Suicide Bombings in Israel

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

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Written by a political analyst and former member of the Peace Watch-- a "watch-dog group" that monitored the implementation of the Oslo Accords--this article analyzes the phenomena of suicide bombing.

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of the suicide bomb attacks Israel has suffered, that reached their height during the Second Intifada is the banality and ease with which dozens of lives can be taken within seconds. The person committing the homicide can appear like any citizen--a 40 year old man, an 18 year old woman--sitting on a bus or about to enter a shopping mall. All the preparations needed on the part of the killer are strapping on an explosive belt, often packed with nails to make the injuries even more painful, underneath a shirt or trousers. A push of a button, and in a flash several pounds of explosives energy go off. For those in the vicinity, nothing will ever be the same.

The Lebanon Precedent

The use of suicide bombers in the Middle East actually began not as a Palestinian precedent but a Lebanese one, and indeed there are some observers who see its spread to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a part of a general shift of "tactics" learned from Lebanese experiences southward.

The most spectacular usage of a suicide bomb attack in Lebanon was the attack on the U.S. Marines barracks on October 23, 1983, masterminded by Imad Mughnia of the Hezbollah, a pioneer in the development of suicide bombs. The blast killed 241 Marines and led directly to the U.S. decision to withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Rescue workers help after a suicide bomber destroyed a bus in Megido, Israel. Photo: Israel Sun

The fact that the U.S. forces could be forced to pull up stakes from an Arab country due to an attack by a local militia made a great impression in the Arab world. Despite this, however, the idea of using suicide bombers in Middle East conflicts seemed to go into remission up to the early 1990s, when the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization began viewing suicide-bombing missions as a central weapon in its arsenal.

Islamic Jihad made use of its connections with Hezbollah for training and received Iranian financial and logistical backing to develop a cadre of munitions experts--who became known as 'engineers' amongst Palestinians--adept at preparing explosives in secret locations such as kitchens in small apartments in crowded refugee camps. Young religious men were recruited to carry out the missions after a stringent period of religious indoctrination and promises of rewards for their actions in the after-life.

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.

Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected body monitoring violations of human rights and international law around the globe, went even further by declaring in November 2000 that suicide bombing attacks are crimes against humanity and that the people responsible for planning and carrying out suicide bombings that deliberately target civilians should be brought to justice. The report went on to state that well-established principles of international law require those in authority be held accountable when people under their control commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. Leaders who order such crimes, fail to take reasonable preventive action, or fail to punish the perpetrators are also responsible for such crimes. In March of 2002, Amnesty International issued a report with similar conclusions.

Laws of Combat

The approach that categorizes suicide-bombing actions as crimes against humanity or war crimes is part of a broad international movement to establish what is and is not permitted in armed conflicts, with the understanding that violations of these norms are to be considered criminal acts.

One of the central tenets of current international humanitarian law with respect to armed conflicts is that no deliberate targeting of civilians is permitted, under any circumstances--so that even actions that might once have been permissible, such as the allied carpet bombings of German residential areas during World War II--would now be forbidden by international norms.

Firing upon enemy soldiers engaged in combat is an acceptable part of warfare, as is targeting elements in the enemy's chain of command and control of forces, as well as industrial and infrastructural buildings. Harming civilians as an unintended consequence of such actions is regrettable but does not constitute a war crime. In contrast, deliberately intending as policy to kill and maim civilians has been outlawed in evolving international understandings.

International humanitarian law is clear that even reserve members of military forces are combatants only while on active duty, and at other times are accorded the same protections as all other civilians Given these conclusions, some observers called on all Palestinian armed groups to halt attacks on civilians immediately and unconditionally, and urged the Palestinian Authority (PA) to ensure that those in any way responsible for such attacks were brought to justice, along with a public campaign making clear that the PA does not consider as "martyrs" people who die carrying out attacks that deliberately or indiscriminately kill or cause great suffering among civilians.

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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.