Suicide Bombings in Israel

The Second Intifada brought with it a wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians.

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The pain suicide attacks caused Israel and the attention they drew for the Palestinian cause caught the imagination of the Palestinian public as giving Palestinians, for the first time, a weapon that could effectively be wielded against Israel, after decades of frustration at the imbalance between the powerful Israeli military and the relatively weak efforts that the Palestine Liberation Organization managed against it. Hamas, another religious Islamic Palestinian movement and rival of Islamic Jihad, felt that it too needed to develop a cadre of suicide bombers in order to maintain its support in the Palestinian public.

Suicide bomb attacks against Israeli targets were conducted throughout the '90s, most notably in an intense period in the winter and spring of 1996. But it was really the second Intifada, beginning in September 2000, that brought the strategy to unprecedented usage, with secular Palestinian organizations eventually adopting it as well.

Visitors to the Palestinian territories during the Second Intifada described a society in which death for the cause of nation became the over-riding ambition of a generation of Palestinians. Families of suicide bombers receive monetary rewards from various organizations and even foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq; in some cases the amounts received can be far greater than what the family could expect to earn over several years, leading some to regard the financial aspect as a major incentive.

But an even stronger incentive is the public image granted to suicide "martyrs" (shuhada). The images of suicide bombers are prominently displayed on public billboards. Mosques and sports clubs are named after them.

This is a phenomenon which is fairly unprecedented in history. It has now spread outside Palestinian society to Islamic fundamentalist movements in other areas of the world, most notably Al Qaeda, which mounted the suicide airplane attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001.

Crimes Against Humanity 

The phenomenon of suicide bombing has been viewed as a major challenge to free societies. The moral and operational difficulties it poses are manifold.

Many of the standard forms of deterrence and punishment against violent acts that are otherwise assumed to be effective, such as the threat of imprisonment and possibly even death, are obviously useless against an adversary who is himself seeking death. The targets selected by the suicide bomber--public transportation, office buildings, shopping centers--means that all of society becomes a war front, and that the steps taken to guard against potential attacks have the potential of curtailing civil liberties. A frightened civilian population, in turn, can impose such constraints on itself as to become dysfunctional.

Most nations have declared suicide bombings to be illegitimate, by classifying the actions as terrorism because they indiscriminately target non-combatant civilian populations. Some nations and movements have demurred, contending that labeling all such actions as terrorism threatens to erase distinctions they regard as important between 'liberation movements' and 'terrorist organizations.' This claim is sharpened when Palestinian actions are carried out against Israeli targets, with those making the claim justifying them as part of a broader national struggle against occupation. The Israeli government has always completely rejected this line of thinking, insisting that any act intended to kill civilians must categorically be termed terrorism.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.