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Bombers and the Martyr Syndrome

Faith is the key to the puzzle. The Koran says that if you die for God, you don't die.

by Eric Silver

December 6, 2001 | 7:00 pm

A car burns out of control after blowing up, shortly after a terror attack in downtown Jerusalem on Dec. 1. Ten people were reported dead with at least 150 injured. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

A car burns out of control after blowing up, shortly after a terror attack in downtown Jerusalem on Dec. 1. Ten people were reported dead with at least 150 injured. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Palestinian suicide bombers killed a total of 28 bus passengers and young people in a four-day orgy of blood and vengeance that stretched from Haifa and Hadera in the North to Jerusalem in the South.

The weekend's four human bombs brought to 30 the number of Palestinians who have blown themselves up since the intifada broke out 14 months ago. Hamas claimed responsibility for 22 of them, the smaller Islamic Jihad eight. Altogether, 243 Israelis have been killed by them and about 2,000 wounded.

Leaders of these extremist Islamic movements boast that young Palestinians are lining up by the hundreds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to volunteer for suicide missions. Eyad Sarraj, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project, detects a widespread eagerness and zeal. "If they are turned down," he said, "they become depressed. They feel they have been deprived of the ultimate award of dying for God."

Palestinian opinion polls show a sharp rise in support for suicidal attacks on Israelis. Before the intifada, it ranged from 20 to 25 percent. It is now soaring between 70 and 80 percent. And this cuts across party lines. Support for Hamas as a political movement runs at barely 20 percent (double what it was before September 2000, but still a minority) and support for Islamic Jihad is at about 5 percent.

Sarraj, who believes they are making a deadly mistake, has spent two decades researching the "martyr syndrome," trying to fathom why so many young Palestinian Muslims are competing to die with smiles on their faces. Religion, he concluded, was only part -- albeit a crucial part -- of the answer. The other components, he maintained, were a need to identify with a symbol of power and a thirst for revenge.

"The bottom line," Sarraj explained, "is absolute despair. It's not economic despair, not poverty, but political despair. These people identify with the defeated, humiliated Arab Islamic nation. They feel desperate because they can't defeat the Israelis on the battlefield. They can't rely on outside help. So in the end, they turn themselves into bombs."

Many Palestinian children, the London-trained psychiatrist added, had witnessed the humiliation of their fathers by Israeli soldiers. They no longer admired a father who couldn't protect them and couldn't even protect himself. So, they looked for an alternative. In the 1980s, after the first intifada, when children played "Arabs and Jews," the local variation of "Cowboys and Indians," many chose to be the Jews because the Jews were stronger.

But, that produced a trauma of its own. How, they brooded, could they identify with the enemy? So, Sarraj and his research team discovered, many of these young Palestinians turned to violence against others in their own community. Once the second intifada broke out, however, they found a more appealing model in the Palestinian fighter who kills for his nation.

That led in turn to hero-worship of the suicide bomber. "The martyr," Sarraj argued, "is the highest model because Muslim culture glorifies the martyr. He is the most courageous fighter because he meets the ultimate test of faith. The martyrs think they are exercising their will over life and death, the ultimate form of power."

Faith is the key to the puzzle. The Koran says that if you die for God, you don't die. The bombers believe it in the most literal sense. "If they believed that their death was really their end," Sarraj insisted, "they'd never do it. They believe they will go to a better and more victorious life."

The question challenging Palestinian and Israeli political leaders, not to mention President Bush's mediator, General Anthony Zinni, is whether the cult of the martyr is now so entrenched that it would be impossible for Yasser Arafat to rein in the bombers, even if he wanted to.

Ghassan Khatib, a West Bank political analyst, is convinced that the Palestinian leader could enforce a cease-fire, if the Israelis would help him. "Arafat is still in control of his security organizations," he said, "and he is still perceived as the leader. His word will be obeyed if it makes sense to the Palestinian in the street."

Everything turned, he contended, on whether the Israelis continued killing Palestinians, be they children on their way to school or Hamas commanders rocketed in their cars. "The reason for Arafat's failure so far is that he is required to deliver a unilateral cease-fire," Khatib said. "He was made weak last week when Israel killed 15 Palestinians in 48 hours. But, if a cease-fire is applied to both sides, he still has the authority to deliver."

After the latest suicide bombings, Ariel Sharon and Bush may yet force him to the test.

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