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The Suicide Bombers

On the day of the mission the video is sent to television stations to be broadcast as soon as the organization takes responsibility for the bombing. Posters and even calendars are distributed, with pictures of the “martyr of the month.” The shahid is often surrounded by green birds, which are an allusion to a saying by Muhammad, that the martyr is carried to Allah by green birds.

While resentment of the extreme economic misery in which Palestinians live, especially in Gaza, partly explains the support for suicide bombing among the Palestinian population, suicide bombings have only further devastated the Palestinian economy. Some 120,000 Palestinian workers, over 40 percent of the Palestinian work force, were employed in Israel in 1993. The suicide bombings of 1995 and 1996 then led to the decision of the government to close off the territories and drastically reduce the numbers of Palestinians working in Israel. Many of them were eventually replaced by foreign workers from Thailand, Romania, and various African and other countries. By 2000 the Palestinian workers were back at work in Israel, many of them as illegal workers. Their number is estimated to have reached about 130,000, which by then was a lower percentage of the Palestinian work force than it was in 1993.

The second intifada, and especially the recent wave of suicide bombings, once again reduced drastically the number of workers from the territories. It also stopped the flow of goods and services to and from Israel, the only serious market for Palestinian exports. The result has been devastating for the Palestinian economy. The Palestinian Authority, which subsists on donations from abroad, is the only remaining employer to speak of.

Although there is much talk about the corruption within the Authority, I doubt that it is more corrupt than many post-Communist or third-world countries. But in trying to create an economy that could lay the foundations for Palestinian independence, the Authority has failed miserably. The Palestinians are almost completely dependent on Israel, not only for jobs but for the only large market for their produce. Moreover, in a desperate response to the suicide bombings, Israel is now erecting a fence separating Israel proper from the occupied territories. This will likely leave the Palestinian economy crippled beyond repair since a large proportion of Palestinian workers will be cut off from any jobs.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad want to convey the message that Islam has been divinely endowed with the entire land of Palestine, which includes all of Israel, and that this sacred endowment is not subject to negotiation. Sending suicide bombers into Israel proper rather than confining them to the occupied territories gives a clear signal that the two Islamic organizations do not accept the distinction between the pre-1967 land of Israel and the land that was conquered by Israel in 1967. All of it belongs to the Palestinians. Arafat’s Fatah accepted the distinction in 1988, and it was subsequently incorporated in the Oslo agreements of 1993. Once the Fatah organization, which had since its inception been a secular, national movement, joined forces with the Islamists at the end of 2001 in sending suicide bombers into Israel proper, the question arose whether its leaders had begun to share the message of erasing the distinction between the pre-1967 land and the land conquered in the 1967 war.

The Palestinian mantra “end to the occupation” has thus become equivocal about what is under occupation. According to the interpretation of Hamas and other Islamic groups, the entire state of Israel is essentially an occupation and Israel should therefore be annihilated. Thus, while many Palestinians would probably welcome a separate state of their own, the religious belief in jihad may have prepared the way for some nationalists, and especially for militants who are not politically minded, to subscribe to the belief that all of Palestine is under occupation; hence an end to the occupation means the end of Israel.

A major question concerning the dispatchers of the suicide bombers is where they stand in their own organization and who gives them orders, particularly the dispatchers who belong to the two organizations associated with Arafat, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Tanzim. If leaders, especially Arafat, decide that suicide missions must stop, will the dispatchers obey them?

In December 2001, Arafat delivered a speech in which he called for the terror to stop. He had done this several times before, but always with what seemed a wink. On that occasion, he seemed serious. In the aftermath of September 11, Arafat, according to many reports, was desperate not to repeat his mistake of the Gulf War, when he sided with Saddam Hussein. When Colin Powell called for the future establishment of a Palestinian state, his speech was seen as an achievement for Arafat, at least among his followers. I have heard from well-informed Palestinian and Israeli sources that Arafat’s loyalists believed that Arafat wanted in December last year to regain control and to stop the suicide bombings. People close to Arafat also believed that this was clear to the Americans and to the Israelis.

Three weeks of calm followed. Then Sharon ordered the “targeted killing” of Arafat’s popular lieutenant, Raad Karmi, and Palestinian protests erupted throughout Israel and Gaza. Arafat’s activists became convinced that there was no way that they could reach even a limited understanding with Sharon; the only way to fight was to adopt Hamas’s tactic of using suicide bombers. It was at that point, my Palestinian sources told me, that Arafat’s people joined in the deadly game of dispatching suicide bombers into Israel proper. Arafat himself, they say, most likely went along with his activists so as not to lose his control over the Palestinian Authority. At the same time it seems likely that he lost control over the al-Aqsa Brigades. In its recent report, Human Rights Watch blames the Palestinian Authority for not acting to stop the terror strikes when it could—that is, before its security apparatus was destroyed by Israel in 2002.7

The suicide bombing got out of control—so much so that even Hamas became worried. There was outrage among Palestinians when Hamas started sending children on no-escape missions in the Gaza Strip. “I am going to be a shahid,” said fourteen-year-old Ismail abu Nida to his mother. She did not take him seriously but the child meant what he said and he was killed while taking part in an attack. The same happened to Yussuf Zakoot, fourteen, and Anwar Hamduna, thirteen. Hamas sensed, however, that the families were angry and, according to reports in the Palestinian press, it changed its recruiting tactics.

There was also a debate in 2002 between Sheikh Tantawi, a Cairo mullah whom most Palestinians consider the highest religious authority, and Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual and political founder and leader of Hamas. Sheikh Tantawi publically raised the issue of women suicide bombers after Arafat’s organization first began using them. He endorsed the participation of women in the suicide missions, saying that for the purpose of becoming shuhada they are, if their mission required it, allowed to disregard their roles as wives and mothers, not to mention to disregard the code of modesty. Sheikh Yassin did not contradict him on religious grounds, but he claimed that there was no need for women since there was already a surplus of male volunteers. The Palestinians I talked to said that they believed Yassin was worried not just that Hamas would lose its near monopoly of control over suicide bombing once the Fatah movement joined in; he also feared that suicide bombing would get out of hand and no longer serve a clear political purpose. So maintaining control over the people who actually dispatch the suicide bombers is a concern not just of Arafat but of Hamas as well.

If revenge is the principal goal, the suicide bombers have succeeded in hurting Israel very badly, and not just by killing and injuring many civilians. A more far-reaching success is that Israel’s leaders, in retaliating, have behaved so harshly, putting three million people under siege, with recurring curfews for unlimited periods of time, all in front of the world press and television, with the result that Israel may now be the most hated country in the world. This is hugely damaging to Israel, since the difference between being hated and losing legitimacy is dangerously narrow. Throughout the world, moreover, the suicide bombings have often been taken more as a sign of the desperation of the Palestinians than as acts of terror.

Israel claims it is fighting a war against the “infrastructure of terrorism,” but in fact it is destroying the infrastructure of the entire Palestinian society, not only its security forces and civil administration but much else as well. Many of the Israeli countermeasures are not only cruel but also irrational. As Ian Buruma recently reported in these pages, at the height of the olive-picking season, Israeli settlers have prevented Palestinian villagers from tending their own olive trees, fully aware that producing olive oil is one of the major activities of the Palestinian economy, the main source of income for many Palestinian villagers, and a source of pride as well.8 To make matters worse, settlers have not only been preventing the Palestinians from picking their olives but have been stealing them for themselves. This is simply one small example of a policy that is not just bad but also irrational.

Still, even when it is clear that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians are evil and irrational, it is far from clear how to confront the suicide bombers in ways that are rational and effective, as well as morally justified. This is why the moderate left is in trouble in Israel. The public is scared and in despair, and has no use for moralizing comments. It wants strategic solutions for stopping the suicide terror.

The members of the Israeli center-left, the only people who could secure for the Palestinians a state alongside Israel, used to believe in two propositions. First, the occupation since 1967 has been a moral and social disaster for Israel, let alone for the Palestinians, and it has to end. Second, if Israel withdrew to pre-1967 borders this would end the conflict. The second intifada convinced more and more Israelis, including many on the right, of the truth of the first proposition; the occupation cannot go on. On the other hand, the suicide bombers have convinced more and more Israelis, including many in the center-left, that the end of the occupation would mean neither an end to the conflict nor, more important, an end to the terror. In order to deal with an enemy organization you must assume that it cares about the lives of its own people. The suicide bombers convey to the Israelis the message that the resentment of the Palestinians, or at least of a good many of them, cannot be alleviated by Jews and that their demands cannot be met. This, at least, is the message that Hamas wants to send; but for a national movement like Fatah, if it still has national goals, it is suicidal to send such a message to Israelis.

Israelis and Palestinians take it as a foregone conclusion that there will be a war against Iraq. What the Palestinians fear—as Arafat has said publicly—is that Israel might use the smokescreen and confusion of a war to force as many Palestinians as it can to leave the West Bank, perhaps for Jordan. This is not an irrational fear, especially since the Labor ministers are no longer in the government, and Sharon presides over an ultra-right-wing cabinet. Should Palestinians be seen celebrating Iraqi missile strikes on Israel, and should a particularly destructive suicide bombing occur roughly at the same time, Sharon, in my view, would be quite capable of taking the opportunity to expel masses of Palestinians. In the meantime, as long as the Palestinians keep fighting, especially by attacking civilians, Israel will make the lives of the Palestinians even more miserable than they are now. Over 100,000 Palestinians have already left for Jordan since the beginning of the second intifada. If many more are forced to leave, that would suit Sharon just fine.

  1. 7

    Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians (Human Rights Watch, October 2002).

  2. 8

    On the West Bank,” The New York Review, December 5, 2002.

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