NABLUS, West Bank — They were young, perhaps the youngest ever to try an armed attack against Israelis, and they were ready to die.
The arrest of three boys ages 12, 13 and 15, accused of trying to slip into Israel with homemade weapons, sparked horror among their families and concern by Palestinian officials that militant groups have gone too far in their choice of recruits.
"That's absolutely unacceptable," said Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat. "Our children should have hope and a future and should not be suicide bombers."
Israeli forces arrested the three Palestinian youths from the village of Tubas, near Nablus, Thursday as they tried to cross a checkpoint, Israeli police spokesman Gil Kleiman said.
The boys said they planned to shoot people in the northern Israeli city of Afula, he said.
Palestinians have carried out thousands of attacks against Israelis during 41 months of violence, killing 930 people, while 2,688 have been killed on the Palestinian side, almost all in Israeli military strikes.
The boys, Jaffar Dababaat, 12; Tarek Abu Mahsen, 13; and Ibrahim Suafta, 15, left behind a letter saying they wanted to strike a blow against the barrier Israel is building in the West Bank. The note identified Tarek as a member of Islamic Jihad and the other two as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.
"If we die, if we become martyrs, don't feel sorry for us. Just have a massive protest in our honor and distribute sweets to everyone," the letter said.
Tarek's parents were outraged and criticized Islamic Jihad for recruiting youngsters for an attack that likely would lead to their deaths.
"My son doesn't know how to write such a letter and never belonged to any groups. Someone older wrote this letter for him," said his mother, Amira Abu Mahsen.
Said his father, Mohammed Abu Mahsen: "If it is proved that someone in specific sent them on this mission, I will make sure they are punished. They shouldn't send my young boy on such missions.
"Nobody can accept to send his children to be slaughtered," he said. "I am sure that whoever recruits children in this kind of unlawful activity will not recruit his own children."
An Al Aqsa official who declined to be named strenuously denied the group had sent the boys. "This is impossible. I don't know where these kids came from," he said. Islamic Jihad spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Palestinian security sources said they believed the boys were acting on their own, saying they had been armed with one handmade pistol and harmless firecrackers.
Criticism of attacks on Israelis is rare among Palestinians, but in recent months more people have been condemning the recruiting methods used by militant groups.
In January, Hamas sent a mother of two young children as a suicide bomber to attack a crossing point between Gaza and Israel. Days earlier a 17-year-old bomber died when his bomb belt exploded prematurely, a week after his 15-year-old brother, Amjad, and a cousin were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.
But the ages of the Tubas youths was especially shocking for many.
The three boys "don't have enough life experience to make such decisions," said Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida.
Barghouti said the use of youngsters to carry out attacks was on the rise, though he declined to speculate why. Others have said that as Israel stops more attacks, the militant groups have been forced to turn to people less likely to arouse suspicion.
The boys' parents found it hard to reconcile their image of their children with that of militants.
Amira Abu Mahsen, Tarek's mother, said her son learned to love motorcycles from his father, a mechanic. He also kept birds as pets. His father recalled that a neighbor had told him that two strange men were looking for the boy about a week ago. Relatives said they were stunned to find out the boys had been arrested.
"We never thought he was ever involved in politics," said Jaffar's father, Hussein Dababaat.
The Israeli army said it was investigating the case and had not decided whether to charge the boys.
Material from Reuters is included in this report.