Middle East: 'A child who lives in hell will die for a chance of paradise'

Peace will never come while children are prepared to strap on explosives and blow themselves up. In Nablus, Donald Macintyre meets despairing parents who are willing to watch their sons and daughters grow into suicide bombers
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From 16-year-old Husam Abdo's house you can distinctly hear, as he himself must have done many times, the words of the Imam preaching at the Fatima Azara mosque a mere 100 yards or so away.

From 16-year-old Husam Abdo's house you can distinctly hear, as he himself must have done many times, the words of the Imam preaching at the Fatima Azara mosque a mere 100 yards or so away.

At Friday prayers last week, two days after Husam was caught and disarmed by Israeli soldiers of his suicide vest at the Hawara checkpoint at the edge of Nablus, the Imam's message of spiritual support for the armed Palestinian factions could hardly have been more uncompromising: "The mujahedin will go to Paradise. I warn Muslims that their destiny is to die and that they have to work for the day of resurrection. God has ordered us to be patient and steadfast. God doesn't like people who accept humiliation. He doesn't like cowards and humiliated people. He likes mujahedin and courageous people..."

If Husam had needed any reinforcement of his decision to confound the classmates who mocked him for being small or the teachers irritated by his truancy, by becoming a martyr, he didn't have far to look. Either way, effects of this much televised event, were still rippling outwards in Husam's own neighbourhood of Makhfeya and beyond this weekend.

The Israeli soldiers arrived at 4.00 on Thursday morning at the cramped flat where Tha'er Titi, a 15-year-old classmate, since kindergarten days, of Husam's, lives with his parents and three siblings.

His mother Suhair told them her son was working with his father at a local bakery, as he did from 3.30 to 7.00 every morning before going to school The soldiers called his father, Ihsam, who immediately drove Tha'er back in his white Peugeot; his son was arrested and taken away for questioning. That afternoon Isham Titi had watched, flabbergasted, the TV pictures of Husam being disarmed at Hawara. Had he not asked his son what he thought Husam had been up to? Well, he fully trusted his own son, whose routine was set: bakery, school, back home in the afternoon for a short nap and in bed by 9pm. Unlike Husam who, the school had told him, had been absent for four weeks before Wednesday's drama, Tha'er, he had been assured by the school itself, never missed class without permission.

But how would he react if Tha'er had somehow been mixed up with what Husam had been doing, or even if his son became a suicide bomber himself? "I would not regret it if my son did it, because there is a lot of injustice against us by Israel. If I knew he was involved with Husam I would not be angry." The willingness expressed by some hard-working Palestinian parents like Isham who love their children, to see them grow into suicide bombers is as relatively familiar here as it is incomprehensible to most Westerners.

Yet though his wife's family were refugees from a village near Jaffa which became Israeli after the war of 1948, he supported - in stark contrast to Abdel Aziz Rantisi of Hamas - a two-state solution on the basis of the pre-1967 borders. This, he is convinced would bring the lasting peace he insists he wants to see.

Nor he says, has he any hatred of Jews. "Listen, I used to work for a Jewish baker in Tel Aviv. He trusted me and I him. When he went to the war in 1973 and again in 1982 to Lebanon I looked after the bakery. I am sure if I saw him again we would still be friends." But Isham anyway had a conspiracy theory about the Husam incident, one directly linked to the seminal event of last week, the helicopter missile assassination in a Gaza street of the Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, on Monday.

Had the Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin not once warned Palestinians that the Israelis had an informer in every armed cell of four? Had the Israelis not themselves said they had known in advance that a suicide bombing was planned in Nablus? "I think a collaborator with Israel made him [Husam] do this. After the killing of Sheikh Yassin they wanted to tell the world 'Palestinians are terrorists'. Here is the evidence."

By Friday, Husam Abdo's own mother Tamam was also floating the notion that the episode had been masterminded by the Israelis. But assuming it was indeed an armed faction cell, possibly of the Al Aqsa Brigades from the Balata refugee camp on the edge of the city, Tamam, 50, was blaming those behind her son's action, not for the strategy of suicide bombing, but for recruiting one so young. If she had known about it she would have stopped him but "because he is a child. He doesn't know what is best for him."

What did she think of the remarks attributed to her son in the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronot - in an interview arranged by his Army captors - that he had wanted to go to Paradise? "If someone lives in hell and he has a means of going to Paradise he will accept it." Before producing baby photographs of her youngest son, she said: "These children see the crimes of occupation. They have never enjoyed their childhood."

During the present intifada the family had had to leave their house in the middle of the night when Israeli troops came to search the area for weapons. Amid shooting during Operation Defensive Shield, they had to flee upstairs when a gun turret actually smashed through the window of a downstairs room.

Did she not as a mother worry about children dying in suicide attacks? "In our religion it is forbidden to kill innocent people. But they are killing our children; until they stop it is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" She added: "If they had not killed Sheikh Yassin, there might have been a chance for peace. But now there is not."

This may be an oversimplification. Most notably the assassination did not stop a 14 April Washington summit between Ariel Sharon and President George Bush finally being announced yesterday. The talks, which will be preceded by White House meetings with President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, come at a delicate stage. Mr Sharon is seeking to secure US endorsement for his plan to "disengage" from Gaza and from a limited number - perhaps as few as five - Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Strenuous efforts will be made by officials to pave the way for this ahead of the summit, but the US has been resisting attempts by the Israeli Premier to secure in return a guarantee that the US will allow Israel to annex Gush Etzion, Ariel, and Ma'ale Adumim, the three biggest settlements as part of any final deal. For the time being at least in Israel, preoccupation with the unilateral disengagement plan has all but superseded consideration of the floundering international "roadmap" to peace. Indeed disengagement is precisely the context in which Israeli politicians and commentators opened a vigorous and quite polarised debate over the wisdom or otherwise of assassinating Sheikh Yassin.

The reasons behind the decision - one which militarily probably could have been taken at any time in the last few months - are relatively complex. On one level it was a reaction to the suicide bombing in Ashdod eight days earlier, the first to be carried out by Palestinians from inside Gaza since the present intifada began three and a half years ago. On another, Ariel Sharon may have been trying to convince the hard right of his own Likud party that he is still on their side. On yet another, he looks determined not to allow a disengagement, if and when it happens, to be claimed as a victory by whatever is left of the present top Hamas leadership. And finally he may just be seriously trying to do all he can to weaken Hamas and even allow a chance for a correspondingly strengthened Palestinian Authority leadership to take over.

This last proposition has sharply divided Israeli opinion. Though 60 per cent of Israelis approved the killing, in a Yedioth Ahronot poll last week, 47 per cent believe it will make them more afraid of militant retaliation, compared with only 1 per cent who think it will make them less so.

The newspaper advertisement published by over 60 prominent Palestinian intellectuals on Thursday, bitterly condemning the killing but also effectively urging restraint, was itself a counter-reaction to the bloodcurdling response issued by Hamas in the wake of the assassination. Many Israeli pundits believe that it will strengthen rather than weaken Hamas. "I'm not a 'vegetarian' about this," says Ron Pundak, who heads the Shimon Peres Centre for Peace, and says he can see the strong case for killing someone about to perpetrate a suicide attack. "But this looks like revenge for its own sake."

Against that, Ariel Sharon has been advised that Hamas's ability to strike against Israelis has indeed been severely hampered by the relentless policy of targeted assassinations. Although there are signs that here in Nablus Hamas's bomb-making capacity may be increasing, elsewhere on the West Bank, according to Shin Bet, the security service, its ability to carry out attacks on its own is waning.

According to Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan university, the long term effect of the assassination may be to reduce the hold on the population by a less unified Hamas ahead of a pullout from Gaza. "You can argue whether this is going to succeed or not, but it's certainly not irrational."

The big question remains whether disengagement from Gaza is an alternative rather than a step towards the final settlement envisaged in the much scorned roadmap. According to Mr Pundak, Mr Sharon is still thinking only in terms of a long-term "interim" solution. "People want peace. If 70 per cent of Likud supporters were presented with a settlement on 1967 borders, give or take, they would accept it," he says, "but I don't think Sharon is going to do it."

Another question is whether Mr Bush is really willing in an election year to apply the kind of pressure on Mr Sharon which might change his mind, and revive progress towards the peace deal that in their hearts a majority of Palestinians and Israelis still seem to want.

A few minutes drive from the Abdo home, in Balata - where a seven-year-old boy was killed by a stray bullet during a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants yesterday - what was left of a beige Ford Fiesta lay on a secluded stretch of wasteland dug out of the hillside to make a cattle barn. It turned out to have blown up - not as local rumour immediately had it, because of another missile assassination, but because a bomb being prepared by a local Al Aqsa Brigades militant had detonated accidentally while he sat in the driver's seat away from prying eyes during Friday prayers. Just a routine incident for Nablus no doubt, but not too minor to attract a crowd of curious onlookers to the bleak scene.

For all Balata's notoriety as a base for militants, these bystanders were distinctly muted and light on rhetoric, one thanking God that there had not been children playing as they often do in the area, another strongly condemning the recruitment of Husam Abdo as a would-be suicide bomber. But Ayub Shahim, a former quarryman in his 50s whose bulldozer had been badly damaged by the blast, said he used to work at the stone quarry, earning up to 1,000 shekels (£120) a day in Jema'een, a dozen miles or so away but now couldn't get there, even to pick up his tools, because of the Israeli checkpoints. Whom did he blame? "I blame the situation," he answered with a sigh.

Surveying the wrecked Ford in which a man had been killed planning the destruction of many others, he sighed and said: "Life here is as worthless as a cigarette."