JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank – Mohammed Badi, 13, says he wants to die young. "Life is not good here. I'll do an operation," the seventh-grader said in a matter-of-fact tone.
In today's Palestinian parlance, an "operation" means a suicide bombing or a gun attack that is certain to end with the assailant's death. In either case, an eternity in paradise is thought to await the bomber and the gunman.
There's no way to judge whether Badi really means to go through with it, but his words illustrate how the appeal of suicide attacks, once the domain of militant Muslim groups, is striking roots throughout Palestinian society and giving rise to a cult complete with rituals.
Secular Palestinians have blown themselves up in the nearly 60 attacks in 19 months. So have women. So have teen-agers.
After each attack, candy is distributed in the streets, and women often greet the news with joyous shrieks. Attackers videotape their final words against a backdrop of assault rifles and banners with Quranic verses. Posters of the bombers and gunmen in Rambo-like poses are plastered on walls.
Palestinians say the bombings are a legitimate weapon in fighting for their independent state. Israel says they're intolerable acts of terror and hunted down militants in the West Bank this month in its largest military operation in 20 years.
Opinion polls indicate that more than 70 percent of Palestinians support suicide attacks, and experts say the high regard in which the "martyrs" are held in society is shaping the next generation.
"Martyrdom has become an ambition for our children," said Fadl Abu Hein, a psychology lecturer from Gaza. "If they had a proper education in a normal environment, they won't have looked for a value in death."
The militants say they get so many candidates that they have waiting lists. Priority goes to those with good knowledge of Israeli roads, cities and landmarks, hence many of the bombers turn out to have had jobs in Israel.
When zero hour approaches, would-be bombers offer a final prayer and listen to a sermon on martyrdom. They then set out with no goodbyes to family or friends.
Explosives strapped around their waist, they look for a spot where they can cause as many deaths and as much destruction as possible by blowing themselves up. Favorite targets: crowded buses, cafes, outdoor markets.
News of a bombing is announced from loudspeakers mounted on mosque minarets. Spontaneous marches set out to the bomber's house. The family later makes itself available at a youth center or social club for people to pay respects — not condolences.
Within hours, posters of the bomber go up on walls. Shadi Tobasi's is typical. He killed 15 people in a Haifa restaurant March 31. He is posed holding a pistol and Quran against a backdrop of a dead Palestinian child and an image of Islam's gold-topped Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The exterior walls of the Tobasi family house just outside the Jenin refugee camp were almost entirely covered with graffiti soon after news of his act became known. "Shadi, we shall never forget you," said one. "Shadi, enjoy paradise," said another.
Suicide bombings, which kill mostly civilians including women and children, have captured the imagination of Muslims the world over who see Israel as their religion's chief enemy.
According to the official Iraqi news agency, since March suicide bombers' families have since March been receiving $25,000 from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who likes to be seen as the Palestinians' best friend. That was an increase over the $10,000 Saddam has given to families of Palestinians killed in uprising to date, funds which arrive through bank transfers overseen by the Arab Liberation Front, the local chapter Saddam's of Baath party.
After a long debate, Muslim clerics are near consensus now that suicide bombings are permitted by Islam and that the bombers are martyrs.
At least 20 of the suicide attackers since September 2000 have come from the Jenin area, including the Jenin camp, a militant stronghold. The shantytown of 14,000 was the scene of the deadliest battle during Israel's three-week military offensive.
Mohammed, the seventh-grader, said he threw explosives at Israeli tanks and armored vehicles during the fighting, an account confirmed by adults gathered in the camp's barbershop.
Some of the adults, with lots of time on their hands, were also spinning violent fantasies of being suicide bombers.
"It's the best way to die and I shall do it," said Rushdi Al-Norsi, 24, a jobless laborer.
"Look around you, what's there for us to live for? I would rather die and be remembered as a martyr than continue with this miserable life."