Inside the Mind of the Palestinian Suicide Bomber

Terrorism is a very specific class of violence, which is defined by its motivation. In 1937, the League of Nations defined it as “all criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public”. The UN further refined the definition in 1999, when it applied the term terrorism to “any criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons…” It found such acts “unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism).”

These definitions of terrorism, however, never took into consideration motivating circumstances such as military invasion, resistance to military occupation, or acts that are distinctly intended to retaliate against a nation itself engaged in killing innocent civilians, from which the so-called “terrorists” emerge.

Today, these circumstances apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and while such acts may indeed be “unjustifiable,” the question of whether suicide bombings should be regarded as “terrorist” acts needs to be asked, especially in the case of “retaliation,” where an eye for an eye may apply toward a state (Israel) that is involved in killing (Palestinian) civilians in order to enforce a military occupation or to quell any resistance to it.

The importance of getting it right is necessitated by Israel’s use of Palestinian suicide bombings during the second Intifada in its propaganda campaign to label Palestinians as terrorists in order to justify its military occupation, in spite of the fact that it has been going on for 40 years. This latest propaganda effort was clearly exposed in the long running documentary, Peace, Propaganda, & The Promised Land, where Israel now talks of itself as the victim and justifies the military occupation of the Palestinians as being essential for stopping terrorism, in spite of the fact that its true purpose is to continue the colonization of Palestinian land.

Last year, a feature film about Palestinian suicide bombers called Paradise Now caused an outcry among Israelis. It was too sympathetic toward its main characters, who were depicted as being motivated by anger at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, was the main complaint.

This year, a new documentary, Suicide Killers, by the French filmmaker Pierre Rehov may draw as many complaints from the other camp. Rehov interviewed Palestinians imprisoned for trying to detonate suicide bombs. His conclusion was that they were influenced by a religious culture that represses sexual desires and channels the resulting frustration into homicidal rage. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which nominated Paradise Now (directed by a Palestinian) for a 2006 best foreign-language film Academy Award, was considering Suicide Killers as a 2007 nominee for the Best Documentary, but after it was screened in New York and San Francisco, the Academy judges failed to select it as a finalist in the documentary category.

Rehov’s conclusion about what motivates Palestinian suicide bombers is interesting if speculative, and may be laden with personal bias, something intimated in an interview with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter (see below).

The question of what motivates Palestinian suicide bombers to strap on explosives and attempt to kill Israeli citizens has been debated intensively in past years. The string of attacks during the second Intifada resulted in the deaths of roughly 800 Israeli citizens. Some Palestinians commentators said the bombers are fueled by revenge and hopelessness brought on by decades of Israeli occupation, which has choked off economic and social life of the Palestinian territories, and by Israeli military actions that have killed and wounded thousands of Palestinians. Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi told the BBC in 2002 that suicide bombers are “driven to desperation and anger by the Israeli activities.” Journalist and United Nations official Nasra Hassan, who has done extensive interviews with Palestinian suicide bombers, found that one of their prime goals was to spread fear in the hearts of Israelis. Hamas members told her that suicide bombings were a legitimate tactic against Israeli aggression. A study of failed Palestinian suicide bombers by an Israeli psychologist, who I recall being interviewed on TV, reported one single universal shared trait among them: lack of fear (I am unable to link to the study itself). Other studies by Israeli researchers have found that Palestinian suicide bombers are motivated by many factors, including religion and the desire to avenge the deaths of other Palestinians.

Rehov, who was interviewed about his Suicide Killers film, reached a different conclusion.

Several of the young men whom (Rehov) interviews behind bars say they are eager to reach paradise and the 72 virgins promised by Islamic theology. “Those who blow themselves up get a good bonus from God — they marry 72 virgins,” one tells Rehov. (A Hamas cleric told Hassan that the 72 virgins aren’t on hand for sexual gratification, however.) One jailed woman talks about wanting to be the “prettiest” among the heavenly virgins.

“I’ve studied psychology,” Rehov stated, “and there are a lot of things connected to flashers — they want to destroy innocence. I realized that these guys in the last minute of their lives have this same behavior. This is when I understood there is something really sexual about this extreme act they want to commit. I knew (about the Islamic religious belief) of 72 virgins, and I also knew about how sexual frustration can lead to people becoming serial killers.”

“Suicide Killers is not politically correct,” he stated. It minimizes the role that Israel’s territorial occupation has on Palestinian anger and emphasizes the sexual repression that Rehov says contributes to the bombers’ actions.

Of course, this kind of armchair theorizing from literati like Rehov is not new. Sexual repression is an old Freudian notion, and were it not for the fact that its reality has been refuted by science-minded psychologists, who see it as little more than a reified myth lacking empirical counterparts, it might be taken seriously. Given his emphasis on sexual repression and the suicide bomber’s quest for the promised “72 virgins,” which some interviewees apparently mentioned, it is also obvious that Rehov’s sexual theory depicts Palestinian suicide bombers as pursuing a religious motive, i.e., radical Islam. Such a theory conveniently reinforces recent Israeli-US propaganda efforts to reinterpret the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the framework of the War on Terrorism or radical Al Qaeda Islamism, a theme also emphasized in the documentary, Peace, Propaganda, & The Promised Land.

In this matter, the US also seems alone among West nation to give organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah the terrorist stamp, forgetting that both were created to fight Israel’s military occupations of the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, respectively, which still continues today. In Europe, members of these groups are variously viewed as “militants,” “resisters,” or even “freedom fighters” rather than “terrorists,” and to respect this difference, news organizations like CNN reportedly interchange these terms when issuing reports in Europe and the US.

In the context of the second Intifada, which produced strings of deadly suicide bombings in Israel, a sexual-religious theory hardly seems adequate, given all of the other factors in play, not the least of which is the decades long military occupation. The killing of numerous innocent Palestinian adults and children, which both preceded and coincided with these attacks through unremitting cycles of violence, would also seem to induce retaliatory drive, even if it might not explain why one Palestinian would eventually volunteer to become a suicide bomber and not another. I will not attempt to discuss the internal or idiosyncratic factors, the personality variables, if one prefers, but rather the situational, contextual, or behavioral sources of motivation that may specifically stimulate the Palestinian suicide bomber.

Studies of suicide bombers in general by political scientists and psychologists may be of value in understanding why an individual might volunteer for such a role, but they may not necessarily apply to what motivated Palestinian suicide bombers during the second Intifada. In other contexts, suicide bombers may be bona fide terrorists, i.e., retain a religious, ideological, or political reason for wanting to instill terror in a target civilian population. Excluding the sporadic Hamas suicide attacks that occurred in the 1990s, the motivation of Palestinian suicide bombers during the notorious period of the second Intifada may really have little at all to do with terrorism as it is formally understood.

In the language of a 1999 UN Resolution, if we were talking about Al Qaeda or the PLO before Oslo acting to obtain political recognition of their cause, yes. However, typical terrorist motivation does not appear to apply to the Intifada suicide bombers. Although they did manage to throw the Israeli people into a state of terror, terrorism was hardly their purpose.

So what is it that might have motivated Palestinian suicide bombers during the second Intifada that sets it apart from terrorism as it is formally understood?

According to Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the Hamas suicide bomber coordinator and pediatrician, it was situational anger and the desire for vengeance and retaliation. That is at least what he acknowledged in a Time Magazine interview before his assassination. Summarizing what Rantisi reported, prior to the second Intifada, he had to scrap the bottom of the barrel to get volunteers to strap on bombs and enter Israel. As a consequence, there were only sporadic incidents during the Olso period, and no suicide bombings at all between 1998 and 2000. However, once the second Intifada began and Palestinians began dying, over fifty suicide bombers entered Israel in the first year alone. And it was not just Hamas; Islamic Jihad and other Fatah associated organizations were also involved in recruitment.

In the Time Magazine interview, Rantisi gave some clues about what motivated these Palestinians to strap on bombs.

Until recently most Palestinians believed they had alternatives to the kind of militancy practiced by Hamas. For years after the 1993 Oslo peace accord, which brought limited self-rule to the Palestinians and the prospect of an independent state, polls showed a strong majority of Palestinians supporting the peace process with Israel and only a minority endorsing suicide bombings. Thus, in their headhunting, the fundamentalists were limited to stalwart followers of their doctrine, which holds that any kind of peace with Israel is anathema. Even then, Hamas and Islamic Jihad had to cajole–some might say brainwash–young men into believing that the rewards of paradise outweighed the prospects of life on earth.

But with the breakdown of the peace process in the summer of 2000 and the start of the latest Intifada that September, the martyr wannabes started coming to Hamas–and they didn’t require persuading. “We don’t need to make a big effort, as we used to do in the past,” Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one of Hamas’ senior leaders, told TIME last week. The TV news does that work for them. “When you see the funerals, the killing of Palestinian civilians, the feelings inside the Palestinians become very strong,” he explained.

Indeed, in her documentary, Off The Charts: Media Bias and Censorship in America, Alison Weir provided the names, ages, places, and dates of 27 Palestinian children who were killed by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) before a single suicide bomber entered Israel after the start of the Second Intifada. These 27 children had been killed in the West Bank and Gaza, the youngest only four months of age, the oldest 17 years of age, the majority shot in the head. Numerous children were also wounded. In the first three months alone, 159 children lost an eye, presumably to rubber bullets shot from IDF rifles. While it is unclear from the data provided by Weir, some of these children may have been participating in the Intifada, the resistance instituted by rock-throwing Palestinian boys and girls. Since an Israeli study on the effects of rubber bullets on Palestinian civilians revealed only three deaths in the first year, real bullets were undoubtedly used in the killing of most of these children. Since head shots dominated the deaths of the first 27 children, it is evident that the IDF intended to kill those children, although it is unclear whether they were ordered to do so.

Innocent children as well as civilian adults kept dying throughout the second Intifada along with innocent Israeli adults and children caught in the vicinity of suicide bombers in Israel. From each side, retaliation commonly stimulated cycles of violence and more death. From the Palestinian side, just looking at the deadly effect of IDF actions on children alone would seem to be sufficient motivation enough. Rami Khouri, the Palestinian-Jordanian editor of the Beruit Daily Star quoted a report by the Health Development Information and Policy Institute based in Ramallah, which covered child deaths and wounding and other effects on children of the first two years of the Intifada.

In just the first two years of the second intifada, from September 2000 to November 2002:

• 383 Palestinian children (under the age of 18) were killed by the Israeli army and Israeli settlers, i.e. almost 19% of the total Palestinians killed; those figures have increased since then.

• Approximately 36% of total Palestinians injured (estimated at more than 41,000) are children; 86 of these children were under the age of ten; 21 infants under the age of 12 months have been killed.

• 245 Palestinian students and school children have been killed; 2,610 pupils have been wounded on their way to or from school.

• The Israeli policy of widespread closure has paralyzed the Palestinian health system, with children particularly vulnerable to this policy of collective punishment. Internal closures have severely disrupted health plans, which affect over 500,000 children, including vaccination programs, dental examinations and early diagnosis for children when starting schools.

• During the first two months of the Intifada, the rate of upper respiratory infections in children increased from 20% to 40%. Almost 60% of children in Gaza suffer parasitic infections.

• An overwhelming number of Palestinian children show symptoms of trauma such as sleep disorders, nervousness, decrease in appetite and weight, feelings of hopelessness and frustration, and abnormal thoughts of death.

• There have been 36 cases of Palestinian women in labor delayed at checkpoints and refused permission to reach medical facilities or for ambulances to reach them. At least 14 of these women gave birth at the checkpoint with eight of the births resulting in the death of the newborn infants. (quoted from the article, “Ehud Olmert’s Profound Ethics and Deep Lies“)

If child deaths were not enough, during the second Intifada, it was reported that of the more than 4,000 Palestinians killed in five years, 80% were classified as innocent civilians, adults and children. In the same period, roughly 1000 Israelis were killed, with the same proportion, 80%, being innocent adults and children, the rest IDF soldiers.

To say the least, such killings would seem to boil up into a sufficient cause for retaliatory reprisals by either side. For the suicide bomber, at least according to Rantisi, it was a necessary condition for most bombers. His input reveals first, that when killings of Palestinians are minimal, and there is a hope of peace on the horizon, as during the Oslo period, volunteers for suicide missions were scarce. When violence erupted and innocent people begin to die along with hopes for peace, anger, hate, and cries for retaliation and revenge surface. “When the feelings inside become very strong,” volunteers for suicide bombings become abundant.

Here is a final commentary from Jonathan Cook on a grandmother suicide bomber, where he offers some additional insight about motivation that makes clear that terrorism is hardly its cause.

If one thing offers a terrifying glimpse of where the experiment in human despair that is Gaza under Israeli siege is leading, it is the news that a Palestinian woman in her sixties, a grandmother, chose last week to strap on a suicide belt and explode herself next to a group of Israeli soldiers invading her refugee camp.

Despite the “Man bites dog” news value of the story, most of the Israeli media played down the incident. Not surprisingly, it is difficult to portray Fatma al-Najar as a crazed fanatic bent only the destruction of Israel.

It is equally difficult not to pause and wonder at the reasons for her suicide mission; according to her family, one of her grandsons was killed by the Israeli army, another is in a wheelchair after his leg had to be amputated, and her house had been demolished.

Or not to think of the years of trauma she and her family have suffered living in a open-air prison under brutal occupation, and now, since the “disengagement”, the agonizing months of grinding poverty, slow starvation, repeated aerial bombardments, and the loss of essentials like water and electricity.

Or not to ponder at what it must have been like for her to spend every day under a cloud of fear, to be powerless against a largely unseen and malign force, and to never know when death and mutilation might strike her or her loved ones.

Or not to imagine that she had been longing for the moment when the soldiers who have been destroying her family’s lives might show themselves briefly, coming close enough that she could see and touch them, and wreak her revenge.

Yet Western observers, and the organizations that should represent the very best of their Enlightenment values, seem incapable of understanding what might drive a grandmother to become a suicide bomber. Their empathy fails them, and so does their humanity.

The Israeli occupation of Palestine is, of course, the problem. Without the occupation and the colonization of Palestinian lands going on under its protection, and the suffering it has caused the Palestinian people, Israel would never have experienced the suicide bomb culture that occupation sired. The Palestinian suicide bomber of the second Intifada was not a terrorist, but an avenger. Opinions to the contrary merely repeat a line of propaganda offered by the Israeli and US governments, who wish to portray the Israelis as victims of terror and the Palestinians its perpetrator. It is for this reason alone that Israel must maintain its brutal military occupation and explains its current ability to kill Palestinians with impunity, over 600 in 2006 alone.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. sheldon g said on May 9th, 2007 at 9:32am #

    It seems that all the things i was told in history class and on the news is complete bullshit. You can’t expect people to submit to oppressing powers, esspecially when the lives of innocent people are being destroyed.

  2. Assaf Oron said on May 17th, 2007 at 12:51pm #

    Sheldon, there are many ways to resist oppressing powers.

    Suicide bombing of civilians is not one of them. It provides an escape to the perpetrator, and political power to his/her operators.

    But otherwise, it reinforces public and international support for the oppressor to continue. Sharon has made ingenious use of these bombings in 2001-2004, to alter Israel/Palestine’s reality and bring in levels of oppressions that no one would have believed were politically possible before that.

    If there is a single thing that has hurt the Palestinian cause most, it is the discovery of suicide bombings as a “weapon”, and its extensive use against civilians.

  3. Mischa Scriabin said on June 11th, 2007 at 9:36am #

    Have these Palestinains heard of Gandhi, Martin Luther King. Jr? Both of these leaders got more for their people than the violent Muslims ( black and otherwise) could ever dreamed off. You CAN fight violence by using non-violence and win!

    Until second intefadeh a large percentage of Pals. were gainfully employed in Israel in a wide variety of ( mostly) blue-collar work that provided income far above anything available in the Middle East ( may be except Saudi Arabia). The ONLY reason Pals. are no longer employed in Israel– suicide bombers entering Israel with the workers. Check one for idiots who are into “righteous struggle.”

    Unfortunately, through out their short history the Palestinian organizations have CONSISTENTLY chosen the path of violence and murder against: Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and each other. It’s unfortunate for both Palestinians and Israelis. Those who try to justify suicide bombers do NOT contribute to peace in the world.

  4. Kim Petersen said on June 11th, 2007 at 10:04am #

    This is BS Mischa.

    What dreams did Gandhi win for the people? Self-rule, yes. But self-rule over what? The Indian subcontinent was split into three parts. In all three parts the masses live in poverty.

    No need to cite how Blacks still suffer racism and higher levels of incarceration and poverty in the US. Martin Luther King Jr. would still be carrying on the struggle today.

    The message that violent oppressors want people to take from Gandhi is exactly the belief that non-violence can defeat violence.

    You confuse and conflate your points Mischa. The people of the Indian subcontinent desired self-rule, yet you deny the Palestinians the same. You assert that Palestinians were “gainfully employed in Israel.” What you call Israel is what had long been Palestine. You would describe employment to the territorial thieves as “gainful”!? What is so “righteous” about that?

    How short a history is 4,000 years? And, as for choosing the path of violence, how did Zionist Jews manage to steal the territory of the Palestinians?

    Those who try to justify the theft of land from others “do NOT contribute to peace in the world.”

  5. shergald said on June 11th, 2007 at 1:17pm #

    Assaf is correct on two points. Sharon and the Israeli propaganda machine turned the suicide bombings against the Palestinians, in spite of the fact that he more than anyone, for the reason I gave, provided the impetus. The purpose 0f this essay was to counterargue the notion that the suicide bombings were intended to be “terrorist” attacks, which had political meaning, as opposed to just being simply retaliatory for the killing of Palestinian civilians, adults and children before any suicide bombers entered Israel. But it certainly worked against them and damaged their credibility.

    Mischa asks why the Palestinians didn’t take to Gandhian techniques of non-violent passive resistance. The reason one would ask such a question is that non-violent resistance is ineffective without publicity. Because of the news censorship in the US, no one realizes that passive non-violent resistance has been “quietly” used in the Palestinian territories for years. The Israeli armed forces, however, are not particularly worried about it since it never gets into the mainstream media where it could do considerable damage to the Israeli occupation/colonization.