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"Go to the school and ask 12-year-olds what they dream about and they'll say `istshihad' (sacrificial death) - not necessarily meaning by an explosives belt, but in the sense of facing down a tank or army patrol, throwing rocks and getting killed. That's their dream, and it isn't normal. After all, kids should be dreaming of going to the beach." Thus says R., a wanted member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Nablus about children recruited for suicide attacks.

The term "recruitment" draws objections from him. "It's not `recruitment' but granting an opportunity to people who have anyway expressed a willingness to die a sacrificial death." The phrase "recruiting boys and girls for suicide" was more antagonizing: "Who recruited them?" asks R. Recruitment is attributed to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade in Nablus more than anyone else. "Is there some official group that announced it is recruiting minors? There is not."

Five minors from Nablus have been arrested in recent months, suspected of having been sent to carry out attacks of some kind - two boys and three girls aged 15 and under. Another boy was caught transfering an explosive device through the Hawara checkpoint, but was not arrested because of his youth.

Another youngster, an 18-year-old girl, was arrested on suspicion of having been recruited to carry out a suicide attack. One girl among the five minors arrested was released on bail last week, pending her trial in September.

Contrary to the impression in Israel that it's a widespread practice, the word in Nablus is that these are "individual, isolated instances" and the risk of a child being injured by an Israeli soldier's gun or an Israeli tank is far greater and more tangible than the risk of a child being dispatched on a suicide mission. Nonetheless, alongside the daily anxieties of parents that a child will be hit by IDF fire, there hovers a fear that the child may be hiding association with someone who dispenses explosives belts with tempting talk of "sacrificial death."

`Fixed up'

R. would like to emphasize that recruiting children was done without the knowledge of Naif Abu Sharkh, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades leader killed on June 26, and certainly without his directive. According to R., "Naif looked into who had sent children to explode at checkpoints, suspended their membership in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and forbade them to operate. On one occasion, when another instance occurred after his explicit order not to send children, he was furious and nearly shot the dispatcher. Had he been able to, he would have locked them up. And the guy who recruited the girls is just some jerk. It's true he was in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs, but it all came from his brain."

A Palestinian security officer in Nablus, who is close to one of the children's families, confirmed that Abu Sharkh had nothing to do with the recruitment of minors. A representative of a child advocacy institute who met with representatives of the military wings received the impression that they, and especially Abu Sharkh, objected to "the recruitment of minors."

D. is a social worker who holds a series of consultations and talks with women whose sons or spouses were killed by IDF fire, or whose houses were destroyed. "The teenagers cannot accept the Palestinian weakness, that of the adult world in the face of the Israeli military might. They dream of an appropriate response to the devastation and death the army sows among us, but death itself is still abstract to them, meaningless. Thus it is easy for them to be enticed by talk of it."

Her partner, A. has a nephew in custody: he was 18 and had just joined the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. When he was arrested, his mother began to cry and scream, whereas her brother said to her: "I don't understand why you're crying. Be glad that the child was caught before everything, before he might have gone off to commit suicide." A. and D. have a 10-year-old son. When he comes home from playing in the neighborhood, in the western part of the city, with a new song in praise of Hamas, his parents, who are secular and affiliated with the Palestinian left, can still guarantee that he will stop singing that song. But they are already having trouble monitoring his computer games and banning games of urban warfare, tanks, terrorists, army.

The girl A., 14 and a half, has completely different CD-ROMs. A world atlas, rules of the Arabic language, Tom & Jerry games, lots of songs, recipes. She likes to study math and dreams of being an architect, her family says. On July 12, when the indictment against her was read out at the military courthouse in Salem, and her trial date set for September 20, she was astounded.

That means I'll miss the beginning of the school year, she protested. Is this the same girl who was arrested on June 16, who stands accused of recruiting a girl friend for a suicide attack and who expressed her own willingness to commit suicide in due course?

The family lives in the Rafidiye neighborhood, in the old section with its gracious stone houses surrounded by spectacular gardens. The father is the son of refugees from Jaffa, and works at a laundromat. The mother, from Tubas, is a clinic nurse. They live with the grandmother in the house she has lived in since marrying. They have relatives in Jaffa and others in Gaza; relatives they can't see - the road from Gaza to the West Bank is blocked, and Israelis cannot enter Nablus or Gaza. Daily phone calls serve as substitute. When word came that the father and daughter were arrested, in the dead of night, and when it turned out that the daughter is the suspect, everyone was astonished. The mother, S. asked the soldiers where they were taking a little girl, and the soldier replied, according to her: "Shut up, there's a problem." What's the problem? "There's a problem, we'll see tomorrow." And the daughter asked her: "What have I done that they're arresting me?"

They gradually learned of the suspicions, as they are now detailed in the indictment: About four months before her arrest, A. encountered Rohi Marmosh, a wanted Al-Aqsa member. He asked her to recruit a female suicide attacker for him, and she agreed. She had heard her friend M., 15, say on several occasions that she would like to carry out a suicide attack, and "made a match" between her and Marmosh. The two girls met with him and his superior, Majdi Mari, but ultimately Mari decided that M. was too young, and called the whole thing off.

Emulating the dead

"When the soldiers came to arrest us, they didn't even come into the house, didn't conduct a search," said the father. "That means they knew full well there was nothing to search for, no belt and no explosives." The parents have not yet had an opportunity for a proper conversation with their daughter: visiting her in jail in Ramle is forbidden. They met only when the indictment was read out in the military courthouse, where they are forbidden to go near her or talk to her in private. They saw her from a distance. And from a distance, she denied everything, they said. So they remain alone, with all the niggling questions.

They reject out of hand any possibility there was real intent behind the words, that were allegedly spoken. "She plays tennis, basketball, contemplated going on a tour of Italy organized by the municipality. So how is it possible she would think of such things," the mother asks-states.

Perhaps everything was done as a sort of joke: the recruiter she met at meetings of the shabiba (Fatah youth movement) tried to impress her, she tried to impress him, perhaps something was said in school hallways - death is a daily matter for discussion, since people are getting killed all the time - and somebody, a female student or maybe a school employee, recruited by the Shin Bet, overheard, reported and blew the whole thing out of proportion. Something that in any other society might sound like an ordinary expression of rage, "I'm going to explode," or "I'm gonna kill him" - all it takes is for some collaborator to hear it and such talk becomes incriminating evidence.

The "loss of control" outside, in clashes between armed groups or among sundry Fatah leaders is less scary than the loss of control at home: when the bag of tricks for protecting the children disintegrates, and they are harmed emotionally and mentally by Israeli fire, or when they seek to imitate the dead people they knew or saw on television.

Some parents and observers prefer to find personal reasons to explain each minor recruited: this boy is short and unpopular at school; that one doesn't do well in class; this girl is jealous of her sister; that one fell in love and hopes in this way to get the boy's attention; this boy is looking for a way to seem heroic in the eyes of girls; that girl lost her father. In this manner they dim the need to hold an open discussion of the problem.

After all, the report that Abu Sharkh was not behind the recruitment of minors can only intensify fears: if even this commander, who had influence and authority, was unable to control a few youngsters operating on their own behalf, who can?

Especially since it is now being whispered that the youngsters whose names have been mentioned in connection with recruiting minors (and whom the IDF arrested) are "criminals, drug-related" or simply people "on the margins." Is this not proof of the fact that Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades have become a repository for all sorts of dubious elements, with no one to control them?