Suicide bombings: Morality in the Palestinian Struggle

On April 13th, the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, issued a statement. Amongst other things, it included the following concerning the recent suicide bombing in Jerusalem:

‘We [the Palestinian leadership] strongly condemn all the attacks targeting civilians from both sides, and especially the attack that took place against Israeli citizens yesterday in Jerusalem.’

Several times in the past, Arafat has issued similar statements, in both English and Arabic, condemning this method of attack. Despite this, the Israeli government insists that he is at the centre of the Palestinian ‘terrorist infrastructure’ and has targeted him accordingly.

Such methods, employed by disparate Palestinian groups including religiously-inspired ones such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad as well as the secular Al-Aqsa Brigades, have evoked strong support from many pro-Palestinian activists, Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim. Considering the long and fierce Israeli occupation of Arab lands, this is hardly surprising: the message resonates throughout that if Palestinian civilians are killed by Israeli state-sponsored terrorism, then Israeli civilians will pay the price.

The Israeli government, also unsurprisingly, point to these suicide bombings as proof of a terrorist infrastructure located deep within Palestinian society, and insist on their right to defend themselves against such attacks, regardless of the fact that it is not the Palestinians that occupies Israel, but rather the reverse.

Disparity between the military capabilities of Israel (tacitly backed by the US) & the Palestinians has meant that defiance of occupation by a foreign military power has expressed itself in alternatives to normal military engagements, as they were in Lebanon’s resistance to Israel’s occupation of its southern areas. Such defiance is legally and morally justifiable, but does such justification hold regardless of how it is expressed?

All groups that utilize this tactic, whether religious or secular, attach an ethical dimension to their actions. When confronted with legal (again, whether religious or secular) arguments that the targeting of civilians is illegitimate, retorts abound that such bans do not apply to the current situation. Hamas refuses to characterise them as ‘suicide’ operations, insisting that they are not a ‘selfish act by the desperate & helpless’ but are brave feats that drive terror into the hearts of the enemy. Nor should any Israeli be considered a civilian, as they are all originally foreign settlers with full military training, occupying Palestinian property.

Such discourses paint the picture of there being a simple choice: if you support the State of Israel and Zionism, you must condemn the suicide bombers as being attackers of the Israeli state. If you support the people of Palestine, and their uprising against Israeli occupation of their land, you must back the resistance embodied in these operations.

One is reminded at this juncture of President George W. Bush’s now infamous statement: ‘You are either with us or against us’. Those who condemned the attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 were thus bound to co-operate in America’s ‘War against Terrorism’ and support its actions in Afghanistan.

But whilst few in the world did not condemn the attacks on the World Trade Centre, significant opposition to America’s self-styled ‘War against Terrorism’ arose, and this has grown recently with regards to proposed action against Iraq. Members of the ruling British Labour party would doubtlessly condemn wholeheartedly terrorism, but a growing number of MPs have voiced their opposition to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s talk of military action against Iraq, a country whose civilian population has suffered incredibly over the past decade due to the callous sanctions regime.

Similarly, supporters of the Palestinian cause include amongst their ranks those who reject suicide operations. Some may be non-violent pacifists, whilst many propose armed struggle subject to certain limits. They recognise Israel as a complex society with a citizenry that is at least 20% non-Zionist in conviction (including anti-Zionist Jews, as well as Palestinians who have Israeli citizenry).

Whilst military installations may be considered legitimate and moral targets, non- combatants unengaged in hostilities are out of bounds, whether they received military training in the past or not. As Robert Fisk, a reporter not known for his support of Israel, recently wrote in the British Independent: ‘Yes, the Palestinians’ suicide campaign is immoral, unforgivable, insupportable. One day, the Arabs – never ones to look in the mirror when it comes to their own crimes – will have to acknowledge the sheer cruelty of their tactics. They have not done this so far.’ What Fisk does not note is that these tactics have also brought the issue of Palestine to Israelis at large, many of whom are unfamiliar with Israel’s history, and were previously unwilling or untroubled to investigate. They have also, however, created an Israeli Jewish public that is unable to see past the devastation the suicide bombers create.

Those who share Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s loyalty to Islam also insist that the taking of one’s own life is unequivocally forbidden, and repeat the military regulations laid down by the Qur’an and the prophetic precedent which disallow the targeting of unarmed civilians. Cynics cite negative international media coverage due to such operation, whilst others still question their strategic worth.

Needless to say, the issue does not appear to be resolving itself in the current climate, nor should any amicable conclusion to the discussion be expected in the near future.

Yet, it is undeniable that supporters of the Palestinian cause will be questioned about it for as long as the tactic continues and for long after, when historians begin to analyse the liberation of Palestine in its moral context; a liberation which is certain as every colonisation enterprise in history that could not create a demographic majority eventually collapsed.

However, the moral high ground of Israelis such as Shimon Peres (who recently characterised them as immoral) is incredibly shaky. After all, they continue to support a government led by a war criminal whose record in Qibya, Sabra & Shatila (which the Israeli Kahane commission gave him personal responsibility for but failed to punish him) and now Jenin, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Tulkarm, Qalqilya and Nablus is well known and inexcusable.

From a moral, ethical and religious perspective (whether Muslim, Christian or Jew), these attacks are indeed iniquitous and awful, and it behoves supporters of the Palestinian struggle to note this whether in public or private. The recent deaths of Palestinian schoolchildren in an attempted ‘martyrdom’ operation on an Israeli settlement in Gaza is a sad and miserable reminder of how important it is to declare this in no unclear terms; to do otherwise can have disastrous effects.

Nevertheless, it is unscrupulous to simply condemn such actions without understanding and realising the conditions that made them an effect of a cause. Such attacks should never be discussed out of the context in which they arose; the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories for decades, and the dispossession, expulsion and attempted dehumanisation of the Palestinian populace for more than half a century.

In short, if you treat someone like a dog, don’t be surprised if he bites like one.

Neither the condemnations of world leaders nor Zionism’s opposition to these suicide operations will be of much consequence; the former has proven to be toothless in upholding the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people for decades, and the latter has no business criticising the people they currently occupy for ethical confusion. World leaders failed to uphold the rights of Palestinian refugees that were forced to flee Palestine in 1948 and 1967, and have remained obtuse to the continuing humiliation of those who remained. Zionist leaders, whether on the right or on the left of the Israeli spectrum, have either actively or passively endorsed such barbaric treatment of the indigenous population and their words mean little to the Palestinians who wish to strike back.

In spite of that, the Palestinians should recall that the basic humanity of their cause requires them to behave better than their oppressors; for when the oppressed learns ethics from the oppressor, distinguishing them becomes pointless. The final victory of the Palestinians emanates from their refusal to imitate, even to a comparatively small degree, the cruelty of their oppressors.


Hisham al- Zoubeir is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations at the University of Warwick. His background is in law and international politics, with a particular interest on the position of minorities.

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