NABLUS, West Bank -- Islamic militants tried to recruit a 15-year-old as a suicide bomber, at one point locking him in a dark room but also luring him with clothes, a cellphone, and promises of paradise, his family said yesterday.
The story of ninth-grader Tamer Khweirah, who was rescued by an alert older brother, underscores the growing use of children by militant groups and has stoked the debate over what is permissible in the fight against Israel.
Tamer is one of four teens arrested by the Israeli military in Nablus in the past week on the suspicion they were recruited by militants. One of them, Hussam Abdo, 16, was caught at an Israeli checkpoint with 18 pounds of explosives strapped to his body.
The youths -- who remain in custody -- knew one another, relatives said. Tamer, Hussam, and a third teen attended the same high school.
The Israeli military said Palestinian militants are increasingly targeting children, in part because they arouse less suspicion at Israeli checkpoints.
The use of children has drawn criticism from some Palestinian intellectuals and educators, who said the militants are harming the Palestinian cause.
The Al Ayyam daily, which often reflects the views of the Palestinian Authority, ran a story yesterday on Tamer, including his parents' demand that the recruiters be prosecuted. Palestinian security officials said their forces have become so ineffective, largely due to Israeli restrictions, that they cannot rein in the militants.
Tamer was approached by the Islamic Jihad group at a Nablus mosque last week, after Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said the boy's 26-year-old brother, Raed Khweirah.
In the mosque, Tamer and other worshipers were expressing their anger over the assassination, and a 19-year-old Islamic Jihad activist asked the youth whether he wanted to meet a religious leader, or sheik, from the group, Raed said his brother told him.
Tamer was taken to a home in Nablus's old city, where he met the sheik, who introduced himself only as Ibrahim, Raed said. In the first session, the sheik spoke to Tamer about the need to avenge Yassin, whose group Israel blames for suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
In a second encounter, the sheik tried to persuade Tamer to carry out a suicide bombing. He locked Tamer in a dark room for a while, then took him to a well-lighted room, saying this illustrated the difference between eternal damnation and paradise.
Paradise and 72 virgins are assured for any bomber, the sheik told Tamer, who is from a well-to-do family and, according to his relatives, has had a sheltered upbringing.
When the youth expressed concern that his family home would be demolished -- the standard Israeli reprisal -- the sheik said Islamic Jihad would pay $35,000 to make up for the loss.
When the boy protested that he'd like to be around for the weddings of his two sisters, the sheik told him, "You will go to paradise and meet them there," according to Raed.
Islamic Jihad members gave Tamer about $45, a cellphone, new jeans, and a new shirt, his brother said.
Raed said he became concerned about his brother when he skipped school twice last week and was seen loitering downtown, smoking and talking on a cellphone. Raed said he sought help from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, an armed group with ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
Al Aqsa itself has carried out suicide bombings, and its militants say they have no qualms about recruiting teens, provided they understand their missions. Still, Raed said they hoped they would agree his brother was not an appropriate candidate.
Later that day, a tearful Tamer returned home and confessed to his family, his brother said.
Hashem Abu Hamdan, an Al Aqsa leader in Nablus wanted by Israel, said he was involved in getting Tamer home, but gave no further details.
Abu Hamdan said Hussam Abdo, last week's would-be suicide bomber, and his friends acted on their initiative and were not dispatched by Al Aqsa. "They were looking for an explosives vest, and they could find it easily in Nablus," Abu Hamdan said.