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…

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