LOS ANGELES, Nov. 27 (JTA) — Hassan is deeply frustrated because he was caught by Israeli police before he could blow himself up, killing Israeli civilians. “If I had been killed, my mother would call it a blessing,” the 16-year-old says. “My family and 70 relatives would have gone to paradise and that would be a great honor for me.” Hassan is one of more than a dozen Palestinian suicide bombers captured before they could carry out their missions and interviewed in “Suicide Killers,” a documentary by French Jewish filmmaker Pierre Rehov. The movie’s subtitle, “Paradise is Hell,” is a deliberate counter-allusion to last year’s Oscar-nominated Palestinian feature “Paradise Now” — which critics said aimed to humanize its two suicide bomber stars. The prison interviews with the would-be bombers, both men and women, will leave most viewers shaken, not because of the ferocity of the terrorists but because of their calmness and the certitude of their convictions. No regrets or second thoughts are apparent, except for the failure of their missions. The women in particular display a truly frightening serenity. Rehov, the film’s producer and director, has made six previous documentaries on Israeli-Palestinian relations and societies. He’s the product of a multicultural upbringing. Born in Algeria into an old Jewish family, Rehov said in a phone interview that he grew up among Arabs and Muslims and continues to feel comfortable among them. That background, and his French citizenship, made it easier to conduct the interviews once the Hamas prison bosses, who in effect control the inmates of the Israeli prison, gave their permission. Rehov’s main purpose, and the most interesting aspect of the film, is to explore the terrorists’ minds and motivations. Israeli occupation, revenge for Palestinian deaths, frustration at checkpoints and poverty may all contribute to convincing young men and women to strap on explosive belts, but the real reasons for the bombers’ hatred lie much deeper, Rehov contends. He assigns two psychological factors to the formation of the terrorist mind-set, both inherent in Islamic religion and tradition: a high degree of sexual frustration, and a deep sense of humiliation and wounded pride. Rehov’s conclusions seem to be borne out to a considerable extent by the prisoners’ own words and the commentaries of Arab, Israeli and other experts interspersed in the film. The would-be terrorists rarely speak of nationalistic grievances but constantly emphasize their religious mandate. “Our goal is to kill all enemies of Islam,” one young woman says. “Those who die for Allah are not dead but live in paradise,” a young man proclaims. Such beliefs easily reinforce hatred of Jews. “Jews have never obeyed God and are not part of mankind,” another prisoner adds. One former terrorist recruiter says volunteers signify their wish to become “martyrs” by declaring that they wish to “marry Allah.” A sense of shame is another major motivating factor for aspiring terrorists, according to Rehov. “It’s bad enough that the infidel West is superior in technology and wealth, but to have been defeated by Jews, whom Muslims have held in contempt for centuries, is the utmost humiliation,” he said. Rehov treads on more controversial ground when he lists sexual frustration as perhaps the key component of the terrorist mind. “Young Muslim men are raised in a highly restrictive atmosphere, riddled with sexual guilt and taboos,” he said. “They grow up without a natural relationship to women, whom they hold in deep contempt.” The fantasy of rewarding martyrs with 72 virgins in paradise is part of that, as is the sense that the Israeli lifestyle, with its half-clad women, is corrupting Islamic purity, Rehov said. He observed similar sexual attitudes among serial killers in other countries, one reason he titled his film “Suicide Killers.” The filmmaker dismissed another Western belief — that if Islamic moderates are encouraged, they’ll eventually rein in the extremists. “All Muslims, even in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, believe that Islam will prevail worldwide in the end because that’s the word of God,” he said. “Moderates believe that this will happen sometime in the future. The extremists think that it will happen in their lifetimes and they want to be part of the victory. It’s just a difference in the timing, not in the ultimate outcome.” “Suicide Killers” has screened at film festivals in Europe, America and the Far East. Rehov expects that the film will open in commercial theaters early next year. For more information, check www.citylightsmedia.com.
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Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.