ARKA, West Bank—Samir Hammad's childhood playground was a tiny patch of grass and dirt on the hilltop behind his family home where he could watch twin Israeli settlements expanding on the ridges above his remote West Bank village.
From there, Hammad could see Israeli soldiers patrolling the separation barrier that runs through 14 acres of confiscated family land to protect Israeli settlers. Unskilled and unable to afford college, Hammad could also see his future being fenced in.
So, when the 21-year-old left his village on April 16, carried upwards of 30 pounds of explosives down a Tel Aviv street and blew himself up in front of a fast-food restaurant, it came as no shock to some of those who knew Hammad best.
"It wasn't a surprise to us," said Hammad's brother-in-law, Imad Hammad. "It's something that could have happened in any town around here."
While suicide bombings have dropped off dramatically in recent years, analysts say that a sense of hopelessness that fuels young men like Hammad persists in the Palestinian territories, where Israeli troops raid almost nightly and security barriers are oppressive. The international community's economic chokehold on the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority for refusing to recognize Israel has put paying jobs almost out of the question for young adults.
"They would prefer to die with dignity rather than die with humiliation," said Dr. Mahmud Sehwail, a Ramallah psychologist who has treated several Palestinians who staged attacks on Israelis.
"Any one of us might become a suicide bomber," said Sehwail.
The greatest danger, analysts say, comes from the militant group that sent Hamad on his mission: Islamic Jihad. It's been behind at least five of the eight suicide bombings in the last year and Israel has responded by assassinating many of its leaders. After a car bomb killed two more of them over the weekend in southern Lebanon, Islamic Jihad vowed to respond in kind.
Samir Hammad, until the bombing, seemed like an ordinary young man who passed his time smoking water pipes and talking politics with friends. Now, his baby face peers out from dozens of posters around the village praising him as a Palestinian hero for killing 11 people, including a 16-year-old Florida tourist, Daniel Wultz.
"I am proud of what he did," Hammad's mother, Samia, said shortly after the bombing as she sat at home with weeping relatives. "It was a heroic and courageous act. If my other sons follow in the footsteps of his brother, I would be proud."
If his friends and relatives know what motivated Hammad, they're not saying.
As a boy, they agreed, Hammad hardly seemed a future suicide bomber. He was a village clown who always made other kids laugh. Though poor, he brought small gifts to his nieces and nephews. And he was so sensitive to criticism that his last boss directed Hammad's supervisors not to criticize him in front of others because it would make him burst into tears.
But politics were never far from family life. Hammad had two dogs named Sharon and Mofaz after the former Israeli prime minister and defense minister responsible for heavy-handed military operations, including a major 2002 assault on the nearby city of Jenin.
Something in Hammad began to change last year, said Mofeed Ghanem, owner of Paradise, a small roadside amusement park. Hammad, who'd worked there as a teen, returned after he dropped out of college and was turned down for a Palestinian security force job.
Ghanem saw Hammad as a dependable, honest worker who he hoped might take over Paradise when he retired.
"I gave him hope," Ghanem said. "He came back asking for work saying that all the roads were closed for him."
In the last year, Hammad had thrown his sympathies to Hamas, said his friends. Hammad hung posters for Hamas during the surprising January legislative elections that propelled the Islamist group to political power.
As he watched Hammad change, Ghanem said he warned Hammad's brother that the young man might do something rash.
"I had a feeling that he wanted to be a suicide bomber," said Ghanem.
In the days before his attack, said childhood friend Mundir Barham, Hammad draped a green Hamas banner around his shoulders and passed out political leaflets to students at his old college campus.
So his friends were surprised to see Hammad in his farewell videotape wearing the black-and-gold headband of the smaller, more militant Islamic Jihad, which planned the attack.
"He was not Jihad," said Ghanem. "Samir was Hamas."
But since Hamas has curtailed its deadly suicide bombing campaign in the last year, friends say Hammad appeared to have turned to Islamic Jihad.
On the day he traveled to Tel Aviv, Hammad missed his ride from his village to Paradise. The next time his co-passengers saw him was in his farewell videotape, where the skinny young man posed with a machine gun and read his short, final statement.
It's a tape Hammad's father, Sami, can't bear to watch.
When asked if he thought his son's actions helped or hurt the Palestinian people, Sami declined to give a direct answer.
"Violence leads to violence, but when you bomb someone you can't respond with flowers," Sami said as other village men nodded. "I can't accept that I've lost him."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-BOMBER
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