- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

NABLUS, West Bank — Abdullah Quraan earned as much as $4.50 a day in the past year ferrying packages on rickety pushcarts through the phalanx of Israeli soldiers who scrutinize every person and parcel coming out of this Palestinian city.

On Monday, a stranger gave the 11-year-old porter an unusually heavy payload and instructed him to deliver it to a woman on the other side of the Hawara checkpoint, the southern gateway to Nablus.

Minutes later, soldiers on alert for smuggled weapons had arrested the boy and blown up the package — leaving behind a small crater of shrapnel that bore the markings of a suicide bomb.

Yesterday, the incident had become more fuel for an ongoing debate over the involvement of minors in the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

Accusing terrorists of trying to remotely detonate the bomb as Abdullah passed through the checkpoint, Israeli army officials said the incident highlighted the militants’ cynical exploitation of children.

“I don’t know what the bag looked like inside. When I saw the soldiers surrounding the bag, that’s when I started to be worried,” said the boy, who convinced Israeli interrogators that he was an innocent victim.

Palestinians, including the sixth-grade boy, were left dumbfounded by the incident. Although some offered conspiracy theories blaming Israeli secret agents, many acknowledged that some militants deliberately involve children in their attacks on Israelis.

Other incidents in recent months include a Palestinian teenager stopped on his way to perpetrate a suicide-bombing attack and two minors caught trying to slip into Israel with handmade guns.

Palestinians say youths in the Gaza Strip have been encouraged to test the tolerance of Israeli soldiers guarding the security fence that blocks off entrance to Israel.

In Nablus particularly, the collapse of any central authority has left a vacuum filled by lawless militants whose allegiances vary according to political faction, neighborhood or clan.

Internecine violence in the city has left at least 30 dead and forced the resignation of the mayor. So at a garage near Abdullah’s home in the Balata refugee camp, the notion that militants would co-opt an unsuspecting child did not sound far-fetched.

Sa’id Moukhsen said he escorted his 16-year-old son to school yesterday and had driven his 5-year-old daughter around in his taxi all day for fear they might be abducted.

“When they give themselves the right to use an 11-year-old, they can kidnap children,” he said. “Everybody is talking about it, and everybody is annoyed.”

Local members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, denied any connection to the plot.

Brandishing M-16s, two plainclothes militants who appeared at the Quraan household yesterday suggested that the Israelis had faked the whole incident. They didn’t rule out, however, that “irresponsible people” could have given explosives to the boy.

Relatives said Abdullah came home after his release on Monday and turned on his favorite cartoon show as if nothing had happened. But recalling the ordeal to reporters yesterday, his face went pale.

Abdullah said a female soldier stopped him at the checkpoint and searched his bags. After he watched the soldiers explode the bomb at a distance of 20 yards, he was taken to a district army office and questioned at length.

The boy said the soldiers gave him chocolates and cookies, but also beat him during a three-hour interrogation.

Maj. Sharon Feingold, an Israeli army spokeswoman, denied that Abdullah had been abused.

“He wasn’t a stranger. He was quite stunned to learn that he was carrying a bomb of a suicide explosion,” she said.

Blaming Fatah’s Tanzim faction for the plot, Maj. Feingold said, “They have no boundaries of imagination to take an 11-year-old boy and to use him as a human bomb without his knowledge.”

Palestinian political analyst Bashir Barghouti said Palestinians have been quietly grappling with the issue for months, but no one has been paying attention.

“Palestinian society is aware about this issue, and it is concerned,” he said.

“Most of the leaders in the field don’t have any experience. Because of the arrests [of the leaders of the uprising], we are talking about third- or fourth-generation leaders, and they are irresponsible.”

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