The militant Hamas made an unusual appeal to Palestinian teenagers in Gaza not to try to infiltrate Jewish settlements, after three youths were killed by Israeli soldiers in a failed attempt.
The Islamic resistance movement issued a statement Wednesday urging Palestinian youngsters to "remember that their lives are precious and should not be sacrificed."
Late Tuesday, Israeli soldiers discovered three Palestinians trying to infiltrate the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in central Gaza and shot them dead, the military said. Palestinians said they were boys — two 14-year-olds and a 13-year-old.
Hamas has claimed responsibility for many of the dozens of suicide bombing attacks carried out in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip during nearly 19 months of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Most of the bombers were men in their early 20s.
The statement, signed by Ismail Hanyea, spokesman for Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said, "We have called on the teachers and religious leaders to spread the message of restraint among young boys."
Hamas described the actions of the schoolboys as a "national catastrophe."
There have been almost nightly attempts by Palestinians to infiltrate Jewish settlements in Gaza over the past two weeks. On March 29, a Palestinian entered Netzarim and stabbed two Israelis to death.
During Israel's large-scale military operation in the West Bank, which began March 29 after a series of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks, Gaza has been relatively calm.
‘Oh Mother, Please Be Happy With Me’
School over for the day, the three boys told their unsuspecting parents they were off to see friends. Hours later, their bullet-riddled bodies were lying in the dirt outside a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.
Suicide notes left by the classmates showed they knew the venture would end in their deaths.
The Israeli army said the boys, named by relatives as Youssef Zaqout, Anwar Hamdouna and Ismail Abu Nadi, had been carrying home-made pipe bombs, an axe and knives.
Futile or heroic, the boys' gesture of resistance to occupation has deeply disturbed some community leaders who fear other youngsters might copy their quest for "martyrdom."
Their deaths mirrored that of another 14-year-old, Haitham Abu Shuqa, killed last week trying to stage a solo attack on a Jewish settlement with two pipe bombs and a dagger. The pipe bombs are crude devices that use gunpowder extracted from ordinary fireworks.
Thousands of Palestinians marched on Wednesday behind the coffins of the three schoolboys to a cemetery in Gaza City's Sheikh Rudwan district, where they had spent their brief lives.
All three had left notes for their families, explaining what they planned to do and asking forgiveness.
"Oh mother, please be happy with me. I ask you to pray to God to make my martyrdom operation a success," wrote Zaqout. "I am giving my soul for the sake of God and the homeland."
"Dad, Mum, forgive me. I am going to carry out a martyrdom operation against a settlement," Abu Naid said.
Zaqout's mother could hardly choke back her tears. "What can I say? They killed my boy," she sobbed.
Asked if she understood his motives, she said: "Children are tormented by what they see on television. Israel has left all Palestinians, including children, with no choice but to die."
The suicide notes gave no inkling that any of the boys was affiliated to any militant Palestinian group. No organization has claimed responsibility for their action.
As Gaza parents pondered the state of mind of their own offspring, psychologist Fadel Abu Heen said many children were severely traumatized by seeing and hearing of Palestinians, especially children their own age, being killed by the Israelis.
"It is despair, despair and more despair. Children are unable to cope with the sad reality," he told Reuters, adding that child suicide attackers were motivated more by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness than surging nationalism.
Abu Heen said televised scenes of burned and dismembered bodies, beamed into Gaza homes repeatedly during the West Bank offensive launched by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on March 29, had heightened the psychological damage.
He urged militant leaders and mosque preachers to wake up to the risks and work to restrain suicidal adolescent impulses.
"We should not militarize the whole society. A schoolchild must study and a grown-up fighter can fight," he said.
In a statement that blamed "Israeli massacres" for driving the boys to their deaths, Hamas told teenagers to refrain from acts that might "leave many of them dead by settlement fences."
A Palestinian security source said police had intercepted several youngsters en route to Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip with violence in mind in the last few days.
Ibrahim Jaroush, among dozens of children waiting at a Gaza hospital for the arrival of the three boy's broken bodies, said he wanted to emulate their quixotic deed.
"I want to get revenge for the boys killed by Sharon," the 11-year-old said.