Martyrdom, murder or madness

While suicide bombings are extolled by most Palestinians as the ultimate expression of martyrdom and national pride, they have forced the Israelis, induced by the instinct to defend themselves by whatever means available at their disposal, to counterattack. The result is a tragically deepening gap between the two peoples, making reconciliation virtually impossible for them to achieve on their own in the near future.

For the Palestinians, suicide bombings have evolved into a first and last resort against the Israel's military predominance. The state of mind that led to them–a deep sense of desperation and hopelessness — led to a weapon against which even Israeli military might is vulnerable. For Palestinians the glorifying of suicide bombers as martyrs fulfills a need to claim a national and personal pride that transcends the act of merely killing Israelis. The greater its power to inflict pain and loss on Israel, the more galvanizing a force suicide bombing has become. A pervasive culture that immortalizes suicide bombing by equating death with power has captured the imagination of a whole people, making the fantasized rewards and the pleasure of the afterlife far more appealing–and as such enticing to new recruits — than the current state of despair and shattered dreams. These new recruits are now not only poor and uneducated; many are middle class, single, and educated, with a leaning toward or commitment to Islam.

The sense of dehumanization Palestinians have experienced from their interaction with Israel, and their viewing Jews as irredeemable enemies of Islam, provides them with justification for suicide bombing while appearing also as a fulfilment of duty. To add fuel to the fire, the Palestinian clergy led by Hamas and Jihad have perverted Koranic phrases, making suicide bombings synonymous with acts of martyrdom. Every Palestinian leader has also joined in this deadly masquerade, praising the bombings as the ultimate acts of valor. And to cover their inadequacy and ineptitude, every leader of every Arab state has joined the chorus by applauding the suicide bombers, instructing all their media–print and electronic–to refer to them as martyrs. In this way they reinforce the actions of these tragically misguided young people, calling what they do a holy mission against the ruthless oppressor–Israel.

In such an environment, even voices like that of the influential Sunni cleric, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi–who reject suicide bombers, seeing them as not fighting a true war and therefore incorrectly viewed as martyrs–are drowned out by those who claim the moral righteousness of the Palestinian cause. One tragic consequence is that the months of preparation and indoctrination formerly needed to produce a would-be suicide bomber are no longer necessary. Endlessly repeating radio and television accounts of the Israeli offensive, posters of past suicide bombers that adorn shop windows and public and private walls, books that exalt the act, images of fathers and mothers celebrating the “martyrdom,” of their sons or daughters–is it any wonder then that a whole generation of young men and women have been swept into this madness, ready to die while killing as many Israelis as they can? They do not consider themselves as murderers, and they are probably right. The real murderers are those cowards who are hiding in the shadows of deceit as they dispatch them to their death, promising them a heavenly reception while creating hell for the living Palestinians.

The majority of Israelis who had made the psychological adjustment to the two-state solution, especially those who supported the negotiations at Camp David in mid 2000 have been shocked by the eruption of the second Intifadah and the intensity of hatred and disdain displayed by the Palestinians. They cannot fathom the lynching of Israelis, the indiscriminate suicide bombings that kill innocent men, women and children, acts of revenge that to them make no sense, a rage that knows no boundaries–all the signs of a holy war waged by Hamas and Jihad, with leaders sworn to the liquidation of their state. For most Israelis the second Intifadah is no longer an uprising against the occupation but a war against the very survival of the state of Israel. The instinct for survival and self-defense have overshadowed any feeling of compassion or sympathy for the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, especially its Chairman Yasir Arafat, are blamed for the daily atrocities often perpetrated by the Al-Aksa Brigade, a militant faction of Al-Fatah, Arafat's own power base.

Although many Israeli intellectuals and political leaders from the left-of-center and the left itself have attempted to explain or even rationalize the causes behind the Palestinian outrage, the fury and constantly intensifying violence against the Israelis, and the resulting mounting human losses, have rendered any rational discourse irrelevant in the face of such heinous daily occurrences. Consequently, rather than addressing the effects of continued occupation–the humiliation and despair of the Palestinians–Israelis find themselves dealing with the consequences of these conditions and focusing on how to protect themselves against the continuing violence. However, the measures so far deemed necessary to protect Israeli citizens, including incursions into Palestinian territories to weed out terrorists, targeted killing, fences, roadblocks and the reoccupation of lands under Palestinian control, have all failed. Instead of stemming the suicide bombings, Israeli responses have (and continue to) ignite more frustration and despair among the Palestinians, and so have only intensified the vicious cycle of violence, and as such have played into the hands of extremists on both sides.

There are two primary motives and forces behind the suicide bombings. First, Hamas and Jihad resort to these abhorrent means for the express purpose of undermining the peace process and ultimately destroying Israel as a political entity and establishing an Islamic state in its place. In dealing with these organizations, Israel, having lost any hope that the Palestinian Authority would or could stop the violence, is independently trying to destroy their terrorist infrastructure and liquidate their leading operatives. Simultaneously, however, Israel is looking to a future Palestinian Authority to put an end to the violence by whatever means necessary, including offering Hamas and Jihad a political role in the newly emerging Palestinian Authority. Failure of either of these two strategies will force Israel to bring about their demise in one form or another.

Second, the Al-Aksa Brigade, while accepting Israel's right to exist, is employing suicide bombings to force Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza and then establish a Palestinian state there. Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon, presumably under Hizbullah's guns, has given the organization's leaders the wrong impression that it will withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza only in response to brutal force. But these leaders need to understand that no amount of violence in this regard can force Israel �s hand. Israel's affinity for the West Bank, the future of the settlers, security and strategic considerations, that Jewish holy shrines are there, as are water resources, represent only some of factors that will prevent Israel from unilateral withdrawal, regardless of how high the level of violence is and how taxing and painful the sacrifices might be. Because of all these reasons, Hamas, Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade are tragically mistaken in their violent strategies, and continuing along such a path will in the long run further erode the Palestinian national cause and devastate what is left of the social and political institutions necessary to sustain a viable functioning society.

Whereas suicide bombing is as despicable and repugnant as can be imagined, and there can be no justification for it, neither Israel nor enlightened Palestinians can overlook the whole sad picture. Israel must recognize that dealing with terror harshly, however justifiable it may seem, cannot be an end in and of itself. A solution that offers some hope for the Palestinian masses, however gradual, must be envisioned and projected if an end to violence is ever to materialize. And on their part, the Palestinian people must realize that they have been led astray by their leaders. In a recent interview of Arafat by a reporter from Israel's leading independent newspaper, Ha'aretz,, the Chairman said that he is willing now to accept the Clinton peace proposal�a proposal that has not even been fully disclosed to the Palestinian pubic and which he turned down at Camp David in the summer of 2000. Instead he encouraged the second Intifadah that has inflicted so much destruction and despair as well as profoundly disillusioning the Israelis. Has Arafat finally come to the conclusion that every suicide bombing further strengthens Israel's determination to stay put? And does he now realize that what has transpired has forced Israel to strike even deeper roots in the occupied territories that otherwise would have been eventually peacefully evacuated?

That said, the mutually profound hatred and deep distrust permeating every level of Israeli and Palestinian life make it impossible for the two sides to solve their conflict on their own. Both need a dignified way out. The United States is the only nation with a vested interest in the outcome that is powerful and influential enough to facilitate and enforce a solution. Now that President Bush has finally spoken after such a long period of near disengagement, the administration must remain relentless in pushing the parties in the direction of his overall vision. The president was correct in making American active support for a Palestinian state conditional upon the Palestinians meeting a number of conditions including, the election of new leadership, the establishment of democratic institutions, a fair judiciary, accountability and transparency in finances and, of course, an end to violence. After nearly two years of abhorrent violence and shattered trust, meeting these requirements becomes absolutely critical in convincing Israeli leaders to restart political negotiation, and also bodes well for the Palestinian people themselves. The president, however, could have greatly encouraged the Palestinians to embrace his conditions and advance the peace process had he adopted, more specifically, the Clinton peace proposal and do away with the idea of a provisional interim Palestinian state. It is a proposal the Israelis are familiar with, and given an improved security environment, will gradually accept.

Not withstanding their rejection of several aspects of the president's proposals, the Palestinian leadership may very well come to realize that they have already paid a dear price for turning down previous peace plans. By not heeding the president's demands, the Palestinians may yet pay even a higher price if they continue to support a course of violent resistence when the chances of success are practically nil. In any case, however, the eventual peace plan is shaped, the general parameters will be based on UN Resolution 242 and 338 which is consistent with the Clinton/Barak peace plans. In this context, a number of phases must be established and a set of reciprocal requirements must be met by both parties before they can move from one phase to the next. In moving forward in this way, the president will limit his political risks but at last offer greater hope for the Palestinians and a true vision for a lasting agreement.

Maybe, just maybe, the past two years of unprecedented Israeli-Palestinian violence characterized by suicide bombings has served as a rude awakening for both sides, diminishing their motivation to continue with the struggle in order to improve their bargaining positions — what they could get from each other. I believe that they may have reached the point of exhaustion, and so now is the right time for them to seize the moment.


Alon Ben-Meir is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute in New York. He is also a professor of International Relations at New York University. See

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