NABLUS, West Bank – Saddam Hussein has increased the money he pays relatives of suicide bombers from $10,000 to $25,000, drawing sharp criticism from Washington. But Palestinians say the bombers are driven by a priceless thirst for revenge, religious zeal and dreams of glory — not greed.
Since Iraq upped its payments last month, 12 suicide bombers have successfully struck inside Israel, including one man who killed 25 Israelis, many of them elderly, as they sat down to a meal at a hotel to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. The families of three suicide bombers said they have recently received payments of $25,000.
"They're not martyrs," President Bush said Thursday at the White House. "They're murderers and they undermine the cause of the Palestinian people. Those governments like Iraq that reward parents for the sacrifice of their children are guilty of soliciting murder of the worst kind."
The devout Muslims among the bombers, a majority, believe they will go to heaven as martyrs and spend eternity in the company of 72 virgins. In grainy farewell home videos, they often read passages from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, and praise God. Secular attackers know that after the deed, their families will win the adulation of friends, neighbors and strangers.
The other motive seems to be a strong yearning for revenge. Relatives of many of the bombers recall how many of the young men's formative years were spent in Israeli jails. The mother of one bomber said her son once watched Israeli soldiers beating his father.
Mahmoud Safi, leader of a pro-Iraqi Palestinian group, the Arab Liberation Front, acknowledged that the support payments for relatives make it easier for some potential bombers to make up their minds. "Some people stop me on the street, saying if you increase the payment to $50,000 I'll do it immediately," Safi said. He also suggested such remarks were made mostly in jest.
Saddam has said the Palestinians need weapons and money instead of peace proposals and has provided payments throughout a year and a half of Israeli-Palestinian battles. "I saw on Iraqi TV President Saddam saying he will continue supporting the [uprising] even if it means selling his own clothes," said Safi.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saddam's payments inspire a "culture of political murder."
"Here is an individual who is the head of a country, Iraq, who has proudly, publicly made a decision to go out and actively promote and finance human sacrifice for families that will have their youngsters kill innocent men, women and children," Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
But Saddam is not the only one giving money. Charities from Saudi Arabia and Qatar — both U.S. allies — pay money to families of Palestinians killed in the fighting, including suicide bombers.
The mother of Jamal Nasser, a 23-year-old architecture student who died trying to ram an explosives-laden car into a bus carrying Jewish settlers, said she received a check for $10,000 from Iraq and another for $5,000 from Saudi Arabia. She said she plans to put the money toward buying an apartment. She wants to move her family from the small place they've been renting for more than 20 years. The money she received is about half the cost of a small apartment in Nablus.
Fifty-five Palestinians have blown themselves up in attacks on Israeli civilians in the past 18 months of fighting.
Under the new Iraqi payscale, decided on March 12 during an Arab conference in Baghdad, the families of gunmen and others who die fighting the Israelis will still receive $10,000, while the relatives of suicide bombers will get $25,000.
Safi and two others from the Arab Liberation Front visit families in the northern West Bank and make the payments. "We go to every family and give them a check," he said. "We tell them that this is a gift from President Saddam and Iraq."