In March 2004 a Palestinian teenager named Hussam Abdo was spotted by Israeli soldiers behaving suspiciously as he approached the Hawara checkpoint in the West Bank. Ordered at gunpoint to raise his sweater, the startled boy exposed a suicide vest loaded with nearly 20 pounds of explosives and metal scraps, constructed to maximize carnage. A video taken by a journalist at the checkpoint captured the scene as Abdo was given scissors to cut himself free of the vest, which had been strapped tight to his body in the expectation that it wouldn’t have to come off. He’s been in an Israeli prison ever since.
Abdo provided a portrait of a suicide bomber as a young man. He had an intellectual disability. He was bullied by classmates who called him “the ugly dwarf.” He came from a comparatively well-off family. He had been lured into the bombing only the night before, with the promise of sex in the afterlife. His family was outraged that he had been recruited for martyrdom.
“I blame those who gave him the explosive belt,” his mother, Tamam, told the Jerusalem Post, of which I was then the editor. “He’s a small child who can’t even look after himself.”
Yet asked how she would have felt if her son had been a bit older, she added this: “If he was over 18, that would have been possible, and I might have even encouraged him to do it.” In the West, most mothers would be relieved if their children merely refrained from getting a bad tattoo before turning 18.
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I’ve often thought about Mrs. Abdo, and I’m thinking about her today on the news that the bodies of three Jewish teenagers, kidnapped on June 12, have been found near the city of Hebron “under a pile of rocks in an open field,” as an Israeli military spokesman put it. Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, had their whole lives ahead of them. The lives of their families will forever be wounded, or crippled, by heartbreak.
What about their killers? The Israeli government has identified two prime suspects, Amer Abu Aysha, 33, and Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, both of them Hamas activists. They are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Less innocent was the view offered by Mr. Abu Aysha’s mother.
“They’re throwing the guilt on him by accusing him of kidnapping,” she told Israel’s Channel 10 news. “If he did the kidnapping, I’ll be proud of him.”
It’s the same sentiment I heard expressed in 2005 in the Jabalya refugee camp near Gaza City by a woman named Umm Iyad. A week earlier, her son, Fadi Abu Qamar, had been killed in an attack on the Erez border crossing to Israel. She was dressed in mourning but her mood was joyful as she celebrated her son’s “martyrdom operation.” He was just 21.v
Here’s my question: What kind of society produces such mothers? Whence the women who cheer on their boys to blow themselves up or murder the children of their neighbors?
Well-intentioned Western liberals may prefer not to ask, because at least some of the conceivable answers may upset the comforting cliché that all human beings can relate on some level, whatever the cultural differences. Or they may accuse me of picking a few stray anecdotes and treating them as dispositive, as if I’m the only Western journalist to encounter the unsettling reality of a society sunk into a culture of hate. Or they can claim that I am ignoring the suffering of Palestinian women whose innocent children have died at Israeli hands.
But I’m not ignoring that suffering. To kill innocent people deliberately is odious, to kill them accidentally or “collaterally” is, at a minimum, tragic. I just have yet to meet the Israeli mother who wants to raise her boys to become kidnappers and murderers—and who isn’t afraid of saying as much to visiting journalists.
Because everything that happens in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to be the subject of political speculation and news analysis, it’s easy to lose sight of the raw human dimension. So it is with the murder of the boys: How far will Israel go in its retaliation? What does it mean for the future of the Fatah-Hamas coalition? What about the peace process, such as it is?
These questions are a distraction from what ought to be the main point. Three boys went missing one night, and now we know they are gone. If nothing else, their families will have a sense of finality and a place to mourn. And Israelis will know they are a nation that leaves no stone unturned to find its missing children.
As for the Palestinians and their inveterate sympathizers in the West, perhaps they should note that a culture that too often openly celebrates martyrdom and murder is not fit for statehood, and that making excuses for that culture only makes it more unfit. Postwar Germany put itself through a process of moral rehabilitation that began with a recognition of what it had done. Palestinians who want a state should do the same, starting with the mothers.