When a Palestinian is killed in this conflict – an innocent bystander, a gunman or a suicide bomber – Palestinians automatically refer to the deceased as a martyr. In Arabic, a martyr is called “shaheed,” or witness. The verb, “to be martyred,” is “istashahed,” which means to call upon as a witness. Martyrs are immediately memorialized on posters, produced by one of the political factions. If the deceased is a fighter, he is often pictured with an automatic rifle in one hand and sometimes a Quran in the other. His image is often superimposed in front of the Dome of the Rock, which represents both religious and nationalist claims to Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. The posters are plastered on walls and metal shutters of shops in the business district of the town where the martyr resided.
The second Palestinian uprising, which began five years ago, has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis. The daily death toll has decreased dramatically in the past two years or so, although people continue to be killed on both sides. (Yesterday, for example, two Palestinians were killed and three Israeli soldiers injured.) One sign that the uprising, or intifada, may be over, or at least waning, are the faded and torn martyr posters in cities and villages across the West Bank. In Salfit, a town of 14,000 between Nablus and Ramallah, about 25 residents were killed by Israeli troops since the beginning of the uprising, most in the first three years. The remains of their paper cenotaphs are everywhere, but they are tattered and washed out by the sun, or peeled off and gone altogether.