GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP)--Nafez Saleh al-Nazar appeared nervous as he faced the camera to read a prepared statement and chant Islamic verses. At times he seemed to pause too long. At times he gazed at the camera. And no wonder: The 26-year-old Palestinian father of two was taping an announcement that he was going to die.

Al-Nazar, a member of the Islamic militant group Hamas, drove a truck laden with explosives toward an Israeli army post in the Gaza Strip on July 9. In a video released by Hamas, the vehicle evaporates in a huge explosion before it reaches the army post, killing al-Nazar but harming no one else.

Palestinian suicide bombings were first carried out against Israel in 1994. The past 10 months of fighting has seen 15 suicide bombings in which more than 30 Israeli civilians have been killed. In the last major attack, 22 young people, including the bomber, were killed outside a Tel Aviv disco on June 1.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drags on, Muslim clerics and commentators from across the Arab world and beyond have begun debating the tactic.

The issue has highlighted the distinction between so-called ``official'' Islam--which has tended to support negotiations with Israel--and a ``popular'' Islam that does not have government support, opposes peacemaking, calls for Israel's destruction and views every Israeli man, woman and child as a legitimate target.

The debate began when the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdulaziz al-Sheik, declared in April that ``any act of self killing or suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam'' and consequently ``the one who blows himself up in the midst of the enemies is also performing an act contrary to Islamic teachings.''

Suicide bombers, the theologian added, should not be buried with Islamic rituals and should not be buried alongside other Muslims.

Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar mosque, mainstream Islam's top seat of learning, then issued an opinion saying the bombings were legitimate, but only if directed against Israeli soldiers, not women and children.

The edicts of al-Sheik and Tantawi--who are government appointees but are considered to be Sunni Islam's top theologians--came as the mainly Muslim Arab world was seething over what it regards as Israel's excessive use of force against the Palestinians.

Many other clerics issued opposing points of view.

Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian clergyman highly respected among the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, said the rulings against suicide bombings were issued by ``people who are alien to Sharia (Islamic laws) and religion.''

He was joined by Sheik Ikrema Sabri, Jerusalem's top Muslim cleric.

``The issue is decided,'' Sabri said in an interview. ``Muslims believe in the Day of Judgment and that dying as a martyr has its reward--going to heaven--and that a martyr is alive in the eyes of God.''

Both sides cite verses from the Muslim holy book, the Quran, and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad to support their argument.

On one hand are quotes from Muhammad about sparing women, children and the elderly in battle. But on the other there is the idea of ``an eye for an eye'' which appears in Quranic verse. Another popular quotation from the Quran tells Muslims that God provides immortality in paradise if they die fighting for him.

The debate has attracted interest in Israel, where the bombings pose a security nightmare and are a heavily demoralizing influence.

In justifying Israel's recent targeted killings of leading Hamas activists, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said this week the use of suicide bombers ``is against the teachings of all three religions.''

Some say the question of religious teachings is almost irrelevant considering the public support for the bombings.

Funerals of suicide bombing ``martyrs'' attract thousands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, like those given to Palestinians killed by the Israelis, invariably turn into vociferously anti-Israeli rallies.

Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the two radical Palestinian groups that have carried out multiple suicide bombings, said they have no shortage of eager volunteers. Many, but not all, are young, unemployed, single men who face a bleak future and may be tempted by what many Palestinians regard as a heroic death.

Support for suicide bombings has increased from less than 25% a year ago to about 7%, said Palestinian political analyst and pollster Ghassan Khatib.

``How Palestinians feel about the suicide attacks has nothing to do with religion or ideology,'' he said. ``Only political considerations are relevant here.''

Perhaps conceding something to politics, however, even Hamas leaders suggest there is a limit to who they would target.

``In our view, there is not a single person in Israel whom we don't view as a usurper of our land,'' insisted Ismail Abu Shanab, a Gaza-based Hamas leader.

But when asked if they would target an Israeli kindergarten, for example, he was evasive.

``Did we do it?'' he said. ``The answer is no.''

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