Why Suicide Bombing Is Now All The Rage

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BASSEM TELLAWI/AP

Palestinians wearing hoods and mock bombs represent suicide bombers

On Tuesday, April 16, it will be nine years--ages, it seems--since the first suicide bomb in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ripped through the parking lot of a roadside West Bank cafe. That day Sahar Tamam Nabulsi, 22, filled a white Mitsubishi van with cooking-gas canisters, placed a copy of the Koran on the passenger seat and, acting on behalf of the militant group Hamas, barreled into two buses, killing himself and another Palestinian and wounding eight Israelis. Days later, the Jerusalem Post was still, almost quaintly, calling the attack an "apparent suicide," noting that the investigation was ongoing.

These days, of course, there would be no such head scratching. But back then no one could imagine that 105 more suicide bombers would go on to claim 339 more lives.

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The Palestinian suicide bomber has evolved since Nabulsi made his debut in the role. Today he is deadlier and requires less coercion. He used to be easy to describe: male, 17 to 22 years of age, unmarried, unformed, facing a bleak future, fanatically religious and thus susceptible to Islam's promise of a martyr's place in paradise, complete with the affections of heaven's black-eyed virgins. Today's bomber no longer fits the profile.

Today he is Izzadin Masri, the 23-year-old son of a prosperous restaurant owner, who killed himself and 15 people at a Jerusalem Sbarro pizzeria last August. He is Daoud Abu Sway, 47, a father of eight not known to be unusually political or religious, who detonated a bomb outside a luxury hotel in Jerusalem in December, killing himself and injuring two others. He is even a she. Ayat Akhras, 18, was a straight-A student, just months away from graduation and then marriage. On March 29, she killed herself and two others outside a Jerusalem supermarket. Volunteers such as these are coming forward faster than militant leaders can strap an explosive belt around their waist and send them off to kill and die.

Among Palestinians, it has become normal--noble, even--for promising men and women to slaughter themselves in pursuit of revenge and the dignity it is thought to bring. "What was once more of an individual decision by a small group is becoming much more mainstream," says Jerrold Post, an American psychiatrist who has studied suicide bombings in the West Bank. The suicide-homicides have come to be seen by most Palestinians as their last, best hope. In June a poll taken in the Gaza Strip found that 78% of the population approved of suicide bombings, considerably more than supported peace talks (60%).

These days Palestinians celebrate the suicides in newspaper announcements that read, perversely, like wedding invitations. "The Abdel Jawad and Assad families and their relatives inside the West Bank and in the Diaspora declare the martyrdom of their son, the martyr Ahmen Hafez Sa'adat," reads a March 30 notice for the 22-year-old killer of four Israelis in a shooting attack. Palestinian children play a game called "Being a Martyr," in which the "martyr" buries himself in a shallow grave. And the job of bomber comes with established cash bonuses and health benefits for the surviving family. How else could the Palestinian boy or girl next door hope to be pictured on key chains and T shirts? "The suicide factory is in full tilt now," says Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, based in Philadelphia. "These are the rewards of having built an infrastructure."

Once upon a time, in the years immediately following that first bombing in 1993, it was a challenge to recruit suicide bombers. Field leaders for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the radical groups that until lately monopolized the bombings, would seek out promising young men from the mosques or the crowds of rioters at Israeli checkpoints. The leaders would then submit the candidates to intense spiritual indoctrination and terrorist training, watching all the time for signs of fear or doubt. Those who wavered would be quickly dropped.

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 intifadeh 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.

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