JERUSALEM – Roa Salameh is a 12-year-old girl living in Bethlehem, and she wants to become a homicide bomber.
Her father, who thinks she’s motivated by feelings of hopelessness and despair, is trying to talk her out of it.
He spent 15 years in prison for political activities and was once a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the U.S. has labeled a terrorist organization and which is part of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party. But as he grew older he started to soften his views and became a peace activist. Now he is trying to turn his daughter around.
They are from a middle-class family in Bethlehem. But the little girl was playing basketball recently at a refugee camp where the kids were glorifying a recent bomber.
She came home and told her father that since the Jews don’t like them, she wants to be a homicide bomber.
"I want to kill them," Roa told a reporter. "I want to kill them but I can’t."
And if it hadn’t been for those children playing basketball, Roa may have been swayed toward the same stance through the media that constantly bombards Palestinians with tales of "heroic" countrymen who kill the enemy.
Palestinian television, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, regularly runs music videos that pay tribute to what they call martyrs, whether bombers or children who died at the hands of Israeli forces. The head of Palestinian television said the programs do not encourage dying or committing suicide for the cause, but are documenting what’s going on. The company isn’t trying to turn children into bombers, but providing a forum for young people to express themselves, he said.
"We do love our kids," said Radwan Abu Ayyash, chairman of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation. "We call the schools of our kids 10,000 times a day to be sure that they are placed at their desks and listening to their teachers."
Others call the programs blatant manipulation of an angry populace, encouraging children to die in the name of God.
An anchor on Palestinian TV once asked a child, "You said martyrdom is a beautiful thing? Is it a beautiful thing?"
"I think people like to be martyrs. They will go to heaven," the girl answered. "What could be better than going to paradise? "
The airwaves are filled with songs dedicated to martrydom. In one music video, a young boy leaves a letter for his father before going to die at the hands of Israeli forces. Last spring, three 13-year-old boys in Gaza actually left letters for their parents, then took some small bombs and headed towards a Jewish settlement, but were killed by Israeli soldiers.
An Israeli group called Palestinian Media Watch thinks the messages put out on TV are outrageous.
"They were telling Palestinian children what’s expected of you," said PMW’s Itamar Marcus. "A nice, normal, good-looking Palestinian child, what’s expected of you is to write a farewell letter to your parents where you say how sweet is martyrdom and then go off and die for Allah."
That interpretation seemed to gibe with a statement earlier this year from Arafat.
"When you see a kid holding a stone in front of a tank, this is the biggest message for the world," he said. "And he died after this. We are proud of our kids."
The Palestinians say that if martyrdom seems appealing to children, it’s because conditions under the occupation are so bad that many young people believe the afterlife will be better than their current one.
But others say it’s more sinister than that, and that children dying will keep the Palestinian struggle on the front pages.