Posted on August 28, 1995 in Washington Watch
The continuing suicide bombings against Israelis are neither heroic nor legitimate acts of resistance or self-defense. They are, by admission, political acts with clear objectives: to create fear and anger in Israeli society, thereby undercutting the legitimacy of Israel’s governing Labor Party; to force repressive measures that will collectively punish Palestinian society, thereby undercutting the legitimacy of the Palestinian National Authority; to further distort an already crippled peace process; and to inflame passions among the deeply alienated and tragically scarred segments of Palestinian society.
The small groups of predominantly young Palestinians who commit these suicide attacks must be understood and judged by a different measure than those who organize and order them. Different still are the forces which shape the attitude of those who express public approval for these acts.
A generation of Palestinians have grown to adulthood with little opportunity to live normal lives and with no hope that those circumstances can change. Daily life is a hell marked by violence, repression and humiliation, racism and despair.
To be demeaned or verbally or physically abused by soldiers and settlers, to lose a child or parent to settler attacks or just to be held arbitrarily for long periods of time in the hot sun at a checkpoint – to have no significant control over any area of one’s life, in other words, to be powerless and denied all basic freedoms – can produce the rage that fuels feelings of violence and seeks vengeance.
Certainly, most Palestinians have been, during the past few decades, recipients of a consistent dose of such traumatizing and embittering experiences.
But while the racist and dehumanizing treatment Israelis have meted out to Palestinians – on a systematic basis – has been a constant factor in Palestinian life, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have internalized their rage and suppressed the personal desire for vengeance. Other forces have determined their behavior: the desire to survive, to have a family, and to recreate – so that most Palestinians have therefore endured the brutalizing effects of domination.
Even today, despite all of the hardships and the humiliation of day-labor employment in Israel, when the borders between Gaza and Israel are open thousands of Palestinians will return to their menial low-paying, back-breaking jobs in Israel in order to support their families (whom they often don’t see due to the 18 hours a day they are forced to spend away from home) and to survive.
But for most young Palestinians, there has never been a job and no prospect of employment exists on the horizon. For them, the trauma and anger of occupation is compounded by alienation and despair.
If given the option of decent and meaningful employment, marriage, a family, children and a life of accomplishment, recreation and love, surely they would choose such a path to fulfillment. But what if such options do not exist and show no promise of existing in the future? It is in this context that striking out in vengeance has an appeal.
I write here not of the actual suicide bombers but of those who cheer them on, who find satisfaction in venting their anger in response to each killing.
Since the killings in no way improve their lives (and in fact each bombing only serves to further compound the hardships Palestinians must endure), their response is an irrational one. It can only be seen as rational in the sense that it is a rational response to the irrational existence that Israel has caused to define Palestinian daily life.
While this may explain the mass expression of vengeful euphoria that accompanies each set of killings, the action of the suicide bombers are the result of a different set of factors. Those are not spontaneous acts of rage, nor are they acts of military combat: they are deliberate acts of suicide.
Contrary to the propagandizing of both some Muslim apologists for these acts and anti-Muslim demagogues, such behavior is neither unique to Islam nor can it be fairly ascribed to Islamic belief.
Suicide is an act of total alienation and despair. In this case, it is encouraged and even induced by the propagandizing of a cult-like belief in supernatural compensation. Since the individual who perpetrates such an act feels no real material options are available on earth, he opts to accept what he has been convinced will be rewards after life. There are historical examples of Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Native Americans who have engaged in such behavior with similar rationales being offered for their acts.
But these are cult-like aberrations – not mainstream phenomena – since a fundamental purpose of all religion is to define a purpose to life and to make survival tolerable and meaningful in the most dire circumstances. Religion is not an invitation or an inducement to suicide or murder: those are the negations of religion and the antithesis of its purpose.
Those who so abuse religion, for ulterior political motives, who induce enraged and despairing young people to commit suicide, therefore, must be judged harshly. They and those who organize and direct such actions must be held fully accountable for their deeds.
Their motives are not, in the end, religious but political. And they manipulate religion to serve a transparent political agenda – that is absent a strategic vision.
In reality, they are sending young people to kill themselves, and as many Israelis as possible, to frustrate negotiations they do not support, to bring down a government they do not support and to deliberately provoke repression that they know will hurt their own people, which they hope will win greater support for their cause of opposing peace.
All of this is not to suggest that there cannot be a legitimate opposition to the peace process or to the performance of the Palestine National Authority; and it also does not suggest that there cannot be a legitimate Islamic movement that provides an alternative approach to organizing society and establishing a just peace.
But suicide bombings designed to increase repression and raise the level of Palestinian hardships and resentment, and provoke fear and anger among Israelis begs the important question: how do those who organize and encourage such murderous acts propose to get from here to there? The movements who utilize these bombings have yet to offer a strategic political alternative to the current peace process. They have never explained how their tactics contribute to anything other than death, vengeance and repression. Absent that, their politics appears to be either simple nihilism or based on the assumption that if they can end the current process, discredit the PNA and elect Likud, then they will be in a better position to defeat Israel and win! This is not politics, this is fantasy.
Murder and suicide are not religion, and neither are they politics. And in the specific case under discussion, these acts are even more horrible than murder and suicide. As they are carried out, they are racist acts of terrorism.
Terrorism is the use of violence to create fear and promote a political agenda. Clearly, by admission, these attacks fit this definition.
But they are also racist acts. The victims are not the perpetrators of any wrong deed. They are not combatants engaged in active combat. They are innocents killed because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are murdered because of the perception that all Israelis are guilty as a group. This objectification and dehumanization of the group as a group is the definition of racism.
Just as the Israeli government has, at times, been criticized for its use of racist terror, these suicide bombings must be seen as no different. For example, mass bombings of villages in South Lebanon were designed to spread fear and force refugees to the north to Beirut to, in Prime Minister Rabin’s words, “send a message to the government of Lebanon.” That was terrorism. The fact that any and all Lebanese and Palestinians were targeted was racist. Other examples abound of Israel’s use of such racist terror in Lebanon and Palestine.
But the old Israeli women and men blown to bits in July or the American Jewish teacher slaughtered in the most recent attack are victims of the same tragic terrorist logic.
The tribalist sense of justice used in an effort to justify these acts is barbaric. It is, as Hanan Ashrawi termed it, “immoral.” It is also apolitical and anti-human. And is time that Arab and Muslim voices be raised to demand its end.
To end the support given to these acts, to isolate the bombers and to reduce the desire for vengeance, it is imperative to propose solutions to end the alienation and despair of jobless Palestinian youths. To change these circumstances Israel must end its harassment and repression and violence against Palestinians so that traumatized and embittered Palestinians can heal. Clearly, Israel must accept responsibility for Palestinian alienation and rage.
But it is equally important to insist without condition or reservation that the suicide bombings also end. These acts do nothing to alleviate Palestinian hardships, nor do they allay Palestinian rage. Their purpose is political and not in response to Palestinian suffering. Rather, they prey off of the Palestinian dilemma and serve to create conditions that compound the dilemma. They must, therefore, be unequivocally condemned—and those who order and organize them must also be condemned. There can be no defense for those who persist in taking life in this way.
Palestinians and Israelis are locked in a peace/security conundrum. In this situation, Israelis will not be able to enjoy greater peace and security until Palestinians have achieved more control over their own lives and land, and Palestinians will not fully realize peace and justice until Israelis feel a greater sense of security.. Extremist appeals on both sides clearly understand this bind and have, therefore, exploited it with their tactics. Israelis settlers and Likudniks seize new land and pressure their government not to grant greater sovereignty or water rights to Palestinians. They harass Palestinians in Jerusalem and Hebron knowing full well that unless Palestinians achieve rights in these two communities, movement toward peace and reconciliation will falter.
Palestinian extremists likewise know that suicide bombings timed in the midst of negotiations will increase pressure to abort the process or at least serve to make the negotiations more difficult.
Given the asymmetry of power between Israelis and Palestinians, it is fair for Arabs to demand that greater responsibility be shouldered by Israel, the party with the greater power. There is so much that Israel can and must do in negotiations and on a daily basis to respect the human dignity of Palestinians. But given what we know of the goals and methods of the Palestinian extremists, it is important that Arabs, too, act to condemn and isolate those bent on destroying the possibility of peace.
The Palestinian and Israeli leaderships are now actively engaged in a peace process. In part due to the asymmetry of power (in which Israel holds a harsh upper hand), the perceived political weaknesses of both leaderships, and the activity of extremists on both sides, the process is both fragile and distorted. For the process to move forward, supporters of a just and lasting peace must be as determined and vigorous in the defense of peace as the extremists are in their opposition.
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