Where To Now?

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A young girl washes a work horse in the Mediterranean, near Gaza City

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Abu Shouqa believes he knows what made his son die so desperately. It was his faith in God, who, the father says, "rewards martyrs in paradise," and his craving for revenge after so much killing. "Even the stones want vengeance," says Abu Shouqa, "not just the living." But there is something more: the feeling that's growing among Palestinian children — even children with fathers as sturdy as Abu Shouqa — that they must be responsible for their own protection, if not that of the whole community. In the highly patriarchal culture of the Palestinians, the figure of the omnipotent father has been a casualty of the intifadeh.

Early in the fighting, Palestinian children watched countless reruns of news footage that captured the death of Mohammed al-Durra, 12, even as his father used his own body to try to shield the boy from a barrage of bullets. "In their games, children identify with the martyr," says Dr. Eyyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist who heads the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. Psychologically, he says, "they have left their fathers for the martyrs." A cult of death has appropriated a Palestinian generation, but a deep fear underlies it. Today, according to Sarraj, 35% of Palestinian children under the age of 15 wet their beds, up from 7% before the intifadeh. Sarraj estimates that 30% of children suffer from post-traumatic stress.

In Arab society, the father is likened to a god; he is called rabb al-'ayyila, master of the family, just as Allah is rabb al-'alamin, master of the universe. No more. To men like human-rights advocate Raji Sourani, who withstood years of persecution by the Israelis when they controlled Gaza City and then more by Arafat's secret police, this is the cruelest blow. When his twins asked for guns, Sourani took them to a toy shop. "I don't want a toy," said Basel, 7. "I want a real gun." "What for?" Sourani asked. "To protect us," the boy answered. "I'll protect you. Don't worry," the father said. The kids did not swallow it. "You want us to die like Mohammed al-Durra?" Basel replied.

The Guardians
Tinted moon blue in the Gaza night, the streets of Jabalia Refugee Camp are empty, as though the people had been extinguished with the lights. Only the gunmen roam, threatening and black clad, the walking dead who do not expect to survive the Israeli assault for which they wait. At 1 a.m., three gunmen twitch their fingers on their Kalashnikov triggers at the first sight of headlights along the dirt road at the edge of the camp. It is from there that Israel's tanks last came, killing 17 gunmen who stood sentinel that night, and the tanks will surely come again. Abu al-Fahed stands back as his two comrades question the driver of an old white Renault, in case he is an undercover Israeli. From his accent, they conclude he is Palestinian and let him pass.

Abu al-Fahed wears fatigues and a stocking cap with narrow eyeholes cut into it. Around his brow is a white strip of cloth with black writing: kata'ib shuhada' al-aqsa, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's Fatah organization that vies with Hamas as the principal orchestrator of attacks on Israelis, including civilians. As the gunmen crouch behind their 15-ft. sand barricade, they shift their feet and their grips on their weapons, on some level wishing that the Israelis would come now and be done with it. "I'm prepared for martyrdom," Abu al-Fahed, 28, says through his mask. "They kill us anyway, so I may as well resist."

This hopeless defiance has grown in the Palestinians during the intifadeh. Those who feel it admit they have let go their hold on logic, stopped trying to think of solutions and turned to the welcoming, numbing embrace of death. Men like Abu al-Fahed would have made unlikely martyrs before these two years of bloodshed. With five children, he would not have gone out to die on a suicide mission and leave his family without a wage earner. And though he is religious, like most Palestinians, he is no fundamentalist with dreams of paradise. Jobless because Israel no longer allows laborers like him to enter the country to work, faced with relentless television images of Israeli violence and surrounded by poverty, death and despair, he awaits the order that will end his life. "Every member of al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades is ready to infiltrate Israeli settlements or be martyred in any operation," he says quietly, without boastfulness. "These operations are not just to kill Israelis but to make the world pay attention to the suffering of the Palestinians. Though I have children, I am obliged to resist because of all these people who have lost their fathers. I am ready to sacrifice my life so my kids can live in peace."

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