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Going Face to Face With ‘Suicide Bombers’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The specter of suicide bombers and the tragedy, devastation and destruction they’ve wreaked hangs heavily on Israeli society. Carrying pounds of dynamite and detonators, sometimes disguised as Israeli soldiers or old women, these foot soldiers in the Islamic war of terror unleash death and destruction with the push of a button, exploding themselves and those around them.

Little is known about who the suicide bombers are, other than that they’re generally chosen for their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause of preventing Israeli-Palestinian peace. In return, they’re promised financial stability for their families once they’re dead, and 72 virgins awaiting them in heaven.

It’s a dark side of life, one that intrigued Israeli filmmaker Dan Setton when he saw the suicide bombing phenomenon begin to repeat itself in Israel several years ago.

The result of Setton’s research is a brief but gripping documentary that interviews several bombers whose missions failed, telling how and why they became agents of death. Originally titled simply “Shaheed,” it runs Tuesday in the U.S. on the Cinemax cable channel as “Suicide Bombers: Secrets of the Shaheed.”

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Setton, 47, who runs SET Productions, an independent film studio based in Jerusalem, set out to understand “what makes the bombers tick.”

“How far will a human being go to achieve a certain goal?” he asks. “People are people. They can be manipulated, motivated; they can be brainwashed and they could manipulate others.”

After receiving permission from Palestinian and Israeli authorities, Setton began interviewing Palestinian suicide bombers imprisoned after unsuccessful bombing attempts.

“I didn’t want to know the specifics about what terrorist cells they belonged to,” he explains. “I was interested in their motives, the simple details, like how do you construct a bomb, how do you strap it to your body, what does it feel like walking into the situation? Do you train beforehand? Do you sleep the night before? How do you overcome the fear of death?”

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What he learned was that the bombers don’t see themselves as terrorists but as freedom fighters who believe their missions are the way of God, the path to heaven.

Before his interviews with the bombers, Setton thought he would be meeting monsters. Instead, he found fairly naive men who he believes were manipulated and brainwashed by their Hamas elders.

“These were the kind of men whose existence you wouldn’t normally notice in society. I think that’s part of their characteristic as suicide bombers,” he says. “The guys I met had to destroy themselves in order to commit that kind of violence, because otherwise they couldn’t hurt a fly.”

The film’s second interview is with Mahmoud Sharif, who accidentally detonated part of his bomb prematurely, knocking him unconscious before he was captured by the Israeli police. Sharif told Setton that when he woke up in the hospital, he looked around, assumed he was in heaven and didn’t believe Israeli security when they told him he was in Israeli hands. When he stared at them in disbelief, they asked, “Well, how could there be Israelis in heaven, according to what you believe?”

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Although their missions didn’t succeed, none of the bombers interviewed expressed remorse and never will, says Setton, because that would be an expression of doubt and too much of a shock to their belief systems. In prison, they’re in a familiar milieu where they’re part of a society, seen as courageous Jihad warriors who are treated with respect by their Palestinian brethren.

Then again, Setton notes, the bombers are men who grew up in poverty and humiliation, and this is the first time in their lives they believe they have accomplished something of value.

But those are only the bombers. As for the planners, commonly known as the engineers, they are quite matter-of-fact about their work. One planner, for example, explained to Setton that everyone on the team has his job: One plans the bomb, one builds the bomb, one drives the car and one blows himself up.

For Setton, those were the moments during filming when he would think about the film’s subject, parallel to his own life.

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“I would be listening to these wonderful testimonies, these shocking words as sound bites,” he explains. “And then I’m speaking with this planner who shows me how to construct a bomb on a piece of scrap paper. He’s casually talking about how many could be killed from a bomb, like it’s a list for the supermarket, and I’m thinking, ‘You guys scare the hell out of me.’ ”

But that’s what drew Setton to the subject--conveying a feeling, a sense of shocking intimacy between the film’s subjects and the audience, touching the dark side of life and looking it straight in the eye.

The 50-minute “Shaheed,” filmed with a budget of several hundred thousand dollars, has won several awards in international film festivals, including events in San Francisco and Chicago.

But though “Shaheed” received glowing reviews from the local Israeli press and was co-produced by a local television station, there were complaint calls when the station broadcast it in April 1997. Some Israelis opposed giving a platform to the suicide bombers, and there were Palestinians who felt the film didn’t emphasize the years of occupation and despair that compelled the bombers to commit their terrifying acts.

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“I think I did justice to the subject matter,” Setton says. “I told the truth, and a balanced picture is only an outcome of the truth. You don’t have to worry about a balanced picture as long as you tell the truth.

“As an Israeli on this side, I wanted to make this film and understand what was going on in this situation,” he says. “People in the West don’t understand what it means to live here. The majority of people in the Middle East are living this life for an afterlife. This life isn’t so important; what really matters is what happens afterward, and they are all sure that something will be happening afterward.”

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* “Suicide Bombers: Secrets of the Shaheed” airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Cinemax.

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