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Faris Odeh
How A Palestinian Legend Got His Wish.
By Lee Hockstader, Washington Post Service

GAZA CITY - The poster boy for Palestinian defiance stood about 1.6 meters in his socks. He might have weighed 45 kilograms if he had eaten recently and well, which he rarely did. He was good at soccer and naughty at school, and before he died - shot in the neck by Israeli troops and left to bleed to death on the battlefield - he told his friends he was intent on becoming a martyr for the Palestinian cause. Faris Odeh got his wish, and then some. Killed last month, a few weeks shy of his 15th birthday, Faris has been immortalized posthumously by a remarkable photograph. It captured him - short, scrawny and wearing a baggy sweater - rearing back to sling a stone at an Israeli tank perhaps 14 meters (45 feet) away.

Now Faris is a Palestinian legend, his valor celebrated in graffiti and wall art. Political parties pay him homage. Television extols his example. His photograph adorns calendars and posters has been painted, larger than life and in bright colors, on the walls of refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and on the sides of West Bank office buildings.

But at home in Gaza City, where Faris lived with his parents and eight brothers and sisters, the hullabaloo over his death strikes a sour chord. His mother, for one, is not sure she buys it.

"When I see his picture my heart is torn to pieces," said Anam Odeh, 40. "I guess I feel proud for him being called a hero, standing in front of a tank and all that. But when I see his classmates come around after school, all I can do is cry. "And this is what I was just telling my neighbors" - she starts to weep softly, brushing the tears away as the words come tumbling out - "that I'm so afraid that Faris's death will just go back to normal. And the only thing that has happened is that I'll have lost my son."

In death, Faris has joined a pantheon of Palestinian martyrs, such as Mohammed Duri, the 12 year old boy shot to death Sept. 30 in Gaza as his father tried to shield him. Faris's image fits above captions proclaiming "the Palestinian David and the Israeli Goliath." Some predict his name will live forever as a synonym for heroism.

In life, things were messier. Faris, as adolescent daredevil, had never set foot outside the cluttered confines of Gaza. He was almost never heard talking politics. What he did like was taking risks. Once he leapt from the roof of his house to his cousins' next door, a span of about two and a half meters over a four-story drop. And in the Palestinian uprising that started Sept. 29, he found the ultimate risk.

Day after day he would skip school after morning classes to go looking for trouble. If there was no fighting with Israeli troops at Netzarim, an isolated Jewish outpost in Gaza, he would go looking at Karni, a crossing point into Gaza controlled by the Israeli army.

Faris's absences did not go unnoticed. His headmaster would send notes to his parents. His father would beat him. His mother would go looking for him from clash point to clash point, ducking bullets as she searched each group of boys. When she found him, he was usually at his forward-most position, just meters away from the Israeli troops and tanks.

To his mother, he seemed to have a death wish. "It wasn't the fame he loved," she said. "In fact, he was afraid that if he was filmed on TV his father would see him, so he'd run away from the cameras. One day, after I'd gone and dragged him from the clashes every day for a week, I told him: 'Okay, you want to throw stones? Fine. But at least hide behind something! Why do you have to be at the very front, even farther up than the older kids?' And he said ' I'm not afraid.'"

His father, Fayek Odeh, tried everything. He did not just beat Faris, said his mother. "He beat him black and blue for throwing stones."

At one point, his father locked Faris in his room; he escaped through a window and shinnied down a drain pipe. The next time his father heard that Faris had been at a clash point, he tied the boy's hands and feet together and left him on the roof after dinner. By midnight, his mother, worried sick about the boy, sneaked up to the roof and freed him.

Angry notes from the school principal made the things worse. Faris had always been in trouble at school; now he was skipping it completely. There would be scenes at home- his father would be accusing Faris of throwing stones; Faris denying it; his father finding a slingshot under his son's shirt, and the beatings starting all over again.

On Nov. 1, after a month of clashes, Faris's cousin Shadi, a young ,man who had recently joined the Palestinian police, was killed in a confrontation in Gaza. "When that happened, Faris said, ' I swear I'll avenge his death," Anam Odeh said. "He went to Shadi's funeral wreath and placed a snapshot of himself in it. He said that the wreath would be for him, too."

Late at night, after the beatings and the screaming and the punishments, Faris's parents would talk quietly in their room. "I'm afraid for Faris," his father would say, Anam Odeh remembered. " I'm afraid something bad will happen." Other boys, Faris's friends from school, would stop by the house to warn his mother that he was at Karni again, throwing stones. She grew more worried; Faris ate little and spent the day scrambling through gunfire; he had become as thin as a stick. "I must have gone out looking for him 50 times," she said.

"One day I went out three times. Sometimes I'd sit down to lunch, and before I could put the first bite in my mouth, some kids would come by and tell me Faris was at Karni again, throwing stones. And I'd drop my fork and rush out to find him."

Anam Odeh became such a familiar sight at Karni that the other boys would tease he son: "Hey, Faris, where's that SWAT team that's always after you?"

Faris was killed on Nov.9 at Karni, about 10 days after the famous photo was taken. His friends said that he was shot while crouching down to pick up a stone. He was so close to an Israeli tank,, they said, that they could not drag his still body to an ambulance for more than a hour. The hospital pronounced him dead on arrival.

It was not long before people began to stop Anam Odeh on the street, recognizing her from television. "Aren't you the martyr Faris's mother?" they would say. Like all families of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops since September, the Odehs received a $10,000 check from President Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

For Palestinians, the Odeh's son is a hero, a lesson, a model. But not to his mother. "Faris was a boy who loved me so much," she said, weeping again. "His blood is worth so much more."

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