What Palestinians Think of Suicide Bombing

While some Palestinian intellectuals condemn it, the tactic remains popular in Palestinian society.

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In defense of suicide bombing as a military tactic, some Palestinian movements have made various claims. For example, Palestinian armed groups have asserted that their targets are not really civilians because "all Israelis are reservists." Supporters of Palestinian suicide bombings also have pointed to Israeli attacks that killed or injured Palestinian civilians as justification for the suicide bombings. 

The Pros and Cons

Palestinian attitudes, or at least those expressed in public, have tended to be supportive and even celebratory of suicide bombing attacks against Israelis. The polls have registered public support with figures ranging from percentages higher than 70 percent to below 50 percent. There have been some Palestinian voices raised against the practice, despite strong pressures brought to bear against any Palestinian who publicly criticizes official opinions.

The most prominent example of Palestinian criticism of suicide bombing was the June, 2002, full-page ad signed by more than 50 Palestinian public figures that ran in Al Quds, a leading Palestinian newspaper, a day after a suicide attack killed 19 people on a Jerusalem bus and hours before another such attack killed seven more Israelis at a bus stop. In the ad, the Palestinians urged the militant groups behind deadly assaults on Israeli civilians to "stop sending our young people to carry out such attacks. We see no results in such attacks, but a deepening of the hatred between both peoples and a deepening of the gap between us."

suicide bombing in jerusalemThe signatories included Hanan Ashrawi, a leading Palestinian spokeswoman and a legislator, and the Palestinians' senior Jerusalem official, Sari Nusseibeh, along with other prominent figures. Although some Israeli observers complained that the ad seemed to imply that the suicide bombing actions were wrong only because of the damage they cause to the Palestinian international image and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, it should be noted that Dr. Nusseibeh has gone on record as opposing such acts due to their inherent immorality. In addition Abu Mazan, another prominent Palestinian leader, has publicly denounced the "militarization" of this most recent Palestinian uprising.

Prominent Islamic religious leaders have also criticized suicide bombers who act in the name of Islam. These criticisms have come from supremely regarded authorities on Islamic law and tradition, such as the imam of Saudi Arabia and the dean of Al Azhar University in Cairo. They have pointed to Islamic prohibitions against the taking of one’s own life under any circumstances, and have also noted that Islamic law forbids the killing of women and children, who are considered protected by Islam even in the most extreme of wars and jihad.

In private, there are many Palestinians who may not have the courage to air in public their feelings alongside prominent public figures and religious leaders, but are deeply perturbed at the direction their society has taken since the wave of suicide bombs has begun. When an entire generation is obsessed with death, they say--when a generation is growing up not aspiring to be doctors or software engineers but engineers of death--then a generation is effectively committing suicide. They do not question the Palestinian aspiration to an independent state and society, but wonder if the glorification of violence and death in their society are undercutting any possibility of a normal Palestinian future.

Suicide Bombing Tactic of Choice

Yet despite these reservations voiced by some Palestinian intellectuals and some human rights groups, every Palestinian armed group--not solely the Islamic religious ones as in the past--now conducts suicide bombings. Where suicide bombers were once recruited carefully and with some difficulty, undergoing a regiment of religious indoctrination and training, there are now far more volunteers then explosives to go around.

Israeli intelligence once prepared profiles on who would be most likely to be pressed into service with Hamas or Islamic Jihad for suicide missions, based on the ages, educational levels, and religious beliefs of the average perpetrator. These profiles are now useless: Suicide missions have been carried out by individuals of a large range of ages, as well as people from every possible class and educational background and people with secular as well as religious beliefs. And suicide bombers are no longer always men, either.

In the meanwhile, Israel has enforced closures on the Palestinian territories in an effort to prevent any potential killer from slipping into Israeli civilian areas. Trade and education have ground to a halt, and the Palestinian population is plunging ever deeper into poverty, with 60 percent of the residents in the West Bank and Gaza Strip living on less than two dollars a day. The Palestinians, who were once considered the most highly educated and technologically sophisticated in the Arab world, have begun turning to subsistence agriculture to survive. As poverty and religious fanaticism spread, so apparently does the readiness of ever more young Palestinians to volunteer to be martyrs for the cause of jihad.

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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.