Why Suicide Bombing Is Now All The Rage

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BASSEM TELLAWI/AP

Palestinians wearing hoods and mock bombs represent suicide bombers

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Hamas, especially, has bolstered popular acceptance of the suicide killing by crafting justifications for both parts of the act. Some moderate Islamic clerics insist that the bombings are contrary to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, who condemned suicide. But if death comes through an act of self-defense, others argue, that is another matter. "The person who commits suicide is a person fleeing life. This is prohibited by Islam," Mousa Abu Marzouk, the Damascus-based No. 2 leader of Hamas, told TIME. "The martyr is not running away from life. He is making the future for his children."

Killing Israelis, goes this argument, is an act of national self-defense, since the Israelis occupy Palestinian territory, deny the Palestinians their national rights and, in enforcing their rule, frequently kill Palestinian civilians. This logic was sufficiently compelling for the 57 Islamic countries at this month's Organization of the Islamic Conference in Kuala Lumpur to exempt Palestinian bombers from their definition of terrorism. Says Marzouk: "The term terrorism should not be applied to people whose land is occupied." And if the victims of those fighting occupation are civilians? "There shouldn't be any distinction between an occupier in uniform or civilian dress," Marzouk argues. "If a man dressed as a civilian carried a gun and took my house, my land and my right, how can I say that he is a civilian and has nothing to do with it?"

To Palestinians, perhaps the most persuasive defense of suicide bombings today is that they are working. If the goal is to empower the powerless and shake the foundation of Israeli society, the bombings have proved highly effective. Presumably the Palestinians would be happy to fight the Israelis conventionally, army against army, but they have no real military. They have no tanks, no air force, no artillery--just a bunch of militias armed with machine guns and, if you count Hamas' illicit arsenal, some mortars and rockets. Israel, on the other hand, has one of the most powerful and modern militaries in the world. The asymmetry produces a lopsided body count. Since the fighting began in September 2000, some 1,200 Palestinians have been killed, compared with some 400 Israelis. That disparity feeds the drive to frighten and punish the enemy with bombings. "As they have war jets and missiles, we have human bombs that can inflict losses on the enemy and achieve some balance," says Marzouk.

Certainly, the bombing networks have learned that their actions, together with Israel's retaliatory measures, bring enormous attention to the Palestinian cause. "You have heard the U.N.--after these operations began--speaking about a Palestinian state, Israeli withdrawal and the right of repatriation for refugees," says Marzouk. The value of suicide bombings is reinforced by the seeming futility of every other option. Samir Rantissi, a coordinator of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Coalition, condemns attacks on civilians but believes they result from escalating frustration. "For 35 years, Palestinians have tried every, every, every means to deal with this intolerable occupation," he says. "We tried to coexist with it. It didn't work. We tried demonstrating against it. It didn't work. We tried secret negotiating channels that led to Oslo and assumed it would lead to a Palestinian state. It didn't work."

There is disagreement over how to stanch suicide bombings: Should one remove the infrastructure that supports them or give the volunteers more reasons for living than for dying? For now, Israel is targeting the supply side of the attacks--the militant leaders and weapons makers who organize the missions. But as the pool of suicide bombers grows, the need for infrastructure diminishes. Recruiters are not much needed when volunteers are abundant. And bomb builders have proved to be replaceable. For example, Israeli forces managed to assassinate a Hamas master bombmaker on Jan. 22. The disruption led to a slight dip in attacks. But the organization's bombmaking expertise bounced back within a couple of months, Israeli security officials concede. "These operations cannot, absolutely cannot, be stopped," says Marzouk. "Nothing, neither policies nor military barricades, can prevent a person who chooses to be a martyr from carrying out his action." That has certainly been the experience with crackdowns by the Israelis.

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