Cover Story

'Martyrs by the millions'

Holiday suicide attacks by Islamic militants, Israel's military response, and Arafat's praise of the "martyrs" push the Middle East toward total war-and pull the United States into the middle

Issue: "Guns & Poses," April 13, 2002

In better days, the Via Dolorosa on Good Friday teems with tourists who fill its gutters with spent film cases and other litter as they retrace the steps of Jesus on the way to the cross. Normally Arab shopkeepers hawk olivewood crosses and cats pick indiscriminately among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish trash.

"The streets are conspicuously empty," reported Riah Abu El-Assal, the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem. He said he followed the traditional Good Friday walk March 29 amid "the sounds of helicopters, police sirens, and tank movements."

The sights and sounds of war took over Israel's capital on its holiest weekend. Israeli Defense Forces seized Palestinian strongholds, including the headquarters of Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat at Ramallah, after Palestinian militants saturated the Passover-Easter holiday with suicide bomb attacks.

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The latest attacks began on Passover eve March 27 when a Palestinian, strapped with 40 pounds of metal-laced explosives, blew himself up inside a banquet hall where 250 Jews were preparing for the traditional Seder feast. The explosion killed 26 Israelis.

On Good Friday an 18-year-old Palestinian student detonated herself just inside a Jerusalem grocery story, killing two others.

The next day an attack at a restaurant in the coastal town of Haifa killed 16 and wounded more than 30. Two hours later a suicide bomber detonated explosives outside the emergency medical center in Efrat, wounding six Israelis. According to Israel's foreign ministry, 125 Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists in March. More than 1,100 Palestinians and 400 Israelis have been killed since the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupation began in September 2000.

Israel responded by sending tanks into Ramallah. Troops stormed the headquarters of Mr. Arafat and exchanged fire with his Palestinian guards. Mr. Arafat retreated to a second-floor office with only a few aides, an automatic pistol, a candle, and a cell phone. From there he took calls from international reporters while gunfire continued just beyond his office walls. "We are all seekers of martyrdom," he told the Arab news station Al-Jazeera. "We will not hesitate and will not retreat.... To Jerusalem we march-martyrs by the millions."

The siege proved an important test of character for Mr. Arafat, who has spent recent months at least publicly disassociating his organization from Middle East terrorist groups and their recent string of bombings. Now, he was praising the suicide bombers by name: "Am I better than that heroic youth Fares Odeh [March 27 suicide bomber in Netanya]? We are seekers of martyrdom. We are all seekers of martyrdom. The entire Palestinian people is a seeker of martyrdom."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said his troops did not intend to kill Mr. Arafat but to isolate him from the terrorist network he is apparently directing. Mr. Sharon did suggest he could send the Palestinian leader into exile abroad. "The state of Israel is in a war," Mr. Sharon said in a televised address Easter Sunday. "This terrorism is activated, directed, and initiated by one man-the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. Arafat is at the head of a coalition of terrorism. He operates a strategy of terrorism." Mr. Sharon called Mr. Arafat "an enemy of Israel. He is the enemy of the entire free world."

The sharp upswing in violence caught Christians in the middle of Easter festivities that are usually the highlight of the liturgical calendar in the land of Jesus' earthly life. But Christians in Israel are accustomed to being caught in the middle.

Mr. Riah said, "The atmosphere is frightening," and many stayed away from traditional church services. In Ramallah most services were canceled. Most residents could not leave their homes. More than 150 Israeli tanks overran the town, crunching stray cars into heaps of metal that served as roadblocks. Israeli troops occupied the Arab Evangelical Home and School. They sent children home and ordered staff members out of the building. It was the third time in three months the forces took over the campus. "People fear the worst," said Mr. Riah.

Like most Arab Christians, the Jerusalem bishop finds himself torn by the conflict. He publicly states his opposition to Mr. Arafat but identifies with the hard plight of most Palestinians. Mr. Riah is Palestinian but also an Israeli citizen. He was born in Nazareth and spent his early boyhood there in what he remembers as a close-knit community of Christians, Muslims, and Druze, where everyone went to one another's weddings. His grandmother taught him Old and New Testament scriptures by the light of a petroleum lamp. In 1948 his family was forced into exile after Israel incorporated Nazareth by force and confiscated his father's land. His family became refugees in Lebanon. Mr. Riah eventually managed to return to Nazareth, where he spent 32 years as the priest of the Anglican parish.

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