By Christopher Dickey, April 15, 2002
Death wishes: Suicide missions have become part of a culture from
which no child is spared. The mechanics of martyrdom
Little boys love to play soldier. They want so badly to look like men, standing at
attention in their crinkly little camouflage fatigues, trying to harden their soft
eyes and their baby-toothed grins and show they’re not really as powerless as
they almost always feel.
IN OTHER GENERATIONS, in other places, they have been cowboys conquering
the Wild West or Jedi knights up against the Empire. In the Israeli-occupied
territories today, they’re would-be suicide bombers killing Israelis. And unlike
most little boys and girls, for whom the games of war are passing fantasies, the
children of Palestine are taught by everything and everyone around them that
they’ll have their chance.
When they grow up they’ll trade their cardboard bombs for real ones,
and kill the real Israelis who man the omnipresent checkpoints, who intimidate
and humiliate their parents, or fight their brothers in the streets.
“They want to be martyrs even if they don’t know the meaning of the word,”
says Muhammad Abu Rukbah, principal of an elementary school in Gaza’s
Jabaliya refugee camp. “They see the images on TV, the posters in the streets,
the honor of the martyrs’ families, and they want that kind of honor for
themselves, for their families.”
Out on the dusty street of the camp, 10-year-old Aya, a pretty,
bright-eyed girl in a school smock, is asked how she feels about kids just like
her who are blown up by murderer-martyrs in Israel. “I don’t feel sorry for
them,” she says. “Their families and their mothers are pushing them to fight us
and kill us.” She adds that she’d like to be a doctor someday, “or maybe a
What kind of madness is this? Since September 11, the answer to that question
has become vital to Americans as well as Israelis. When the World Trade Center
was destroyed, Flight 93 hijacked and the Pentagon blasted by 19 terrorists (all
of them Arabs, none of them Palestinians), the security of the most massively
armed country on earth seemed in peril at the hands of men with box cutters
and a passionate will to die. The suicidal killers came on the scene as the
ultimate weapon of asymmetric warfare, one that could penetrate to the
democratic core of American society.
“A human bomb is like a very sophisticated guided missile,” says Ely
Karmon of Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. But no
multibillion-dollar antimissile system can stop it.
Thousands of would-be martyrs?
Now that Israel has come under an unprecedented wave of suicide attacks,
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has responded with a relentless, if temporary,
reoccupation of Palestinian cities. Protests spread last week throughout the
Muslim world and Europe. But for at least four days, no suicide bomb thundered
through the daily life of Israeli civilians. Were the bombers broken? Or were
they just biding their time, and possibly looking for new targets? If we are to
believe a recent Israeli propaganda film, “irrevocable seeds of hatred have been
planted into an entire generation,” and Palestinian children – by the hundreds of
thousands – will grow, irrevocably, to be killers. And if death-cult terrorists can
do what they’ve done to mighty little Israel, making life a daily dance with
carnage, what can they do to the U.S.A.?
As one Palestinian academic suggests, without meaning it as a threat, “if
the present situation continues, you are going to see the kind of terrorism all
over the world that we had in the 1970s, but this time with suicide attacks.”
Are there really thousands of would-be martyrs “out there,” whole
populations – whole cultures ready to clash with Western civilization? And if so,
what possible defense can there be?
In fact, there are defenses, and some of them are diplomatic. The anger of the
Palestinians is not immune to negotiation, and there’s no reason to think it’s
irrevocable. Nor is the anger of other Arabs and Muslims throughout the world,
for whom the suffering of the Palestinians has become a satellite-broadcast
passion play, inspiring their own most violent currents. But diplomacy works
slowly, and suicide bombers don’t.
How do you address the immediate threat? There, too, answers exist. The
despair that afflicts – and motivates – so much of Palestinian society is not
enough to launch a concerted campaign of suicide bombings. For that, cynical
technicians are required who build an infrastructure to encourage, discipline and
arm the would-be shahid, or martyr. Those same technicians have worked to
create a mystique around the dead, which attracts still more recruits. And all
this takes money, so contributions have had to be collected from sympathizers
around the world.
In Gaza and the West Bank, Islamic fundamentalists from Hamas and other
groups have nurtured a cult of death for years, having learned from the example
of Lebanon’s Hizbullah.
At least since 1992, when several Hamas leaders were exiled to
Lebanon by the Israeli government, the two organizations have had extensive
contacts. Teachers in Hamas day camps and preachers in mosques have kept
up a constant chorus of praise for ‘martyrs’ defending Palestinian lands. Like
Hizbullah, they called for an end to the Jewish state. “It’s a religious war,” says
Hani, a bearded 23-year-old Hamas disciple in Gaza who neighbors say is
destined for martyrdom. “This is not about land.”
Seeking the unmarried and unemployed
In the past, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fundamentalists operated highly secretive
cells that recruited young men deemed to be suitable candidates for suicide
missions. For the most part, these men, like Hani, were unmarried and
unemployed. Most were educated (at least to the high-school level), but faced
bleak futures. Many were enticed, in part, by the promise of a wondrous
“marriage” in heaven, where they would be greeted by 72 dark-eyed virgins.
Over the past year, secular militants connected to Palestinian Authority
Chairman Yasir Arafat have stolen the banner of martyrdom that was growing
so popular in the territories. Not to be outdone by Islamic fundamentalist rivals,
terrorists from Arafat’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have taken up suicide attacks.
“When the Al Aqsa Brigades saw that Hamas was taking a lead in the intifada
and threatening their status in the street, they adopted this suicide strategy,”
says Ely Karmon of the counterterrorism institute. Neither Freud nor Allah is the
primary motivator here; the dream of “Palestine” is.
And the demographics and culture of the Palestinians are such that there
is potentially an endless supply of cannon fodder to this cause: in 1995 and
1996, when Hamas mounted its first major suicide-bombing campaigns, only 20
percent of Palestinians approved; in the most recent poll, it’s 80 percent.
A document that Israeli military intelligence says it captured in Yasir Arafat’s
headquarters last week gives a weirdly banal picture of the infrastructure of
terror that took shape. The paper, denounced as a fabrication by the
Palestinians, appears to be an invoice from the ‘Al-Aqsa Martyrs Troops.’
By Israel’s count, the Aqsa Brigades have mounted at least 22 attacks
since last August, killing 26 Israelis and wounding 613. Among the itemized
expenses from its early operations are “various electrical components and
chemical supplies (for the production of charges and bombs).” The author of
the memo goes on to point out that “this has been our largest expense” – the
cost of a prepared bomb being at least 700 shekels, or roughly $ 150. “We
need about five to nine bombs a weeks for our cells in various areas.”
There are also expense items for printing posters of some ‘martyrs’,
mounting the portraits of others on wooden boards and the cost of memorial
ceremonies for the dead. Other captured documents purport to show a request
from Marwan Barghouti, the most popular of Arafat’s militia leaders in the West
Bank, requesting funds for a dozen men, of whom several were on Israel’s
wanted list of fugitives. Barghouti asked $ 1,000 for each. Arafat signed off on $ 350.
Compared with the impact of the operations, the amounts are truly
insignificant. But the money trail is not. Cash is needed not only to fund the
operations but to maintain morale and propagate the hero worship that is at the
heart of the suicide movement. Some funds from Palestinian factions go to
creating special martyrs’ videos that serve as recruitment tapes.
“There’s a special unit in the military wing that’s in charge of it,” Hamas official
Ismail Abu Shanab told NEWSWEEK. “It’s done on the last day of training,
before the operation. Making the video is a way of getting media exposure. It
gets the message out that these people are martyrs of their own free will. And
it encourages others to become martyrs.”
Incentives for bombers
At wakes for Hamas bombers, it has become routine for an activist to approach
the father with an envelope containing $ 10,000. Abu Shanab says the money
is a form of reparation to help the family rebound from their loss, but Israelis
say it provides the bomber some incentive. “If a guy knows that the money will
serve as a dowry for his sister, for instance, that it will allow her to marry a
good husband, this is a factor,” says one Israeli security official.
Sorrow is often masked – or overwhelmed – by the cheers and praise of the
community, but it is not erased. Shuhail Masri was never proud of what his son
did. Last August, 22-year-old Izzedine Masri walked into the Sbarro pizza
restaurant in downtown Jerusalem and blew himself up for Hamas, killing 15 people.
But the hundreds of well-wishers who went to the Masri home in the
West Bank town of Aqqaba after the attack helped comfort Shuhail and his
wife, Fatima. In nearby Jenin, Palestinians handed out candy on the streets to
celebrate the bombing. “It took our minds off the loss of our son,” Masri says.
Now the crowds are gone and the misery remains: “I lost my health. I wish I
still had my son around. If I knew, I would have stopped him.”
Iyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychologist who studies the phenomenon of suicide
attacks, says families of the bombers are initially comforted by the status
accorded to their sons. “But if you go back to these families six months later,
you see nothing but grief.”
The money to support organizations like Hamas, as well as Arafat’s Fatah,
largely comes from outside the Palestinian territories. Iraq said last week it
would now up its contribution to $ 25,000 (from $ 10,000) for the family of
each suicide bomber.
But U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement officials say Iraq probably
plays a minor role in financing suicide networks. The bulk of the money comes
from the same sources that provide funds to a wide assortment of radical
Islamic groups and causes, including Al Qaeda: wealthy Arab businessmen,
particularly from Saudi Arabia and other oil states, and well-off Islamic families
in the Western world.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, told NEWSWEEK last
week that private Saudi donations to Hamas had been cut since the group was
put on a special terrorist list by the U.S. Treasury Department in November.
Now “support goes only to the Palestinian Authority of Yasir Arafat,” said al-Faisal.
Money has also come from the United States. Treasury Department officials say
they are convinced that some U.S.-based groups whose assets have been
frozen by the president since September 11 were raising money for Palestinian
A 49-page report sent by the FBI to the Treasury Department last
November explicitly accuses one of the largest U.S. Islamic charities, the Holy
Land Foundation for Relief and Development, of providing “crucial” financial
support to the families of Hamas suicide bombers. Established in 1989, the
Texas-based Holy Land Foundation has openly raised money to help
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But the FBI report says “evidence
strongly suggests” that by providing “annuities” to the families of Hamas
members, the Holy Land Foundation had helped Hamas over the years by
“providing a constant flow of suicide volunteers.”
“No peace ever”
According to the FBI document, Holy Land Foundation officials have talked at
meetings inside the United States about how their organization was supporting
the families of Palestinian “martyrs”. An FBI informant reported that, at a 1994
Muslim youth association conference in Los Angeles attended by the
foundation’s chief, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing said, “I hope no
one is recording me or taking any pictures … because I’m going to speak the
truth to you. It’s simple. Finish off the Israelis. Kill them all! Exterminate
them! No peace ever! Do not bother to talk politics.”
According to the FBI report, $ 207,000 was raised after this speech for “the
cause.” The Holy Land Foundation has denied government allegations that it
supports terrorism and has sued the Justice and Treasury Departments, seeking
to have the courts order the government to unfreeze its assets. In a written
statement, the foundation said that it is “dedicated to alleviating the suffering
of people … around the world … particularly in Palestine.” The organization said
it “rejects terrorism by anyone,” and denied that it has ever acted on behalf of Hamas.
Another U.S.-based group that apparently has ties to Hamas is the Islamic
Association for Palestine. An INS report obtained by NEWSWEEK alleges that a
top Hamas official, Mousa Abu Marzook, had contributed $490,000 to the
IAP’s budget. The report notes that the IAP distributed Hamas recruitment
videos and published two pro-Hamas newspapers.
But the precise links between groups like IAP and operations against
civilians in Israel are hard, if not impossible, to find. IAP president Rafeeq Jabar
told NEWSWEEK that he was unaware who had made the $ 490,000
contribution, and that his organization’s funds are used to produce position
papers, videos and other materials dedicated to “educating our fellow
Americans about what’s going on in Palestine. We don’t send money to martyrs.”
Asked about his appearance at a conference two years ago, when he
read the will of a Palestinian ‘martyr’ who had driven his car into Israeli soldiers
and died in a hail of gunfire, Jabar said: “I read his will so that people will feel
the despair that Palestinians feel. These people feel they have nothing to live for.”
So, is the world – or more to the point, are Americans – due for a new wave of
attacks by suicidal mass murderers? The possibility is there, but on balance, the
likelihood is not. There is nothing natural about killing yourself in any culture.
In those who have waged suicide-war, the strongest motivation is
protection of home and hearth. Japan’s kamikaze pilots saw themselves as the
last line of defense for their families in World War II. Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers,
who have carried out more than 170 suicide attacks in the last 25 years, are
fighting at the behest of a charismatic leader to secure their homeland.
Lebanon’s Hizbullah has a radical Islamic ideology, but it was created and grew
as a response to Israel’s 1982 invasion of their country.
Although martyrdom is revered in Islam, the Qur’an recognizes the
martyrdom only of those who fight to defend their faith and their land. Suicide,
as a means of escape from this life, is regarded as a sin.
All of which may explain why Osama bin Laden, after processing tens of
thousands of foreign recruits through his Afghan camps, appears to have
produced only a relatively small number of suicide attackers. His ideas might
have inspired most recruits to fight ferociously, but not to embrace certain death.
With the destruction of bin Laden’s infrastructure for indoctrinating,
training and equipping his international terrorist brigades of America-haters, the
threat that he can organize future large-scale attacks really is reduced.
Palestinian suicide bombers pose a more difficult problem. Precisely because the
terrorism is a reaction to occupation, the use of more intense and brutal
occupation to try to wipe them out is not likely to have the desired effect. And
the issue of Palestine’s liberation is of such passionate interest to Muslims
throughout the world that it could provide the impetus for new waves of terror
that have nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaeda, or could be exploited by the
And meanwhile, the youngest generation of Palestinians wakes up every
morning with more reason to die. After Israeli troops stormed into the Jabaliya
refugee camp last month, schoolteacher Samira Abu Shamak was shocked to
hear her 6-year-old daughter begging for a gun or a bomb. “She said, I want to
be a martyr,” remembers Abu Shamak. “What could I say? I didn’t know. I told
her, “Wait until you’re grown up, dear. Maybe – maybe things will change. At
least wait until then.”