Martyrs and Heroes? Some Reflections on Suicide Bombing


Suicide bombing was first practiced by Japanese kamikaze (meaning “divine wind”) fighter plane pilots during World War II. Palestinians did not invent it.

In fact, they waited until 1995 — a full 28 years after Israel’s illegal occupation of their land in 1967 — to use it as a means of armed resistance to end the occupation. Palestinians call suicide bombings “amaliyya istishhadiyya” (or “martyr operations”) to give the actions a religious dimension. They consider the operatives, who pay with their lives as human bombs, heroes.

But the Palestinians are not unique in their methods. Throughout history, people who have resisted occupation and oppression through extreme means were, and are, called heroes and martyrs.

In his book “The Jews and the Crusaders,” Shlomo Eidelberg tells us that in 1096 CE, “the Jews who fought the Crusaders reflect the typical fate of the self-defender.” In a desperate move to free his people from Christian mistreatment, a young Jewish man named Simcha ha-Cohen (a highly revered priestly name in Hebrew) “drew a knife and murdered the nephew of the local bishop.” He too was labelled a terrorist by his oppressors, but a resistance hero by Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan, one of the foremost Jewish chroniclers of the time. Like other Jewish historians, he considered all Jews who were killed while fighting the advancing Crusaders as martyrs for their faith.

What else can Palestinians call those who choose to die for a free Palestine, except heroes and martyrs? And what else can Israelis call them, except terrorists, killers and murderers? Yet although such naming is important to both sides of the conflict in advancing their political agendas, it is hardly helpful to describe or change reality.

The Arab-Israeli war of 1973 is called by many in the West the October War. But it was given a religious dimension by both combattants: in Israel it is called the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) war, while in the Arab world it is called “harb ramadan,” the War of Ramadan, after the Islamic month in which it was launched.

But a larger reality now is the ongoing 34-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza. It is a text-book occupation story, in which invading forces spread death, misery, and destruction, while the population under their power tries to resist.

The occupation forces use a greatly superior (and lethal) military machine, along with its propaganda, its political clout, and its economic power, to justify acts of terror and to pressure the subjected population to surrender their rights. This is called “terrorism from above.” Its operatives are well-protected, flying thousands of feet above in F-16s, or concealed inside the cockpits of sophisticated killing machines like helicopter gunships and tanks.

As a result, the people under occupation strike back with any means available, against solders in uniform, solders on leave, and armed settlers. They consider any civilian casualties on either side to be the full responsibility of the occupying government, whose aggression is the cause root of violence.

During World War II, Hitler’s armies occupied most of Europe, using sheer military might to spread Nazism. Resistance movements, armed not only with scavenged weapons, but also with courage, hope, persistence and ingenuity, opposed Hitler and were instrumental in preparing the way for Allied forces to defeat the Third Reich. To accomplish this, resistance fighters — men, women, children, even the elderly — often had to resort to what we today would call terrorist acts in the absence of any other alternatives to regaining their peoples’ freedom.

When German occupation forces retaliated by wiping out local resistance cells, they killed many innocent men, women and children, even destroying entire villages. Yet military reprisals did not crush that desire for freedom; resistance members were regarded as underground heroes.

Despite their own historical experience of being oppressed, Israel’s leaders still seem not to have grasped that their 34-year occupation of Palestinian territories and the crude “finders-keepers” method of planting armed settlements on them, is wholly responsible for creating and sustaining the environment of terror in which several generations of young Palestinian have grown up.

Born as children of war, and now in their late teens, twenties and thirties, they exist as hopeless and helpless adults with no prospects of contributing to normal society. Many young Palestinians, like their peers anywhere in the world, yearn for meaning in life: if given the choice between death, and merely existing as virtual prisoners under armed occupation, death is often seen as the better alternative.

Military might cannot prevent resistance movements from arising among occupied peoples, nor can soldiers stamp them out unless virtually everyone dies in the process, as happened to the Jewish defenders of Masada when Roman armies attacked this landmark fortress in 70 CE.

History has shown over and over again that increasing the combat level of occupation only raises the resistance level. It is almost a scientific formula by now. The unwanted result for today’s Israel is that all who die in the struggle for a free Palestine have become martyrs; and all who continue on in the face of death are hailed as freedom-fighters and heroes. It does not matter that their oppressors label them as killers or terrorists. It is another text book case, like the Irish resisting the British, the Algerians resisting the French, the French resisting the Germans, etc.

Yasser Arafat is the elected and internationally acknowledged leader of the Palestinian people in their struggle for a free and independent nation. To them and their freedom-supporters worldwide, he is a hero while alive (whether at large, imprisoned, or exiled) and — should the Israelis be obscenely foolish enough to allow or orchestrate his death — a martyr.

Thus, Israel’s leaders have lost their moral credibility, despite retaining unbelievably strong American economic, political and military support.

This is a many-layered tragedy for Jews and Palestinians, for on the bottom line, both continue to pay the lessons of history with their own people’s lives.

But this occupation will end — it is a matter of when, not if. History is on the side of the Palestinians and the illegal occupiers of their land will end up like numerous oppressors before them.

Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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