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The Suicide Bombers

It is often said that the bombers are driven by their own feelings of hopelessness and despair about the situation of the Palestinians; but this seems open to question. It is true that the Palestinian community is in a state of despair, but this does not mean that each and every person, in his or her personal life, is in despair—any more than the fact that the US is relatively rich makes each American rich. The despair in communities explains the support for the suicide bombers, but it does not explain each person’s choice to commit suicide by means of a bomb.

Hussein al-Tawil is a member of the People’s Party, formerly the Communist Party, in the West Bank. His son Dia blew himself up in Jerusalem, in March 2001, on a Hamas mission. Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist for Ha’aretz who has intimate knowledge of life in the occupied territories, talked to friends of the father, former Communists, and some of the son’s friends, who are members of the Hamas group at Beir-Zeit University. The two groups of friends don’t mix. The father’s friends claim that Dia was “brainwashed” by Hamas, causing great pain to a father who loved him and did what he could to send his son to the university to study engineering. For Dia’s friends from Hamas, who chanted at his funeral, on the other hand, he is a heroic martyr to the Islamic cause.

Their reaction resembles that of Raania, the pregnant wife of the Hamas militant Ali Julani and a mother of three. Her husband took part in a no-escape attack in Tel Aviv. “I am very proud of him. I am even prouder for my children, whose father was a hero. I want to tell the Israelis that I support my husband and I support people like him.” Was she angry with him for leaving his children fatherless? “He left us in the mercy of God. He was raised as an orphan and the way he was raised so his children will be raised.”3 A man named Hassan, whose son blew himself up in a Tel Aviv discotheque, had a similar reaction: “I am very happy and proud of what my son did and I hope all the men of Palestine and Jordan will do the same.”4

Most families seem to be similarly proud of their kin who become shuhada. According to a verse in the Koran that is quoted often by the shahid‘s family and friends, the shahid does not die. From a religious point of view, a crucial element in being a shahid is purity of motive (niyya), doing God’s will rather than acting out of self-interest. Acting because of one’s personal plight or to achieve glory are not pure motives. Most of the families of the shuhada accordingly want to present their suicides in the best possible light. To honor and admire the family of a shahid is a religious obligation and the family’s status is thus elevated among religious and traditionalist Palestinians. In addition families of shuhada receive substantial financial rewards, mainly from Gulf countries and especially from Saudi Arabia, but also from a special fund created by Saddam Hussein. So far as I know, no one who has followed the history of the shuhada closely believes that money is what makes their families support them, although it helps.


According to statements by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the suicide bomber is willing to die as an act of ultimate devotion in a “defensive” holy war. There are two senses of jihad: a holy war to spread Islam, and a defensive holy war that takes place when what is perceived as the domain of Islam is threatened by invaders. From a radical Islamic point of view, Israel itself, as a Jewish state, is an invasion of the domain of Islam. Worse, according to the platform of Hamas, Israel is a state composed of heretics established on land that has been divinely granted to Islam (waqf). Battling Israel is one of the most urgent tasks of the defensive jihad. It is a duty that should be undertaken by any Muslim, man or woman, and it overrides any other obligation. The idea of defensive jihad can easily be understood as carrying out the national goal of “freeing the land” from the presence of the invaders.

In October, Iyaat al-Haras, a high school student from Bethlehem, explained on a videocassette that her suicide mission was an act in defense of both the mosque of al-Aqsa and of Palestine. This message can be interpreted both in national and in religious terms. Judging solely from her video it is hard to tell whether religion or nationalism is the stronger motive. But since she was dispatched by the nationalist group associated with Fatah, and since the organization would have taken part in formulating her statement, we can surmise that the message was deliberately ambiguous. Whether suicide bombers act for national or for religious reasons or from different mixtures of both is often difficult to tell. The predominantly nationalist and predominantly religious groups are eager to keep it that way, both for the sake of Palestinian unity and because each camp is trying to gain popularity within a community that is made up of both Islamists and nationalists.

As I have said, the main motivating force for the suicide bombers seems to be the desire for spectacular revenge; what is important as well is the knowledge that the revenge will be recognized and celebrated by the community to which the suicide bomber belongs. In many cases the bombers say they are taking revenge for the death of someone quite close to them, a member of their family or a friend. In May 2002, Jihad Titi, a young man in his twenties from the refugee camp of Balata near Nablus, collected the shrapnel of the shell that killed his cousin, a Fatah commander in the camp whom the Israeli army had targeted and killed. Titi stuffed the shrapnel pieces into the containers of TNT he carried and killed an elderly woman and her granddaughter while blowing himself up. In the early morning of November 27, 2001, Tyseer al-Ajrami, a man in his twenties, blew himself up, killing an Israeli policeman in a building used as a gathering place for Palestinian workers. Ajrami was from the Gabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, married and a father of three. In his will he explained his deed as, among other things, a retaliation for the killing of five children in Khan Yunis the week before.

It is in fact a common practice among the bombers to mention a very specific event or incident for which they take revenge. Darin abu-Isa, a student of English literature who blew herself up in March 2002, lost her husband and her brother in the current intifada; her family says that she did it to avenge their deaths.

The bombers seek vengeance not just by killing Jews, but by instilling fear in them as well. Anwar Aziz, who later blew himself up in an ambulance in Gaza in 1993, said: “Battles for Islam are won not through the gun but by striking fear into the enemy’s heart.” The writer Nasra Hassan, a Muslim from Pakistan, was told by a dispatcher that spreading fear is as important as killing. But the urge for revenge in itself does not explain why people become suicide bombers. After all there are other, more conventional, ways of taking revenge without taking one’s own life. Vengeance through suicide bombing has, as I understand it, an additional value: that of making yourself the victim of your own act, and thereby putting your tormentors to moral shame. The idea of the suicide bombing, unlike that of an ordinary attack, is, perversely, a moral idea in which the killers, in acting out the drama of being the ultimate victim, claim for their cause the moral high ground.

In preparing the shuhada for their mission, the idea of winning an instant place in paradise used to have a major part. In a remarkable account, Nasra Hassan talked to a member of Hamas who described to her how people are given instructions on how to act as a shahid: “We focus his attention on Paradise, on being in the presence of Allah, on meeting the Prophet Muhammad, on interceding for his loved ones so that they, too, can be saved from the agonies of Hell, on the houris“—i.e., the heavenly virgins. When she talked to a volunteer who was ready to carry out his mission, but for some reason stopped, he told her about the sense of the immediacy of paradise: “It is very, very near—right in front of our eyes. It lies beneath the thumb. On the other side of the detonator.”5

In the current intifada, the time spent in instructing volunteers has apparently become much shorter than in the past. Tabet Mardawi, a dispatcher for Hamas, says that there is never a lack of volunteers now. “We do not have to talk to them about virgins waiting in paradise.”6 Talking of the promise of paradise, a skeptical young man in Gaza said to Amira Hass, “If it were true, why is it that the experts and the leaders of the Islamic movements are not all running out to be killed themselves and are not sending their own children on these missions?” But I do not necessarily see the dispatchers as manipulative cynics who dupe confused youngsters into believing something that they themselves do not quite believe. Whatever their Islamic belief or suspension of disbelief, they seem to have too many other motives for acting as they do against the Israelis, whom they perceive as the hated conquerors of the land.

If it is easy to question whether being a shahid secures an immediate entrance to paradise, no one can doubt that being a shahid secures instant fame, spread by television stations like the Qatar-based al-Jazeera and the Lebanon-based al-Manar, which are watched throughout the Arab world. Once a suicide bomber has completed his mission he at once becomes a phantom celebrity. Visitors to the occupied territories have been struck by how well the names of the suicide bombers are known, even to small children.

Before the bombers are sent on their mission, all the dispatching organizations make videotapes in which the would-be shuhada read a statement describing their reasons for sacrificing their lives. They do this while wearing the organization’s distinctive headcovering and often with something in the background identifying the organization—for example, a picture of the al-Aqsa mosque, a copy of the Koran, and sometimes a Kalashnikov. The video may be conducted as an interview, with a masked member of the dispatching organization asking questions. We are told in some published accounts that before setting off, the volunteers watch their video again and again, as well as videos of previous shuhada. “These videos encourage him to confront death, not to fear it,” one dispatcher told Nasra Hassan. “He becomes intimately familiar with what he is about to do. Then he can greet death like an old friend.”

  1. 3

    Gideon Levy, Ha’aretz, August 17, 2001.

  2. 4

    Ha’aretz, June 4, 2001.

  3. 5

    An Arsenal of Believers,” The New Yorker, November 19, 2001.

  4. 6

    Ha’aretz, April 23, 2002.

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