Steven Aiello

Israelis Bleed Too: How Religion and Empathy Changed a (Failed) Suicide Bomber

I’m starting a new series- to highlight some young voices from Gaza, views that Israelis especially rarely get to hear and read. Names and other biographical details are changed slightly for protection of the writers. This first post tells the story of a 22 year-old orphan from Gaza who embraced violence and hate after his father’s death, at one point seeking to kill, and how religion led him to choose a different lifestyle and take a different name for himself.


Abdullah’s story:

“I was born in December 1991, somewhere around Nuseirat. My mother was 18 when I was born. When I was 3, my mom went with a relative on a car ride. They collided with a truck and both died directly. I don’t remember my mother but I have a photo of her holding me.

Dad and I lived in an apartment, and I remember we had to walk up many stairs. I don’t know what he did, I just know I was there at the work area. In March 1996 I was walking with dad on the street, and I heard a shot. Dad fell to the ground, and I saw blood flowing from his head. He was still alive, and I sat with him, I can’t remember everything he said to me, and it cannot have been many words. He handed me his wallet, told me to get back home to the neighbors. I laid beside him with my head on his chest and he held his arm on me and said something like: “son I love you” and then he died. I don’t think anyone was there, I walked away, remember people ran towards dad, I walked away from there. I had the wallet in my hand. And I tried to find home, but I couldn’t.

That next thing I remember I was found in the Nuseirat refugee camp, one of the guards told me I was dirty, skinny and had swellings and bruises on my arms, legs and neck. I drank some water. I didn’t talk at all to the guards, they made photos and paintings of me to find my parents. Of course they didn’t find them. Later I told them that my parents are dead. I was allowed to stay and slept outside in the tents; people there gave me some of their food and water. I changed tents from time to time.

In 1998 an organization for foster care took me away from there and put me in a foster home. They paid for my school, food and clothing. Foster care was very short; I went to four different families. Some were a bit nicer than the others, but they couldn’t keep me for long time.

The last family I moved to in late 2001 and lived there for a few months until the father said he had no space for me. And that I was almost an adult now and could live on my own. He gave me money and told me not to say anything to the social care, because they got foster care of a toddler and a baby, and had no need for me anymore.

I was 10 and had already been in school for couple of years, so I decided to live on my own. I ate at school and slept near the building, or on the roof top of school. Money was a problem of course, even if I saved what I got from him, I needed it to buy water and clothing. So I looked for a job. I worked at different shops and got a bit more money. At the age of 12 I was an adult and contacted social care to say that I was living on my own.

Living on the street also meant I tried to get somewhere to be, and I was only 8 when I joined an organization for fighting the enemies. Now afterwards I understand that it was because of this I moved from foster family to foster family, but none told me that at the time. I helped the elder fighters with carrying weapons, being on TV and promoting fighting. Death to enemies was the goal; I also learned that it was the “Jews” the “enemies” that shot my dad and that because of them I am now an orphan. In the organization they called me Hassan which was my name for years. I won’t give you my full fighter name.

As a young fighter I tried to get others to join the fight, and the more active I was, the more popular I got among the leaders and other fighters. To fight for Palestine is brave, to die for Palestine is heroic. At the age of 12 I left school for training school, to become a more active fighter, and in the end die for Palestine. Since no one was taking care of me, I was cheap, because when I was dead, no money had to be paid. Around the same age I got depression, related to puberty and growing up. I started to miss my parents, which I struggled with. I felt lonelier the older I got. The organization didn’t give me what I really needed, which I didn’t understand yet what it was. Weapons give you a false comfort. Because of depression I stopped eating, but still exercised several hours a day, I learned to control my emotions, even if puberty made that very hard. I had to fight against myself a lot, even more than fighting for Palestine. I still lived on the street, didn’t have time to work anymore, and the money went to the leaders to help support the fighting.

It took a few years of heavy training before I was ready for a mission, which meant to enter the occupied area and die there for Palestine. For me death was the same as freedom, I really saw no future. The leaders and members of the organization told me that I had no future, no purpose greater than to die for Palestine. I was going to be the youngest adult suicide bomber. Another 12 year old and a 16 year had both failed at it. I was surprised to hear them being called children, as I was the same age and called an adult. Another 16 year old did succeed with his mission, and by 2004 I was ready for it. I got all the information I needed. It was a dance club somewhere in Tel Aviv which was going to be filled with enemies, some kind of party for soldiers to celebrate the murder and arrest of Palestinian children. Just hours before it was time it was all called off, due to information and criticism. People started saying that it wasn’t at all only enemies dying, but also innocent civilians. It was heavy criticism and too many voices, and our leaders started to be concerned about not being able to carry out more attacks. It was a huge failure for me, and I thought it had to do with me, nothing to do with civilians, but that they didn’t believe in me.

I kept the explosives, which was forbidden. In fact it was forbidden to take home anything meant to kill, but people did it anyways and sometimes even carried out attacks on their own. This was a failure for the organization, but it then had to take credit for it, since the member was connected to it. The enemies weren’t only the soldiers, but it was the soldiers we had to target. This failed a few times and civilians died, but at the same time those civilians one day were or will be soldiers. The other members spoke a lot about the non-human enemies that would feel nothing when killed. “They don’t even bleed” some people said. If shot in the head, they wouldn’t even experience pain. It reminded me of dad, when he was shot. He was in pain, and it was a lot of blood. And after that I was alone. I never told them, but I believed somewhere that of course the people on the other side could experience pain and had blood in them. I didn’t like the stone throwing, but sometimes I went there to do it, and hit a few soldiers. One was hit right in the face, he fell to the ground screaming from pain and blood started to come. The others said it was fake. I saw my father at that moment and went away from the place.

Anyway, I decided to carry out an attack on my own, despite the warnings of the consequences if the leaders found out before I did it. So I went there, soldiers spotted me and went towards me with weapons lifted. I realized then that I wasn’t that big. They were a lot larger than me and there were six of them; I was one person. But I struggled to get the belt to explode. One man yelled something to the others who ran away to another place and he grabbed me, lifted up my shirt, removed the explosives I had and took me away from there. He dragged me, holding the back of my shirt and almost lifted me in it. I thought I would choke to death. After some minutes I got my sense back and started to kick, beat and scratch him. I even tried to bite him. I kicked him hard and he lost his grip, but it didn’t help, the other five men came and one of them threw himself on top of me, forcing me to the ground, taking my arms behind my back, another one put his foot on my head and a third one shot warning shots towards me. They searched my entire body but found no more explosives.

I don’t remember how, I have fainted or something, but later on I woke up in a room with two soldiers standing there. First they spoke in Hebrew and then in English. Even if I already knew English then, I couldn’t understand them. I was numb. Eventually a man came who spoke Arabic; that helped me a lot. “You’re just a child” he said to me. “Only a child, what are you doing?” I replied that I’m no child, I’m an adult. I’m actually 14 years old! Over and over again he said “no, you’re a child.” And asked where my parents are. I refused to reply; he asked again. I was quiet. Another soldier came and showed the picture of me and mom, and asked in English: “is this you and your mother? Where are your parents?” I understood they had the wallet, and in it I had been stupid enough to also have the picture of my mother. I looked at her, and felt a sharp pain inside which I can’t explain to you. Then I replied, that they are dead. He asked who takes care of me. And I said “none, I’m an adult.”

I was in custody for a few days before I was released. When I came back to the organization I was punished for failing. That made me more determined to go on with the fight. I got a new mission, without too much information, and I was arrested because of it. The soldier who caught me, kicked me, hit me and put his weapon in my mouth. He yelled something at me, before another soldier stopped him. I was angry as well, once again failing in my attack against soldiers.

Because of the other soldier helping, I got ahold of the attacker’s weapon, got it and started shooting. The one who had helped jumped on me from behind and threw me to the ground. Another soldier shot me in the leg. I was fighting as much as I could, but in the end they put me in handcuffs and I could only kick. That was a few months after the first arrest.

I was put on a truck blindfolded; there were other people there also. It was forbidden for us to talk with each other and they drove away with us. Apparently I was the youngest. In English one of the soldiers told me that everyone was talking about a child being arrested. He hit me, “why are you fighting!” he yelled. I tried to kick him, but I wasn’t able to see where he was. I yelled that I am soon 15, I have been an adult for 5 years now!

I was questioned for hours, about the fighting, organization, plans, my leaders, my family, my home, my education and sometimes even the most personal embarrassing questions. Why, I don’t know. I think to humiliate me. I was so angry, I wanted to just shoot them all.

They put me in a small room, and later on told me that I would be there for years. That caused me to beat the walls, hit my head on the walls, kick, scream and do everything to hurt myself. They came in and gave me shots that made me calmer. I got addicted to whatever they gave me.
I refused to eat or talk and denied all personal basic needs. I mostly slept.

It sounds weird but the worst was isolation. They wouldn’t contact me for days. I had water bottles but no food. They would leave me alone; that was torture for me. Even if I hated the guards, it was a kind of security to see them.

After days, maybe weeks, maybe months I got used to being there. Day in and day out. Sometimes we were allowed to go meet the others or to be outside. I refused. The guards sometimes came and asked if I had anyone they could contact that would visit me. I said no. They told me I was the only prisoner without anyone that called for me, sent letters to me or asked for me. I only said yes, I know.

Being there made me crazy, sometimes I would scratch the walls, so hard that my nails broke and started bleeding, but I liked the pain. Same when I hit my head hard on the wall. I didn’t wanted to meet the others, or go outside. I didn’t eat for a long time. I did drink.

One time I went out and met others. They asked me why I was there, and I realized I had no idea really why I was there. Nor where I was. Somewhere in occupied Palestine, since the guards spoke Hebrew.
Once I asked a guard why I was arrested. He laughed at me and told me I was a murderer and a terrorist.  No, I replied, I am a freedom fighter. And I am no murderer.

Anyway, day in and day out there made me later become calmer. I could think a lot, needed no medication anymore to calm me down. I was thinking and thinking. About me as a child, orphan, street child, foster child and now an adult in arrest. Sometimes I felt lonely. The only human I saw, was the prison guard that handed me water and sometimes food, through a hole in the door.

I was only there for 11 months, but some days it felt much longer. You lose track of time. The days looked all the same, and I was inside most of the time. Sometimes I was questioned for hours. I was careful to not give out contacts or plans. They didn’t get much from me. No one visited or called for me, which I knew would happen.

After some time I got a guard who was very violent and humiliated me and other prisoners. When he got into the cell he hit me and then used several methods to get information from me, but his insults against my family, country etc. kept me quiet despite the methods used. He got frustrated with me in the end, and one time he hit me so much that I lost my self-control and screamed from pain. That made other guards come and remove him.

A new guard came, an older man who knew Arabic. He sometimes came in me and tried to find out why I was the one I was. I didn’t tell him much, just that both my parents was dead and that I had no siblings. That I was 10 years old when I started living on my own, meaning I’ve been an adult for many years now.

To die for Palestine is an honor my parents would have been proud of me. Also death will end my life that I feel I’m done with. He told me about how it was to grow up in Israel, he told about suicide bombers and rockets and broken peace deals, the two intifadas and Judaism. Why Jerusalem is important also to Jews, and about the holocaust. I didn’t believe him or trust him 100 percent, but he was the only one I spoke to in my natural language, not in English, which I still don’t know that well.

Days went by, I started eating a bit but I isolated myself. One day a new guard came. I asked for the old guard, but he had gotten another job. I was angry with myself for feeling sad, and at him for not at least saying goodbye. That was enough proof for me that Jews aren’t to be trusted. I started to make plans on what to do when being released. First was to apologize to the leaders for being lazy and failing, for being weak. Second to plan another attack but then with launching rockets instead of suicide bombing. Third to work closer to the leaders to get more money and maybe one day buy an apartment.

Besides the hours of investigation, interviews and sometimes torture methods, I was thinking a lot. I made up plans for how to make the leaders trust in me again.

Like I wrote, I refused to eat in the beginning. After a while I started; I was afraid it was poisoned but found out it never was. One to two times a day I got food, I ate a tiny bit. On Friday evening was the best food. Bread, fish and meat, and I was allowed to choose what I wanted to drink. Other days it was water and the food.

The food came through a hole in the door. Sometimes I didn’t see the person who handed it to me; they opened my door rarely. I knew they looked at me through the other hole in the middle of the door but rarely spoke.

There was a toilet in my room and a shower outside, but neither was fully private. I was often angry, and I would hit the walls, scratching them until my fingers were bleeding, kicked things, or screamed and threw the few things that were there.

I also felt panic, when it was total isolation, no one came with food, knocked on the door and there was no light. It felt like the walls moved closer.

There was no happiness, and I rarely laughed or smiled. When sadness came I ignored it, didn’t let myself feel it. I never cried.

When it came to methods to make me talk they did many different things. They would chain me to a bed, blindfolded and sitting towards a wall for hours, someone kicking me if I was about to fall asleep, angry dogs surrounding me or handcuffed to the wall, fake drowning. Mentally there was total isolation with no food, light or any contact, personal questions, humiliation, being in isolation cell without toilet or bed for hours, taking photos of me in private situations, denying me sleep.

I said no to taking any courses. I also said no to meet the imam. I didn’t pray.


One day a guard came in and told me I could leave now. He put a blindfold on me and led me out. I was surprised, I didn’t even say something. I just walked with him. It was all very fast. Hassan was a free man.

I was taken by some kind of truck back to Gaza and there they pushed me out from the truck, a soldier removed my blindfold and made me sign documents and other things to get back in to Gaza. There I was met by a few dozen people celebrating my release; I was a hero they said, I felt far from being a hero. I was more of a failure. They followed me a bit but then left. And then I was thinking what to do now?

At least for 11 months I had somewhere to be, now back again I didn’t. I had dad’s wallet with me, and some money. I decided to walk towards where the organization has its headquarters. It was late and closed, so I went to the mosque to sleep there.

The first days after the release I slept hidden outside, and tried to be calm. Then I went to the leaders and apologized to them for being arrested. They weren’t happy to see me, they said others been hunger striking, and almost hospitalized, and here I am, looking healthy. I was taken to the main leader; he looked at me and asked me a few questions about what information I been giving out. I answered I gave out no valid or interesting information. I also said I didn’t trust any of the Jews, and of course didn’t see them as human beings.

He told the guards to lower the weapons they were holding at my head. I explained that I am still fighting for Palestine, no doubt about it.  The apology was accepted and I was back in the organization again.

The organization is in a building with a backyard. I slept there. I could sometimes get food there too. Sometimes I wished I was like the other fighters, who had someone to go home to. Parents or siblings or even a wife and children. Sometimes I thought about my parents, how different life would be if they were alive. Back then I had no idea of my mom’s name nor exactly where I was born, how she died and nothing about dad.

Dad, he told me to go back to our apartment, but I couldn’t find it. I tried hard to remember it but I had no idea where it was. I decided to go to the government and try to find out everything. At least my birthday; I didn’t know back then what date I was born. I knew I must be born in 1991.

I remember I opened the wallet one night, I had only used the money and seen the photo of me and mom. But never cared for looking at the other things.

A receipt for bread, milk, egg and a toy. I knew that store, it wasn’t far away from the organization building. Another paper with some numbers written on it. That was it.

That week I went to the government. I asked them to check who I am. They looked in registers and found some things about me, mostly about foster care. I said I want to know further back. When was I born?
“December 30th 1991” the lady said, to “Fatima and Ibrahim”.

And there it was, apparently that is all they found, beside some siblings of my parents and my grandparents. No one has ever tried to look for me. That I also found out.

My grandparents are dead; the aunts and uncles I can’t find. She asked me what I want to be called, since all they had was Hamid. Hassan I said, I want to be called Hassan, no family name. Only that.
I also went to the old shop and asked if they knew a man named Ibrahim, who had a small son named Hamid. Ibrahim died in 1996.
“Yes” the shop owner said “he lived right there, wonder what happened to his little son? Ibrahim was shot in the head, no one knows who and why.”

I said thanks, but before leaving I turned around and said: “and regarding his little son, he is dead” and then I left.

I walked straight to the building where he been pointing. For some stupid reason I thought that maybe, maybe his name is still there. Of course not, it was a man named Ramadan who opened the door. He had never heard of Ibrahim with a son named Hamid.

I gave up the search. Now at least I knew my birthday.

All the Jews were thrown out of Gaza, Hamas took over and war broke out, first inside of Gaza and then with the occupiers.

I was fighting like never before, throwing rocks, shooting towards guards, planning attacks and beating up protesters. Forcing people up on roof tops, they were screaming and kicking and crying, but I didn’t care. It was an inner anger that just had to get out. Some people I just attacked, only to see them in deep pain.

2006, 2007, 2008 all those years passed by. And it was in the end of 2008 that I took the decision to become more active in the fighting. As a soon to be 17 year old, I had been an adult for 7 years already. No apartment yet, but I had at least saved up money.

Three days before my 17th birthday yet another war broke out and this time I was ready for more serious fighting. That meant to be among the launchers, both making and launching the explosives. Helping others to do it. Full war broke out and I was commander over a group of fighters. Together we launched 10-20 rockets a day towards the enemies.
Day and night I worked, and heard more and more success stories. I knew they feared me, us, our weapons, my own self-made explosives. I felt like the proudest person in the world, and successful.

Right after the war, we were popular. Even if it was fading away month by month. People soon looked at us with hatred, told us to stop fighting and try to build up Gaza instead. Hamas was under attack, protests broke out, people said they were tired of the conflict. Something I never could understand.

I started to make friends, something I didn’t have before. Just as involved as I was, just as hardcore and self-disciplined. One time we were out on dinner and a friend of a friend, asked me about the fighting. I told him gladly all about it, the joy in knowing the enemies were suffering. “I love this!” I said.

He looked at me and said: “you don’t even know what love is, you’re only an orphan that nobody cares about, you never experienced what it is to be loved.” I laughed at him and didn’t let it bother me. But he said it one more time, which resulted in me hitting him right in the face.

“See” he said “all you know is to respond to others by being violent”.

Then he walked away.

I laughed at that too.

Later that day, before sleeping I thought about what he said. And it made me think of that guard, while I was under arrest. It’s his people I am targeting, his home I might hit, his family I prepare weapons against. Nah, I thought. “He didn’t even say goodbye to me before he left. He deserves it.”

In 2009 I decided to start taking courses for the organization again but also to teach other young people how to fight. I would train 8-15 year-old boys and girls and tell them how to attack the enemies.
“Every single one living inside of the occupied Palestine (Israel) are an enemy, a non-human creature ready to murder all of you” I told them.

I liked the ways their mind changed, and the ones who questioned I threw out. There were those who spoke about Islam, who brought up surah after surah (chapter) against killing civilians, against suicide bombings, against war, against hatred etc.
Islam was always against fighting, or to be honest God was ALWAYS against fighting. I had to ignore it, which was easy. As a non-religious Muslim, it is easier to use Islam. Sure we used Allahu akbar and other sentences, in order to get the religious people with us. They usually looked at us, said some hateful things and walked away. When we prayed they stood beside us or behind and refused to pray.

That was a difference between us fighters, those who were religious and those that weren’t. Sure same agenda of the use of verses and certain praise was used, but the religious ones prayed 5 times a day also, and only kept to fighting the soldiers, if the soldiers started.

We non-religious didn’t care, I prayed a few times a month, and considered everyone in occupied Palestine to be enemies. Which was why I continued.

The organization started working with Hamas’s military wing, and I also started to work for them, a bit more pay and soon I was ready for an apartment. Even if I was used to sleeping outside, I wanted to be like the others that went home. I didn’t have a home.

Year 2010:

I continued with the attacks and making weapons, until it was found out by Hamas special forces. They found the hiding place where I had all the things, and I was arrested for illegal weapons, illegal activities (launching without permission), theft and physical abuse of several people. One of them apparently was in a coma after I kicked him several times in the head because he refused to go to the border fence and throw rockets, even though I told him he would get paid.

After what they called a trial, I was sent to prison for five years.
I hated it of course. It was sort of like in the Israel arrest, the difference was that here the Imam came, every single day to talk. And it wasn’t allowed not to go outside. They forced us outside.

The Imam talked about God, the Quran, how to not hate. I asked a lot. How can God let a small child lose both his parents? And then let him live on the streets for many years? Not a single person is asking or looking for the child. Foster care didn’t help anything, you knew you weren’t their children. Then at the age of 10 you have to live on your own. You try everything to succeed, and what happens? You are arrested, three times. No matter what you do, it is all wrong.

The Imam spoke then about that God only give you as much pressure as God knows you can handle. Sure, that might be true. But does it look like I can handle it?

And I remember he said “look at yourself, isn’t that little orphan boy an adult, healthy man now?”

To that I had no answer. He gave me the Quran, told me to read it.
Everyday a new Surah. In a way it changed me, suddenly the fight didn’t seem as important as faith. To die for Allah, isn’t to kill a whole bunch of people including yourself; it is to go out and fight a battle, in which you might die unintentionally. With intention to die, you commit suicide.
Even if it took time, I started to be a bit more religious. The organization sometimes came by, after a few months they said I was free to leave if I wanted to. The other prisoners were more important, nobody asked for me. Like when I was in Israel, no family asked for me, meaning no family could be displayed on TV talking about their missing child and a campaign to bring the child home again. Hassan is a nobody.

During my time in prison I changed quite a bit, from non-religious to a bit more aware of religion, from part of an organization to not being part of it. But also from Hassan, to Abdullah.

In a way I killed Hassan. Time to start on a new kind of life.
I got news anyhow from media, heard that Israel killed fighters, there were attacks and rockets being launched. A few of the killed ones were my old students, some my friends.

Because of my behavior the court decided to let me go earlier, instead of 5 years, after 3 years. Those 3 years went by quite slowly, I could write a whole book about them, but I won’t do it right here. In 2013, 2 months before my 22nd birthday I was a free man again.

This time I took my saved money and went to find an apartment, which I did. I started working again for Hamas as a security guard, and refused the activities involving rockets.

Now I have been free for almost 8 months, I have started using internet as a way for me to connect with others outside Gaza. I try everything to not lose my control and be hateful. But to listen. It will of course take time. Some people make my blood boil, but I don’t like how fast I get angry.

So that’s my story, thanks for reading for those who had energy to read it all.”

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at
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