The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been brought to a dramatic crossroads by another wave of suicide bombing attacks. VOA's Ross Dunn reports from the Gaza Strip on a cult that is spreading terror around the world, but most frequently in the Holy Land.

In Palestinian society, doctors and engineers are among the many well-educated people who claim allegiance to Hamas, one of the two groups responsible for killing Israelis through suicide bombings.

Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a pediatrician who lectures at the Islamic University in Gaza City, is one of the co-founders of Hamas. He was born 51 years ago in Jibna, a village that became part of Israel. He and his family fled to the Gaza Strip, where he was raised in a refugee camp.

He says this experience - and eight years in Israeli jails, have led him to the position that the Palestinians can justify suicide bombings against any Israelis. Even Israeli women and children are not innocent civilians, he told VOA, but participants in a brutal military oppression of Palestinians. "They are occupiers, they are murderers, they are aggressors." he said. "So we can't say they are civilians. If we are not under occupation, we will not do martyr bombing. So because of occupation, because of aggression, because of humiliation, because of all kinds of oppression against our people, we are struggling."

Though his medical specialty is treating children, and he has six children of his own and eight grandchildren, Dr. Rantisi sheds not a tear for Israeli children who have died in suicide bombings.

He believes that all Palestinians are now united in their armed struggle against Israel, including members of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction. Therefore, he says, any crackdown by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on groups such as Hamas could lead to a backlash against the Palestinian Authority. "They are now joining us in our struggle, and Fatah and other organizations are in the same trench now," Dr. Rantisi added.

Palestinian Authority Cabinet Minister Ziyad abu Ziyad says that the Palestinian Authority is opposed to suicide bombings. He says they only serve to undermine the Palestinian people's goal to one day achieve independence. "We believe that any attacks against civilians inside Israel are against our national interest. They will give an excuse to the Israeli government to refrain from going back to the negotiating table," he explained. "And it will make the whole world blame us and not support out legitimate goal for independence and freedom, and, therefore, we are totally against suicide attacks. We reject them and we are doing our best to put an end to these attacks, but, unfortunately, we cannot guarantee 100 percent success."

Not all Palestinians want to become suicide bombers. What motivates a young man to kill himself in order to kill his enemies? Dr. Eyad Sarraj is a prominent Palestinian psychiatrist who specializes in the mental health of children in the Gaza Strip. He says that those who volunteer for suicide missions are often shy people, with distinctive personality traits. "First, people who have a problem of power. They want to be in control. And the ultimate form of control, is when you control life and death," he said. "Second, they are usually introverts, not very good in communication, and they want to exercise the best form of communication, when they are on top of everything and they are in control."

Dr. Sarraj says suicide attackers are taught that their action will transfer them from a hell on earth to a heavenly paradise. "According to the Islamic teaching, the bomber isn't going to die. It is guaranteed that he is going to survive and live a better life, out of the despair," he explained. "A few times, it was observed that people smiled just seconds before they killed themselves. And I believe that when they go into that kind of trance, they see something that we don't see. The doors are opening for them then, and this is what is so strange, and people can rarely understand. These people are going for a new life. They are not dying. And that is very powerful."

Dr. Shafiq Masalha is a clinical psychologist in the Palestinian territories. He specializes in studying the effects of the conflict on Palestinian children. He says that suicide attackers are seeking immortality, and, therefore, for them, the end always justifies their means. "Unfortunately, some of these means lead them to believe that they are martyrs who would get a prize for what they do in the eternal life," he said, "not the life that we lead, which is more precious, because, in their belief, it is a continuing life, and this a temporary life. So, when they would get such a dear prize for the eternal, this is something that would motivate them to do anything."

But Boaz Ganor of Israel's Counter-Terrorism Research Institute says that becoming a suicide bomber involves much more than a yearning to be transferred to a heavenly paradise. He says the military leaders of the Islamic groups first test the commitment of their candidates, sometimes in the most ghoulish ways. "Just before the attack happens," he said, "they take the suicide attackers. They order them to dig their own graves, lie down inside, to have the feeling of become deceased."

Just how many more Palestinians are willing to volunteer for such missions remains unknown. But many Israelis now live in fear that the next attack could take place at any time, anywhere. The campaign of suicide bombings by Islamic groups poses difficult challenges for Israel, which prides itself on being "the only democracy in the Middle East."

When the Israeli army recently killed a master bomb-maker from Hamas, it justified the attack according to Jewish law. Israel's deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, a highly learned rabbi, backs this position. "It's true. The Jewish law says, if you know someone concretely is preparing to kill you, you have the right to defend yourself by killing them first," he explained. "If it is to target somebody who is preparing to kill them, then I think it is legitimate."

Lior Yavne, spokesman for the Israeli human rights group B'tselem, says Israelis do have the right to kill those Palestinians they are absolutely sure are going to launch a suicide bombing. The problem, he says, is that the Israeli army is using this policy to assassinate Palestinian political leaders, as well as those directly involved in acts of terrorism. "That's simple self-defense, and there is no problem with that," he said. "The problem is that is usually being used as an excuse for illegal executions."

Saleh Abdel Jawad, a Palestinian, is a political science professor at Beir Zeit University in the West Bank. For him, the way to stop suicide bombings is to eliminate the reasons for the bombings. He says Israel should examine what he calls its brutal military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an occupation he says has caused deep despair among Palestinians. Mr. Jawad says it is this despair that drives Palestinians to volunteer for suicide missions, believing it is the only way they can confront Israel's military might. The professor says, if the Israelis grant Palestinians independence, the attacks will come to a swift halt. "Tell me why a young boy, 20 or 23 years old, instead of going to a disco, or going to dance or to drink, is going to kill himself?" he asked. "It is because of the situation. Change the situation, give him a small amount of oxygen, and this guy - he will not go to commit suicide. So the answer is very, very easy, it is political."

Yigal Carmon is a former adviser on security to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Mr. Carmon says the bombers are acting on behalf of a small sect of Islam that is promoting a notion of holy war not seen since the Middle Ages. "It is a small segment in Islam who engages in religious holy war like the world knew in the seventh century, and even in the eleventh century," he explained. "This is a phenomenon that must be stopped. And the way to stop it is through stopping the education for Jihad in Arab and Islamic schools."

Mr. Carmon says bombers and their beliefs must be challenged through a program of comprehensive education around the world. But he acknowledges the process of changing people's beliefs will be long and difficult. In the meantime, he says, Israeli officials must continue to tell the Palestinian Authority to halt the glorification of suicide bombers through official television and radio broadcasts that portray suicide bombers as martyrs. Palestinian textbooks, Mr. Carmon says, are also feeding the hatred that leads to terrorist attacks.