey into the
world of Palestinian suicide bombers was beginning.

After a bumpy 10 minute drive, I stepped out of the
car to be greeted by a masked man I would come to
know as the commander of a small cell of Al Aqsa
Martyrs Brigades, a group that has claimed
responsibility for nine highly publicised suicide
attacks this year in which 43 people have died.

I was to spend the next four days with this cell,
seeking insights into the selection and training of the
suicide bombers and also into their minds and

Attacks by groups such as Al Asqa Martyrs Brigades
and military action by the Israelis have spiralled in
recent weeks, in the worst violence of the 18-month
Palestinian Intifada.

While the West and Israel regard those who attack
unarmed civilians as terrorists -- the administration
of President George W. Bush announced last week it
would classify Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as a terrorist
organisation -- many in the Muslim world and
particularly in the Palestinian teriitories, claim they
are martyrs fulfilling a religious obligation to die in
the face of "oppression".

The walls of thousands of bare, concrete homes in the
Gaza Strip are covered with colourful graffiti dedicated
to those who have died flghting Ariel Sharon the
Israeli prime minister, in a quest to "liberate"
Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza for the

I was about to meet two men chosen to become Al
Aqsa martyrs and to discover that they did not
conform to the stereo-type of poverty-stricken young
militants exploited for mindless acts of terrorism. But
first  their commander, who introduced himself as Abu
 Fatah, firmly but politely asked me to put on a
blindfold and lie down in the vehicle, in the well
between the ftont and rear seats. Security, was
imperative, he said.

After 20 minutes our Mercedes came to a halt and I
was taken by the hand and led down a flight of steps.
Removing my blindfold, I found myself in a room
strewn with cushions and loosely covered sponge
mattresses. Pictures of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem
adorned the walls, and heavy floral curtains blocked
any glimpse from the outside.

I faced an initial grilling in which it was established
that I was Lebanese, a Muslim and the author of a
book about the militant. group, Hizbollah. In the early
hours of the morning, a number of fighters began to
join us. One by, one they walked in from the
darkness, all of them masked, dressed in military
fatigues and armed with Kalashnikovs and hand

They sat on the cushions round a large oil lamp that
cast shadows across the room. In the distance the
sound of Israeli warplanes pierced the night, followed
by machinegun fire, and the thudding of homemade
bombs. As I would soon realise, this was a nightly
routine. Having gained the group's confidence, I was
introduced to Yunis, a 27-year-old art graduate who
was preparing for a suicide mission that might be
days or weeks away. His face covered by a kuffiyeh, or
headdress, to conceal his identity, Yunis spoke first
about the paintings of Michelangelo, da Vinci and
Picasso, then abruptly changed the subject and
described, with equal passion, his urge to become a

"We are educated strugglers," he said, "we are not
terrorists, and the world should recognise that our
acts are not intended to be pure, cold-blooded

The Palestinian people had sought help from Arab
countries, the United States, and Europe in their
attempts to establish an independent state, he said,
but to no avail.

"Finally I searched for my God in the Holy Koran and
found it filled with verses and commands on how to
end my oppression, " he added, eyes blazing. "I
discovered late that victory is only granted by God and
not by (Tony) Blair or Bush. My aim is to liberate my
land and to transfer the triangle of fear to the Israeli

Delivered with emphatic gestures, this was his
justification for the mission he would soon undertake:
"Israel attacked my honour, inflicted pain  on our
mothers and fathers and I have to inflict the  same on
them until Israeli mothers scream at their
government and plead with the world to end the
conflict. I will persist until they experience the same
pain our mothers feel daily."

"I know I cannot stand in front of a tank that would
wipe me out within seconds, so I will use myself as a
weapon. They call it terrorism. I say it is self defence.
When I embark on my mission I will be carrying out
two obligations: one to my God and the other to
defend myself and my country."

Yunis lit a cigarette and declared that life was
precious. He would rather be enjoying "normal days
and nights, parties, family gatherings and seaside
picnics. We are denied this as long as we are under
occupation and until liberation we have no choice but
to fight."

Until the day of his mission dawns Yunis will remain
engrossed in study of the Koran. He is convinced he
has no choice but to follow the path assigned to him,
and nothing could sway him from it. "Freedom is not
handed as a gift. History is testimony to the fact that
major sacrifices have to be made to attain it," he said.

"At the moment of executing my mission, it will not
be purely to kill Israelis, The killing is not my
ultiimate goal, though it is part of the equation. My
act will carry a message beyond to those responsible
and the world at large that the ugliest thing for a
human being is to be forced to live without freedom."

Like Yunis, Abu Fatah is an educated man -- a second
year university student of international law. He
delivered a brief on the Israeli Palestinian conflict,
that culminated in the first Intuifada, and the second
Intifada which began in September 2000.

He railed against Israeli settlements, political
detentions and restrictions on the movements of
hundreds of thousands of Palestinians within and
between their territories. After self-restraint during
the first year of the latest Intifada, he explained, Al
Aqsa Martyrs Brigades - a branch of the Fateh
organization of Yasser Arafat the Palestinian leader -
decided to follow the example of  the more radical
Islamic group Hamas, and launch  suicide attacks. It
has no shortage of volunteers.

A specialist unit is responsible for selecting
candidates - Anyone under 18 is rejected; so are
married men with children and anyone without a
sibling. who may be a family's sole breadwinner.

Those who excel militarily and show steely composure
in stressful situations are most likely to be chosen.
The young men must be reasonably religious,
convinced of the meaning of martyrdom and of jihad
(holy war). They should also be of a build and shape
that will enable them to move easily among Israelis,
disguised if necessary in skullcap and wig with
ringlets down the sides of the face, as they wait for
the moment to strike.

An intense 20-day period of religious discussion
ensues between the commander and each candidate.
Verses from the Koran about a martyr's attainment of
paradise are recited constantly.

The candidate is reminded of the good fortune that
awaits him in the presence of prophets and saints, of
the unimaginable beauty of the houri, or beautiful
young women, who will welcome him, and of the
chance he will have to intercede on behalf of 70 loved
ones on doomsday. Not least, he is told of the service
he will perform for his fellow countrymen with his

"Of course I am deeply saddened when I have to use a
suicide attacker. I am very emotional and at times I
cry when I say good-bye to them," the commander said
softly. "These men were not found on the streets.
These are educated men who under normal
circumstances would have the potential of being
constructive members of society. If they did not have
to carry out such a mission, they could have become  a
doctor, a lawyer or a teacher."

Once the bomber's preparations are complete, he is
collected by another member of the unit who
accompanies him on the final journey to his target. It
is only just before the assault that he is told the
details of his operation, whether he will be a bomber
or will attack with grenade and guns until he is shot

Ten to 15 minutes before being dropped at the target,
the bomber straps on a hand-tailored vest filled with
about 10 kilos of explosive and five kilos of nails and
metal. He is then given his final instructions about
the precise point at which he should detonate

"The later he knows the better for the martyr, since
he will not have much time to think of the target nor
to experience doubts." A separate unit has the job of
finding potential targets for suicide attacks.

Asked whether the recent killings of innocent young
civilians by suicide bombers in cafes and restaurants
could be condoned, Abu Fatah's tone hardened. "Do
you think when an Israeli tank shells a house it
considers whether there are children at home?" he
snapped. "There are ugly consequences for both sides
in a war."

Ahmad, the second suicide attacker, has no
reservations. A 27-year-old student from the Gaza
Strip, he carries the deeds and keys to his family
house in Jaffa from which his grandmother was driven
when the modern state of Israel was established in

"My grandmother represented the history of the
Palestinian people," said the quietly spoken Ahmad,
one of eight children who lives with his mother.

"She spoke to us of Jaffa, its grape vines and the
seaside. She instilled in us a love for the home we did
not know and over many tears recounted old stories of
life once upon a time in Palestine." Ahmad said he
fell in love with Jaffa through his grandmother's tales
and longed for the day when he would have a chance
to visit the old place. Instead, he grew up in a small
concrete house allotted to the family by the United

He was 12 when the first Intifida began and his anger
at what he regarded as the humiliation of his family
under occupation eventually made him determined to
fight for "dignity".

"I did not join Fateh to kill. " My aim in joining was to
try and provide security, if only to my immediate
family. Were it not for the occupation, I would not
have become a Fateh member in the first place. I let
go of my dreams of Jaffa and of ever reclaiming my
grandmother's house. I was never a person who
sought to annihilate the Israelis."

"I gave them the land that originally belonged to me
but instead of accepting it graciously I found them
still seeking to deprive me of the right to live freely
and peacefully in my tiny few square metres."

The failure of the peace process meant "having to live
in an area where most of us were denied the ability to
move freely", he said.

"How can I live in a state without sovereignty where I
am forced to show an identity card at an Israeli
checkpoint for permission to move? They control our
electricity and water supply and our lives, and people
still ask why we are rising up."

A band of fighters gathering around him as he spoke
nodded in agreement. "I am committed to carry out a
martyr's mission to show my rejection of being forced
to live under this oppression," he said to cries of
"Allahu akbar (God is greatest)".

"My aim is to prohibit settlers from enjoying their
lives here. My aim is to force the Israeli checkpoint
out of my territory. If they leave in peace, I have no
intention of following them into their areas. But if
they remain here, then I shall use the methods at my
disposal to force them out."

"I and many others like me are now prepared and
waiting to carry out spectacular attacks against the
enemy. We are not afraid and will not cease until they
withdraw totally from our areas. You can call us
terrorists all you like, but we have faith that justice is
on our side and that victory will be ours."

Religion was a constant topic of conversation
throughout the time I spent with the cell. They also
watched videos of past "martyrs", analysing the
operations carried out. Casualties were described
purely in terms of numbers, without reference to the
gender or age of the victims. There was little room
here for sentimentality.

They recited the names of all the group's previous
attackers and talked about the "courage" of
Mohamrnad Farhat, 19, who infiltrated the Israeli
settlement of Gash Katif earlier this month, killing
five Israelis before he was gunned clown.

A few hours before his attack, he had called his
mother from his mobile phone to ask her advice. His
mother, Unim Nidal, told me that she had replied:
"Take care my son, remember God, the verses, pay
attention to everything you see, concentrate on the
task ahead, pick your moment. May God bless you
with success and may you be granted the martyrdom
you deserve."

"Be strong, my boy, in this, your first major battle,
and remember Allah in every move you make. Do not
hesitate, my boy, and strike as harshly as you can
against the enemy." She then asked him to switch off
his mobile for the last time.

Umm Nidal stayed in front of her television waiting for
news of her son's attack, fearing that he might be
injured, arrested and denied the "martyrdom" he

She knew of her son's selection for a mission a
month in advance: "I cried for a whole month every
time I looked at him. I would tell him not to let my
tears stop him from going on his mission. I watched
him like a baby that whole month."

"My heart is not made of stone," she added, but she
had been"willing to sacrifice him for something more
precious and sanctified than our earthly world".

Suddenly a fighter appeared in our group with "very
important news". It was perhaps the most
incongruous of many strange moments during my

"Manchester United 5, West Ham 3," he declared,
announcing the score of a match last weekend. "David
Beckham two score," he informed me in English. "Very
good Manchester."

The announcement was greeted with unanimous
pleasure, amid further calls of "Allahu Akbar."