updated 3/16/2004 4:04:47 PM ET 2004-03-16T21:04:47

An alleged attempt by Palestinian militants to smuggle a bomb through an Israeli military checkpoint with the help of an unwitting 11-year-old boy drew widespread attention on both sides of the conflict Tuesday.

But the similarity stopped there.

Israeli authorities said the boy, sixth-grader Abdullah Quraan, was carrying explosives and that his handlers intended to blow him up near the checkpoint; the boy, and others, disputed this, claiming the bag he was carrying — swiftly blown up by army sappers — contained auto parts.

Beyond the factual dispute lay a psychological chasm: For Israelis, the case was the latest indication that their enemy is ruthless, even barbaric. “The height of cruelty,” screamed a headline in the mass-circulation daily Maariv.

Palestinians said the involvement of children in the conflict — two 17-year-olds carried out a twin suicide bombing Sunday — is a result of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. And they see Israelis’ moralizing as deluded or hypocritical.

Heroism or barbarism?
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi pointed out that hundreds of Palestinian children and teenagers have died in the fighting, and that countless others have seen their parents impoverished, humiliated or even killed during the conflict.

“Their sense of heroism is linked to resistance and violent resistance,” Ashrawi said.

The boy, in jeans and dark sweatshirt, appeared on front pages of Israel’s major newspapers, his innocent-looking visage adorned by a blue Reebok ski hat. He had been briefly detained by Israeli troops.

“The question of whether Quraan’s handlers really intended to blow him up without his knowledge makes absolutely no difference,” Israeli commentator Amit Cohen wrote in the Maariv daily. “The man who packed the bomb in a schoolbag must have taken into account the possibility that the child carrying the bomb was liable to get hurt.”

Back in school Tuesday, Abdullah said he had done nothing wrong. “These people (the Israeli army) are liars, I don’t believe them, and if it was a bomb, they would not have let me go so easily,” he told The Associated Press at his school.

Abdullah said he routinely carries people’s belongings across the Hawara checkpoint near his home in the impoverished Balata refugee camp.

The practice is common at the checkpoints across the West Bank, where Palestinians sometimes wait hours to cross and children are less likely to raise suspicion.

Abdullah said he met two men at the checkpoint on Monday. He said he and a friend raced to their vehicle ahead of a crowd of other children to get the business.

“They gave us a small travel bag, a plastic bag, and a bottle of water,” Abdullah said. The men told him to deliver the goods — described as clothes and auto parts — to a woman on the other side of the checkpoint. He said the men agreed to pay him the equivalent of about $4 to carry the items on a cart.

Soldiers confiscated the bags at the checkpoint and cleared the area, Abdullah said. A bomb squad came in and blew up the bags. The boy said he was interrogated for several hours and released.

Maj. Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman, said the troops had thwarted a major attack and that the boy’s life was saved only because a booby-trapped cell phone inside a bag didn’t explode. “It is really disgusting that a ... boy without his knowledge becomes a guinea pig,” she said.

She accused the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group affiliated with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, of exploiting the boy.

War crime charge
The Israeli human rights group B’tselem, normally highly critical of Israel, called the use of a child to transport explosives a “war crime.”

It was the latest case of badly battered militant groups turning to young boys and women — seen as less subject to security scrutiny — to strike at Israeli targets. Sunday’s attack by the two 17-year-olds killed 10 Israelis in the port city of Ashdod.

A local leader of Al Aqsa, Hashem Abu Hamdan, denied any connection and suggested the story had been made up by Israel, an opinion expressed by many Palestinians Tuesday.

Still, Abu Hamden conceded the group sometimes uses children to scout out Palestinian neighborhoods for positions of Israeli troops. “We don’t ask kids how old they are when they join the brigades,” he said, adding that youngsters considered mature enough are welcomed into the group.

Iyad Zaqout, a Palestinian psychiatrist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, said experts have launched a program aimed at keeping children away from the conflict.

But despite what he termed “general agreement that kids should be kept away from the conflict,” the program faces an uphill struggle. One problem is a “big disagreement is on who is considered a child and who isn’t.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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