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The Suicide Bombers

In its official count of the number of “hostile terrorist attacks,” the Israeli government includes any kind of attack, from planting bombs to throwing stones. By this count suicide bombings make up only half a percent of the attacks by Palestinians against Israelis since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000. But this tiny percentage accounts for more than half the total number of Israelis killed since then. In the minds of Israelis, suicide bombing colors everything else.

According to B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians between September 29, 2000, and November 30, 2002, is 640. Of those, 440 are civilians, including 82 under the age of eighteen. Some 335 were killed inside Israel proper, the rest in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians also killed 27 foreign citizens during this period. The number of Palestinians who were killed by Israelis between September 29, 2000, and November 2002 was 1,597, 300 of them minors. Since March there have been no accurate numbers for the occupied territories; B’tselem estimates that during Sharon’s operation “Defensive Shield” in March and April 2002, some 130 Palestinians were killed in Jenin and Nablus alone.

From the signing of the Oslo agreements in 1993 until the beginning of August 2002 we know of 198 suicide bombing missions, of which 136 ended with the attackers blowing up others along with themselves. This year has seen by far the greatest concentration of the attacks, about one hundred by the end of November.

In other attacks by Palestinians—called “no-escape” attacks—the chances of staying alive after, say, firing on an army position or a settlement are next to zero. Over forty settlers were killed by such attacks this year. The no-escape fighters strike mainly targets in the occupied territories; the suicide bombers are most likely to attack targets inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders. In the willingness to sacrifice their own lives there is very little difference between the suicide bombers and the no-escape attackers. But the impression a suicide bombing leaves on Israelis is very different from a no-escape attack. The suicide bombers make most Israelis feel not just ordinary fear but an intense mixture of horror and revulsion as well.

In this conflict practically every statement one makes is bound to be contested, including the description of the attackers as suicide bombers and the victims as civilians. Islamic law explicitly prohibits suicide and the killing of innocents. Muslims are consequently extremely reluctant to refer to the human bombers as suicide bombers. They refer to them instead as shuhada (in singular: shahid), or martyrs. Palestinians are also reluctant to use the expression “Israeli civilians,” which implies that they are innocent victims. Even if they are Israeli dissidents they are not regarded as such. In a recent attack by Hamas at the campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the victims, Dafna Spruch, had been active in one of the most fearless peace protest groups in Israel, Women in Black. Hamas dealt with this simply by claiming that she belonged to Women in Green, a ferocious anti-Palestinian right-wing organization. As such, she was not innocent.

Spokesmen for Hamas justify the killing of civilians by saying it is a necessary act of defense—the only weapon they have to protect Palestinian women and children. “If we should not use” suicide bombing, the Hamas leaders announced this November, “we shall be back in the situation of the first week of the Intifada when the Israelis killed us with impunity.”

A report by Amnesty International in July 2002 summarizes the arguments cited by the Palestinians as reasons for targeting civilians. The Palestinians claim that

they are engaged in a war against an occupying power and that religion and international law permit the use of any means in resistance to occupation; that they are retaliating against Israel killing members of armed groups and Palestinians generally; that striking at civilians is the only way they can make an impact upon a powerful adversary; that Israelis generally or settlers in particular are not civilians.1

The report finds these reasons unacceptable. It considers Israeli violations of human rights so grave that many of them “meet the definition of crimes against humanity under international law.” But it also concludes, “The deliberate killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinian armed groups amounts to crimes against humanity.”

Throughout the twentieth century the nineteenth-century taboo on targeting and killing civilians has been eroding. In World War I only 5 percent of the casualties were civilians. In World War II the figure went up to 50 percent and in the Vietnam War it was 90 percent. Amnesty International is making an admirable effort to restore the prohibition against targeting and killing civilians. Its report, rightly, does not make any moral distinction between those who kill themselves while killing civilians and those who spare themselves while killing.

My concern with the suicide bombers here is to understand what they do and why they do it and with what political consequences. To put the matter briefly, it is clear that there will be no peace between Israel and Palestine if suicide bombings continue. It is not clear that there will be peace if they stop, but there would at least be a chance for peace.


In the Middle East, suicide bombing was first used by the Hezbollah in Lebanon. From November 1982, when a suicide bomber destroyed a building in Tyre, killing seventy-six Israeli security personnel, through 1999, the year the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon, the Hezbollah carried out fifty-one suicide attacks. In October 1983 it took only two suicide explosions—one killing 241 American servicemen, mostly Marines, and the other killing 58 French paratroopers—to force the Americans and the French out of Lebanon. It wasn’t until ten years later that the first Palestinian suicide bombing took place.

In other parts of the world, soldiers of one army—the Japanese kamikaze, or the Iranian basaji—have been willing to commit suicide in bombing another army. Some of the Tamil Black Tigers of Sri Lanka have killed themselves in attacks on politicians and army installations, and they have done so with utter disregard for the lives of civilians who happened to be around. But the Palestinian case is the only one in which civilians of one society regularly volunteer to become suicide bombers who target civilians of another society. They may be chosen by Hamas or Islamic Jihad to carry out a suicide bombing mission, but for the most part the volunteers have not been active members of these organizations.

We can see how the practice of suicide bombing evolved. The Palestinians started using suicide bombers as a weapon not to emulate the Hezbollah strategy in Lebanon but in reaction to a specific event. According to Ha’aretz‘s Daniel Rubinstein, the most authoritative Israeli commentator on the Palestinians, the bombing began with the so-called “war of the knives.” On October 8, 1990, hundreds of worshipers came out of the al-Aqsa mosque throwing stones at the Israeli police and at the Jewish worshipers praying by the Wailing Wall nearby. The Israeli police reacted by firing on them. Eighteen Palestinians were killed by Israelis in the clashes that day (in comparison, four were killed in the skirmishes that started the current intifada). Hamas called for jihad, or holy war, but no organized response followed. However some Palestinians tried to seek revenge on their own. The first, Omar abu Sirhan, came with a butcher’s knife to my neighborhood in Jerusalem and slaughtered three people. He later said he had little hope of surviving his self-appointed mission. After he was caught, he said he saw the Prophet in his dream and was ordered by him to avenge those who were killed in the al-Aqsa mosque. Hamas immediately adopted abu Sirhan as a hero. It sensed the potential of such avenging attacks and soon transformed that potential into organized human bombers.

The one thing that Palestinian suicide bombers have in common is that they are all Muslims. No Christians have been involved. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, for their part, say that suicide bombing is a religious duty and these two Islamic organizations for years monopolized the bombings. They would have nothing to do with Christians and they have long been hostile to the Palestinian nationalists of Arafat’s Fatah movement. But the monopoly ended once the nationalists of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Fatah, joined in. It is unclear whether those who act under the auspices of the al-Aqsa Brigade, who have in the past emphasized nationalism, not Islam, as central to their movement, would now also regard their missions as religious acts of martyrdom.

In the account of the struggle against Israel given by political Islamists there are two elements. One is the holy war, jihad, which suicide bombers consider not just a war against the oppressive occupation of Palestinian land but one fought in defense of Islam itself. The other element is martyrdom: those who sacrifice themselves in the holy war are martyrs. From the many statements by the suicide bombers themselves, it is the idea of the martyr, the shahid, rather than the idea of the jihad that seems to capture the imagination of the suicide bombers. The idea of the jihad may give the struggle an Islamic content; but the idea of the shahid seems more powerful.

While the language used by the bombers and their organizations is always distinctly Islamic, the motives of the bombers are much more complicated, and some mention more than one motive for their act. Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash, a twenty-one-year-old bachelor from Tulkarm, blew himself up in Netanya, near Tel Aviv, in May 2001. On a videocassette recorded before he was sent on his mission, he said:

I want to avenge the blood of the Palestinians, especially the blood of the women, of the elderly, and of the children, and in particular the blood of the baby girl Iman Hejjo, whose death shook me to the core…. I devote my humble deed to the Islamic believers who admire the martyrs and who work for them.

In a letter he left for his family he wrote, “God’s justice will prevail only in jihad and in blood and in corpses.” Such references to jihad are not as common as references to revenge. Having talked to many Israelis and Palestinians who know something about the bombers, and having read and watched many of the bombers’ statements, my distinct impression is that the main motive of many of the suicide bombers is revenge for acts committed by Israelis, a revenge that will be known and celebrated in the Islamic world.

Most of the suicide bombers say as much themselves, but it is impossible to generalize about them. At first, when Hamas and its military branch, the Izz al-Din al-Qasam Brigade, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad took responsibility for sending virtually all of the suicide bombers, the bombers were young unmarried males. But since December of last year, when the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade joined in, the bombers have included both men and women, villagers and townspeople, bachelors and married people. The bombers are young and not so young, educated and not educated, from poor families and from relatively well-off ones. Still, most of the bombers are young unmarried men, between seventeen and twenty-eight, and more than half of them come from refugee camps, where the hatred of Israel is strongest. From the accounts of them in the press and the statements by those who know them, the suicide bombers are not what psychologists call suicidal types—they are not depressed, impulsive, lonely, and helpless, with a continuous history of being in situations of personal difficulty. Nor do they seem driven by economic despair. A study conducted by the Israeli army analyzing the background of eight bombers from the Gaza strip showed that they were relatively well- off.2 I have never seen a public or private statement by a suicide bomber that mentions his own economic situation or that of the Palestinians generally as a reason for his action.

  1. 1

    Without Distinction: Attacks on Civilians by Palestinian Armed Groups (Amnesty International, July 2002).

  2. 2

    Amos Harel, Ha’aretz, January 22, 2002.

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