GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- A wiry, fearless 13-year-old, Fares Udah literally became the poster child of the Palestinian uprising last month when a photographer captured him with his arm cocked, ready to unleash his harmless stone at the menacing barrel of an Israeli tank.
The image was on newspaper front pages worldwide, and Fares reveled in his role as the most famous rock-chucker at the Karni crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip, a scene of daily confrontations.
Yet one woman was not entirely impressed -- his mother.
"I would go three times a day to find (my son) and bring him home," said Enaam Udah, 41, a mother of nine. "But he would always go back."
Palestinian women, who tend to play a traditional role of homemaker to very large families, rarely make the headlines in the current Mideast conflict, yet find themselves in a dilemma.
Their boys' participation in the clashes leaves the women deathly afraid of receiving a heartbreaking call from a hospital.
Yet their sons embrace the Palestinian political struggle at a young age, and keeping them away from the adrenaline rush of the confrontations is often a practical impossibility when there are a half-dozen or more kids to look after. The mothers also identify with a Palestinian political struggle they see as legitimate.
Israelis say Palestinian parents and political leaders cynically encourage the children to take part, and publicize the resulting deaths and injuries to create the impression of a David vs. Goliath struggle. People as prominent as Sweden's Queen Silvia have questioned how Palestinian parents could allow their children to flirt with death.
That charge strikes Palestinian women as unfair, though they don't have an easy answer.
"We don't send our sons to an easy death," said Udah. "But if this is fated by God, then I cannot change that."
Three days after young Fares found fame, his 17-year-old cousin, Shadey Udah, was shot dead by Israeli troops at the Karni crossing.
When Fares learned of his cousin's death, "he crossed his heart and promised to fight the Israelis every day," said his mother, whose objections to his participation in the clashes went unheeded.
Nine days later, on Nov. 8, Fares was fatally shot in the neck.
Udah broke down and wept uncontrollably as she began recounting Fares' death at a press conference in Gaza City attended by the mothers of five Palestinians killed by Israeli fire. None could tell her tale without a stream of tears.
After losing a child, would any of the women allow their remaining sons near the clashes?
Sayda Utla, whose 25-year-old son Mohammed was killed while attempting to rescue an injured child, said she would not keep her remaining four sons away.
"I'm still willing to allow my children to participate in the liberation struggle," she said defiantly.
Udah said another son was giving her the slip and going to the front lines despite her objections.
Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the only psychiatrist in Gaza during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987-93, works with people traumatized by conflict. He says Palestinian mothers who have lost sons often react in a familiar pattern.
"Instead of expressing grief, they initially express great pride in the actions of their children," he said. "In order to protect themselves from shock and grief, they identify completely with the national cause."
Palestinian men, Sarraj says, are increasingly attracted to the idea of martyrdom, which in Islam promises a direct trip to heaven.
"The power of the martyr is an overwhelming symbol now," said Sarraj. "Many youths have seen their fathers humiliated by the Israelis, and they see the Palestinian Authority as helpless. Only the martyr has an image of strength and power, someone who conquers death."
In run-down Gaza City, one of the few green spaces has been designated as "martyrs' park," and serves as the unofficial gathering place for mourners. A pile of wreaths surround the statue of the "unknown soldier" and a list of the martyrs has been attached to the base.
Turn on Palestinian television, and videotape of teen-agers and young men, crumpled by Israeli gunfire, plays over and over, accompanied by wailing songs dedicated to the fallen.
Young boys heading off to the clashes sometimes write their names on the back of a photo of themselves and stuff it in their pockets in order to be easily identified if they are shot. The photo is chosen with care -- it's the one they would want on their posthumous poster.
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