Baby bomber photo a horrific symbol

By PHIL REEVES in Jerusalem

It will surely become one of the most notorious images of the intifada. The world was revolted when it saw a 12-year-old Palestinian, Mohammed al-Durah, dying in a hail of bullets beside his father in front of a French TV camera in October 2000.

And it has been disgusted anew by a family snap that has already become so infamous as to have acquired a label: it will always be known as "The Baby Bomber".

Suspicions over the authenticity of the picture of the Palestinian infant dressed in the costume of a suicide bomber appear misplaced.

The Israeli military and the Palestinians have produced wildly falsified propaganda in this conflict, like all societies at war, but the child's relatives in the West Bank town of Hebron did not dispute that the photograph was genuine.

The immediate family refused to talk to reporters, but an unnamed uncle said that the picture of the 1-year-old boy was taken as a joke about six months ago at a party attended by students.

The Israeli military said it found the picture in a family album during a raid on the Hebron home of a wanted Hamas militant, who is still at large.

Underlying the issue is an argument that has been under way for nearly two years over the engine driving the violence, in which more than 2000 people have died.

The Israel Government pounced on the photo as proof that the Palestinians brainwash their young.

It has long been trying to convince the outside world that the real reason Palestinian suicide bombers are murdering Israeli civilians is not primarily due to Israel's actions - occupation, settlement building, curfews, assassinations, the killing of hundreds of civilians and the destruction of property or farmland - but manipulation by fanatical Palestinian militias.

Dore Gold, an Israeli Government spokesman, said yesterday that the photo was part of a "deliberate policy of incitement ... which involves the brainwashing of an entire people.

"This yields enormous hate and a future generation of terrorists."

The picture has emerged at a time when Israel is riding high. The right wing in the Government of Ariel Sharon is still congratulating itself on President George W. Bush's Middle East policy speech, which set pre-conditions for Palestinian statehood that few believe can ever be realised, allowing Israel to block the process indefinitely.

The worldwide disgust generated by the latest Palestinian suicide bombings has allowed Israel to reoccupy almost all of the West Bank without any significant international criticism.

The media have been battered into line, including CNN, which rushed to apologise for a comment by its founder, Ted Turner, whose only offence was to have said - accurately - that both sides in the conflict were terrorising each other.

The fact that six Palestinian children, several as young as 6, were killed in a week by Israeli forces - which may have had some bearing on the timing of the Baby Bomber photo's release - has attracted little attention.

Having re-occupied land handed to the Palestinians under the Oslo Accords and won over the White House, Israel is homing on its next target - Unrwa, the UN organisation that provides services to Palestinian refugees.

A major publicity campaign is being launched in the United States, source of a third of Unrwa's funding, to undermine it for not weeding out "terrorism" in refugee camps.

Palestinians suspect the long-term motive is to attack the legitimacy of the refugees and their claims.

All this has fuelled a dangerous mood of despair among Palestinians.

Many do not deny that they admire the revolting phenomenon of the suicide bombers. They make little apology for the many pictures of tiny Arab children in paramilitary uniforms, carrying toy Kalashnikovs and wearing Hamas headbands. They no longer care what the West thinks.

"There is no way people can deny that this phenomenon is popular, but it is a sick mentality," admitted Ghassan Khatib, a moderate Palestinian minister, when asked to comment on the Baby Bomber.

But he added: "It is part of the psychology among some Palestinians that has resulted from the occupation over the last 35 years, and in particular, over the last two years.

"I should remind you that Palestinian people are normal, like any others ... But every day the Israelis are killing children. This has created desperation and a spirit of revenge."

- INDEPENDENT

Feature: Middle East

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