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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Hebron's middle classes choose America rather than martyrdom



Tareq Natsha is fresh out of secondary school and about to join a growing exodus: young, middle-class Palestinians who are leaving their West Bank homes with their families' blessing and moving abroad, to escape from the clutches of the terrorist group Hamas.


Better-off parents in cities such as Hebron, a centre of Hamas recruitment for recent 'martyrdom' operations, are increasingly fearful of losing their children to the militants.

Tareq, 18, is planning to move to the United States - to most immigrants a land of opportunity, but to him a place of refuge from the Hamas recruiters, whom he fears will otherwise force him to join their ranks.

'Many families have lost their children for nothing,' he said.

'More and more families are now trying to get their kids out of here to give them a chance to live in peace. They are afraid that if they stay they may come under the influence of Hamas.'

At first glance Hebron's al-Jama neighbourhood does not appear to be a natural recruiting ground for the Palestinian militant groups.

With its large spacious houses, smart cars and vineyards spread out over undulating hills, the district is a pocket of relative prosperity.

There are subtle signs, however, that the violent Palestinian struggle against Israel is inflicting a heavy toll here.

On three sides of Tareq's family home are patches of flattened ground where the Israeli army has levelled the family homes of young suicide bombers.

Since the start of the latest Palestinian uprising four years ago, 11 young men living in al-Jama have met premature deaths while carrying out suicide bombings and gun attacks. Two bombers who killed 16 people in Be'er Sheva last week came from al-Jama.

As Tareq sat in the spacious living room of his family's three-bedroom house, where a portrait of his late father, a lawyer, hangs alongside elaborate Palestinian tapestries, he acknowledged that Hamas had had extraordinary success in secretly recruiting and persuading young middle-class men to die for the cause.

One of them was his friend, Basem Takhouri, a 19-year-old student and the son of a well-off shop owner, who blew up himself and 16 other people on a Jerusalem bus a year ago.

'Basem was a quiet person,' said Tareq. 'It was unexpected. Of course there is plenty of anger towards Israel over the occupation, the killings, the checkpoints and so on. But Hamas has been able to brainwash these young men.'

The response of dozens of young men from Hebron's middle-class families has been to flee the spreading influence of Hamas - which is now reaching beyond its usual recruiting ground in the ranks of poor and dispossessed Palestinians from the refugee camps.

Tareq's older brother, Sami, 21, also plans to move to the US - following another brother, Rami, 26. Yet another brother, Basel, 27, is already in France.

Sami said that those who cannot escape resent those who do, but added: 'It is hard, but we have no choice. We have to make a future for ourselves, and the best way for us to do that now is to go somewhere else.'"