TCS Daily

Culture of Death

By Greg Buete - September 3, 2004 12:00 AM

"Do you like the Jews, Ayyah?" asks the older sister.

"No," replies Ayyah, a young girl of three or four years old.

"Why not?" continues the elder.

"They're the sons of dogs!"

This is a scene from Death in Gaza, an HBO documentary produced by British journalists David Miller and Saira Shah. At the beginning of the film Shah explains the goal: "We're trying to understand how people learn to hate so deeply they're prepared to die in order to kill."

It is primarily through the eyes of the Palestinian children, especially through friends Abdul Sattar, 11, Ahmed, 12, and Mohammed, 12, that the viewer gains this understanding -- the hatred is taught early and at every level of Palestinian society.

In the Classroom

It begins in the classroom through an agenda promoting something more ominous than simple want of an independent state.

"Israel occupied the Palestinian lands in 1948," a teacher explains to a class. "Two areas in Palestine were not occupied. They were the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 1967 Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."

It is this first date, 1948, which has always been at the heart of the decades old Israeli-Arab conflict -- that, by view of many Arabs, Israel has no right to exist.

As shown in the documentary, from their youngest age Palestinian children draw maps of the region that purposely fail to acknowledge the state of Israel. To them, Israel is an illegal state.

The term occupation, of course, when applied to the year 1948, is itself a misnomer. Israel no more occupied Palestinian land than Palestinians occupied Palestinian land.

"Palestine" is in fact a name bestowed by Romans and later Europeans, not Arabs. Sometimes termed "historic Palestine," it is simply the name the British gave to the land west of the River Jordan after they took the territory from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Later, the United Nations sloppily partitioned it into zones for Jewish and Arab rule. Yet, from a Palestinian child's propagated viewpoint the Israelis stole Palestine in 1948.

The Poetry, the Lessons

As Death in Gaza progresses, the point of the Palestinian uprising becomes clearer. When the Palestinian children aren't drawing maps sans Israel they're reading the "patriotic poems" of Mahmoud Darwish. The children read aloud one such Darwish poem -- Identity Card.

It is directed towards the Israelis and ends "I will eat the flesh of he who rapes me." Robert Frost this is not.

"Why does the occupier kill children?" asks the teacher.

"They kill children so they don't resist the occupation," reply the children.

The nodding teacher affirms, "So the children don't grow up and liberate their land."

Video Games

Classrooms aren't the only place for Palestinian kids to learn hate. The boys play video games where they shoot Jews -- graphic caricatures complete with oversized hook noses.

The streets are lined with walls covered by posters of dead suicide bombers, militants and even innocent bystanders. All are celebrated as martyrs. Graffiti from militant groups such as the al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade label Israelis "pigs" and claim responsibility for "suicide operations" inside Israel.

Abdul Sattar shows Shah a letter he has written which proclaims his desire to die a martyr: "In the name of God, God is the greatest, my grandmother, my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, my uncle, peace be upon you all, I intend to continue Jihad until I'm martyred."

Abdul's favorite game is called Jews and Arabs, a warped version of Cowboys and Indians. It is, of course, not unusual for young boys to create fantasy games from stereotyped historical enemies. What is unusual is the goal of this game. Unlike similar games, "to win" Jews and Arabs the player must die. Martyrdom and the culture of death are thus ingrained even into children's games.

The Mosque, the Funeral

When not learning to be a martyr in the classroom or playground, the children can learn hate in the mosque or at militant funerals. Both seem to have the programmed effect:

"Some pigs [Israelis] do pray but their prayer is useless," Ahmed explains to Shah. "They don't say God is greatest, they don't know the Koran."

In another scene, Shah is told that a suspected militant killed by Israelis was actually just a teenager throwing rocks. This is not implausible, of course. But just as sad is how the Palestinian community reacts -- the funeral becomes yet another opportunity for recruitment into the culture of death.

The teen's sister is turned away from the procession because her weeping is considered a disgrace. For Palestinians, this is a time to be happy, not sad.

As militants march, shouting, "To Jerusalem we go, martyrs by the millions," others drive around in a flatbed truck repeating over speaker phrases of encouragement. "Glad tidings! Bid farewell to another martyr. One martyr after another. A martyr every day in our neighborhood. You desire paradise. They are eager to cling to life, so be steadfast, like a firm building and you will have one of two great prizes: victory or martyrdom... Disgrace to those favoring servitude or surrender."

The speaker adds that the killed teen is now "sent to the celestial virgins." What teenaged boy wouldn't be seduced with thoughts of 72 virgins?

Another Kid From the Block

Ahmed decided to join the al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade after his friend was killed while throwing a hand grenade at Israeli soldiers. He wishes to follow in his friend's footsteps.

When not acting as a night lookout for the militants they teach the young boy how to properly hold a rocket launcher. The launcher is almost as big as Ahmed. They correct the lad's poor posture.

"Put your right foot forwards a bit," orders one militant.

The al Aqsa spokesman tells Shah that they "think of him [Ahmed] as their little brother. He's not just a kid from the block. He's our little brother. We love Ahmed."

Shah cannot hide her emotion. She asks if the work is too dangerous for a little boy. The militant responds, "We were deprived of a childhood. He might not have a childhood either."

Replying to Shah's same question, young Ahmed answers with what sounds scripted: "I pray to God that I'll become a fighter; a fighter for Palestine. When someone is martyred, like our brother here, I'll go and pick up his weapon, and just as he shoots, I will shoot. I'll shoot at the pigs, the terrorists."

Clearly distraught by what she is hearing Shah again asks, as diplomatically as one can ask a group of masked men holding AK-47s, if it is not the group's responsibility to keep Ahmed out of danger.

"Do not worry about responsibility, sister. We're men," is the reply. The militant elaborates, "When we say goodbye to Ahmed there are a thousand more kids like him."

It would appear Ahmed is just another "kid from the block," after all.

Home-Made Grenades

Ahmed is a busy young boy. But not so busy that he and Mohammed don't have time to cook up a quick batch of home-made hand grenades using iron casings, sulfur, sugar and charcoal. They've even perforated the iron so that it fragments properly at detonation. Thrown, the finished product could easily be mistaken for a stone.

In a heartbreaking scene, Shah maternally asks Ahmed what it might feel like to be shot by Israelis. A perplexed Ahmed wonders aloud, "Why would they shoot me? I'm a little boy."

Lost upon Ahmed is that he is a little boy who scouts for a militant group and throws home-made grenades at Israelis.

Ironically, the boys are sweet in much of the film. Yet their lessons of hate always come out.

"I want to be nice to the whole world, apart from our enemies the Jews," says Mohammed. He elaborates, "Martyrdom's not just for grown ups, it's for the young and old alike."

Mohammed's biggest concern is that Ahmed might be martyred without him. The next day the boys head out with a small sack filled with home-made grenades.

What About the Israelis?

The film is not solely focused on the Palestinians. While a separate documentary was planned to investigate Israeli children, Miller and Shah capture images of Israeli forces patrolling and responding to militants, often implying overkill but not interviewing to get the Israeli side.

Israelis bulldoze entire border communities in order to close tunnels militants use to smuggle weapons from Egypt. The Israelis give advance notice before dozing a home so its occupants may first leave.

Armored vehicles shoot into the air and generally try to scare away crowds of Palestinian kids who throw rocks (or by Ahmed's admission, hand grenades) at the Israelis. The Israelis are enforcing a curfew so that kids and journalists won't be killed in crossfire between them and militants, or run over by bulldozers.

While the documentary is fair to note that the Israeli Army isn't just Jewish, but filled with "Bedouin Arabs and Muslim volunteers," the film at least three times implies that all would be well were the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But this naïve view runs contrary to what the Palestinian children are taught.

In the saddest moment of the film naiveté becomes tragedy.

On their last night in Rafah, James Miller and Saira Shah stake out a Palestinian home that might be razed by bulldozers. They are journalists and thus understand the danger of their assignment. Given this understanding, inexplicable is their poor decision to approach an Israeli armored personnel carrier in the dead of night upon leaving the home.

Shah makes a number of naïve assumptions in the pitch black -- that a white flag proves their harmlessness; that the letters "TV" written on their helmets will be visible; that the Israelis must have night vision.

Indeed, a problem with journalists is often that they think like journalists. The Israeli soldiers cannot afford such a luxury. Since they are dealing with an enemy that sometimes uses Red Crescent ambulances to ferry arms or militants it is not inconceivable to think that suicide bombers would disguise themselves as a camera crew. This is, after all, how the Northern Alliance's leader was assassinated.

Miller and Shah walk towards the APC. A warning shot fires out. But they continue forward. Shah shouts, "Hello! Can you hear us? We are British journalists."

A second shot fires. The bullet tears through Miller's neck, and he dies instantly.

Unwittingly, James Miller becomes the next martyr for Palestine. Although Shah protests it, the al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade uses his death for propaganda and recruitment.

The film ends on a somewhat positive note, at least as positive as such a depressing film can get -- young Ahmed quits the militants. Both he and Mohammed want to become journalists, just like James Miller.

Unfortunately, as the al Aqsa spokesman noted, there are a thousand more kids like them learning to become martyrs.

The author is a TCS contributor.


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