DEFINITIONS: Suicide bomber

SUICIDE BOMBERS: What is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombings? A Palestinian Christian perspective (abridged)

by Naim Ateek

 Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek

Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek

(You can read the full document, with footnotes, here.)

The issue of Palestinian suicide bombings has become a familiar topic to many people throughout the world. It is easy for people, whether inside Israel/Palestine or outside to either quickly and forthrightly condemn it as a primitive and barbaric form of terrorism against civilians; or condone and support it as a legitimate method of resisting an oppressive Israeli occupation that has trampled Palestinian dignity and brutalized their very existence.

As a Christian, I know that the way of Christ is the way of nonviolence and, therefore, I condemn all forms of violence and terrorism whether coming from the government of Israel or from militant Palestinian groups. [1]…

Having said that clearly, it is still important to help the readers, whether Palestinians or expatriates, to understand the phenomenon of suicide bombings that tragically arises from the deep misery and torment of many Palestinians. For how else can one explain it? When healthy, beautiful, and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguished cry for justice…

This article is, therefore, addressed to all people of conscience urging them to work for a speedy termination of the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. Such an act will, most certainly, bring this tragic phenomenon of suicide bombing to an end and ensure security for both Israel as well as Palestine…

THE BACKGROUND

The Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip took a very important turn since the early 1990’s. Young Palestinian men, and more lately women, [2] started to strap themselves with explosives making their way to Israeli Jewish areas whether crowded with soldiers or civilians and blowing themselves up killing and injuring dozens of people around them.

Between the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 and until Wednesday, June 19, 2002, Palestinian militants carried out 56 suicide bombings in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including Jerusalem, as well as inside Israel killing, according to Israeli statistics, 225 Israelis including soldiers, men, women, and children. [3] In the same period, the Israeli army killed 1645 Palestinians including police, men, women, and children (emphasis added).

For the last thirty-five years, the Palestinians have been engaged in resisting the occupation of their country…It has been an oppressive military domination.

Today over three million Palestinians are longing for independence and freedom. Instead, most of them are under siege and are subjected to curfews and humiliation. Israel has been consistently confiscating their land and building exclusively Jewish settlements on it, restricting their movements, demolishing their homes, devouring their water resources, and controlling every aspect of their life.

The Palestinians have tried through different methods to shake off the occupation but to no avail. For many years they have worked through the international community to bring an end to the Israeli occupation but they have been unsuccessful. Indeed, the United Nations has been powerless to implement its many resolutions on Palestine…

 Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with US President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1993 at the White House

Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin and PLO President Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords with US President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1993 at the White House


Palestinians went to the Madrid Conference in October 1991 with the hope that it would lead to the implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338. Instead, the negotiations took a circuitous route and opened the way to the Oslo Peace Process in 1993…

Oslo led to entrenching the Israeli domination system, the deterioration of Palestinian economic life, increase in the confiscation of their land, and the deepening of their oppression…

Without understanding this background, it is difficult to grasp the evolution of the phenomenon of suicide bombings.

THE UNDERLYING CAUSES: An attempt to understand but not to justify

Historically speaking, the Palestinians did not begin their resistance to the occupation with suicide bombings. These came at least 25 years later when the political and security situation deteriorated considerably; and when it became certain that the international community [i.e. the UN] is powerless to implement its own resolutions.

There were no suicide bombings before the Oslo Peace Process. It is the result of despair and hopelessness that started to set in when an increasing number of Palestinians became frustrated by the deepening Israeli oppression and humiliation…

No one is born a terrorist. [Suicide bombers] were born in the image and likeness of God. They were born human beings with love of life and freedom. All of them, with no exception, were born under the Israeli military occupation. The only Jews they knew were Israeli soldiers carrying guns and dehumanizing them. It was in the crucible of the occupation that they were shaped and formed. (emphasis added) And if Israel labels them as terrorists, they are, after all the product of its own making.

Before 1993, they were resisting the occupation of their country through the traditional methods available to them…

 Israeli AH-64 Apache helicopter lands at the Ramon air force

Israeli AH-64 Apache helicopter lands at the Ramon air force

However, with increasing Israeli oppressive and punitive measures against them -- the use of helicopter gunships to assassinate Palestinian leaders, F-16 fighter planes to kill people and destroy homes, the mushrooming of military checkpoints to control and humiliate people, closures and siege of Palestinian cities and towns, army incursions into Palestinian areas, and much more -- suicide bombings came to be perceived as a more potent tool of resistance that can reciprocate the pain and hurt they were experiencing…

Almost every aspect of Palestinian life is controlled by the Israeli army and many people have lost the ability to dream of a better future or envisage a better life. Therefore, the desire to avenge their wasted life, take revenge against the occupation, and at the same time take away with them as many Israeli lives as possible becomes an objective…

They are ready to become suicide bombers in order to purify and redeem themselves and express their utmost loyalty and patriotism for their country and people…Indeed, many of them feel that Israel has practically pronounced a death sentence on them. It is only a matter of time. Death is surely coming to them whether through a slow economic strangulation, or harsh political negation, or daily personal dehumanization.

From the perspective of those who believe in and carry out these suicide operations, there is a simple and plain logic. As Israeli soldiers shell and kill Palestinians indiscriminately, Palestinian suicide bombers strap themselves with explosives and kill Israelis indiscriminately. [8] They perceive every Israeli as the enemy who has robbed them of their land and is responsible for their misery…

Moreover, [Ariel] Sharon has insisted repeatedly that Israel is involved in a war with the Palestinians. In war, soldiers give themselves up on behalf of their country whether their country is the aggressor or fending aggression…Some Palestinians would, however, argue that if what is going on is a war as Israel claims it is, then in war the whole nation is mobilized and different militia groups become engaged in resisting the occupation of their country…

No war has been free from [acts considered brave by one side and cruel by the other] and its actors were labeled heroes and were awarded medals posthumously. They were not called terrorists.

A MUSLIM PERSPECTIVE

The suicide bombings become a more powerful phenomenon when their religious underpinnings are emphasized…People regarded the suicide bombers as martyrs and that paradise awaited them…

[T]hese martyrs believe they are fighting for the cause of God and their place in heaven is, therefore, guaranteed. An important quote from the Qur’an in this regard is, “Count not those were slain in God’s path as dead, but rather living with their Lord, by Him provided.” [13]

 Imam Yahya Hendi makes an impassioned appeal for Muslim-Jewish peace during the Third World Congress of Imams and Rabbis, Dec. 15-17, 2008 in Paris.

Imam Yahya Hendi makes an impassioned appeal for Muslim-Jewish peace during the Third World Congress of Imams and Rabbis, Dec. 15-17, 2008 in Paris.

Other Muslims argued strongly that Islamic law forbids the killing of non-combatants and therefore, the killing of innocent Israelis is wrong. Imam Yahya Hendi is a Qur’anic scholar who is the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University…

He quotes the verse “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors.” [15] This verse speaks of a defensive war that is waged to stop the aggression but not to go beyond it. “The idea is that justice prevails.”…

He quotes prophet Muhammad as saying, “Do not attack a temple, a church, a synagogue. Do not bring a tree or a plant down. Do not harm a horse or a camel…”

Finally, Imam Hendi…states that, “the Qur’an doesn’t condone terrorism, though Muhammad was the leader of a military force and therefore used violence…. While there are passages in the Qur’an, like the Old Testament of the Bible, that celebrate military victory, the overall gestalt of the Qur’an promotes a more restrained view….

‘We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people’ [16] …

He ends this article with the words, “the Qur’an goes one step further in chapter 8, verse 61, ‘But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace, and trust in Allah.” [17]

HAMAS PERSPECTIVE

…Khaled Mash’al, one of the leaders of Hamas…said that had the international community done justice to the Palestinians, there would have been no reason for it to resort to martyrdom operations.

He considered these operations as very effective. [M]ilitant Islamic groups saw the suicide bombings as a powerful weapon that inflicted not only a heavy human toll but also a psychological trauma affecting a large segment of Israeli society and exposing Israel’s vulnerability…

 Khaled Mash’al

Khaled Mash’al

Consequently, Israel heightened its media warfare against the Palestinians, locally and internationally, comparing its predicament to that of the United States in its fight against terrorism; and comparing Palestinian “terrorism” with that of Osama Ben Laden and his Al-Qa’ida network.

Israel did not mention its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and domination of a whole nation. Therefore, many people in the West, especially in the United States fell in the Israeli trap not discerning the great difference between what has happened in the United States on September 11 and what is happening to a people who have been subjected to a harsh and brutal occupation… (emphasis added)

For those who believe in the armed struggle, [suicide bombings suggest] that the weak are not as weak as they seem to be; and the strong are not as strong as they think they are.

And if Israel wanted to call it ‘terrorism,’ so be it. Did not Yitsak Rabin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, himself call terrorism the weapon of the powerless?” [19]

EFFECTS AND OUTCOME

Although Israel was deeply hurt by suicide bombings, the consequences that the extremists were hoping would happen did not take place…

As it turned out, Israel had a good number of military options; and due to its successful media campaign, everything it did was justified as self-defense. In spite of its gross violations of international law including the perpetration of war crimes, it got away with it and managed to escape the censure of the international community…

PALESTINIAN CONDEMNATION

Although suicide bombings were condemned by some Palestinians, including the Palestinian Authority, they were accepted popularly by many as a way of avenging the Israeli army’s daily killings of resistance fighters and innocent Palestinians.

And while the American government rushed to condemn suicide bombings and expected the same from the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s killing of Palestinian leaders and ordinary civilians did not abate and passed as self-defense and was un-condemned publicly by the United States.

Be that as it may, it is important to reiterate clearly that the Palestinian community is not totally in support of the suicide bombings. Although there are Palestinians who are sympathetic, many have denounced them. On Wednesday, June 16, 2002, 58 Palestinian men and women, Muslims and Christians, among whom are well known personalities, signed a public statement published by the most read Arabic daily, AlQuds asking for a halt to all suicide bombings…

The statement mentioned that the suicide bombings are counterproductive and will not lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations. It only allows Israel to justify its increasing vicious attacks on Palestinian towns and villages. The statement was published in the paper on five consecutive days before it was transferred to the website with hundreds more signatories. Over 500 people expressed their desire to see a termination of any suicide operations.

ISRAELI REACTION

There were voices inside Israel that were calling for more drastic and severe measures to curb the suicide bombings.

One of those was Gideon Ezra, the deputy public security minister who openly on television on August 19, 2001, called on his government to execute the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. He argued that if potential suicide bombers know that their families will be wiped out then they will refrain from committing the act. Apparently, Ezra was basing his suggestion on a Nazi practice that used to arrest and inflict suffering on the families of those who were suspected of undermining the state…

Shockingly, Ezra’s words did not draw any protest or criticism from the Israeli government. [20]

Certainly, not all the voices inside Israel are as extreme as Ezra. By contrast, there are courageous voices that called on their Israeli government to examine its harsh policies against the Palestinians that breed suicide bombings.

 Nurit Peled-Elhanan

Nurit Peled-Elhanan

In one case, Rami and Nurit Elhanan lost their 14 year-old-daughter who was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in September 1997. In spite of the tragic loss, the parents became actively involved in peacemaking. They blamed the Israeli occupation calling it “a cancer that is feeding terror”. “Israel is becoming a graveyard of children. The Holy Land is being turned into a wasteland.” “Our daughter was killed because of the terror of Israeli occupation. Every innocent victim from both sides is a victim of the occupation”…

The couple established the Bereaved Family Forum with Izzat Ghazzawi, a Palestinian whose 16-year old son Ramy was killed by Israeli troops. [21]…

A CHRISTIAN RESPONSE

In discussing suicide bombings from a religious perspective, it is worthwhile to reflect, though briefly, on the story of Samson. His story occupies four chapters in the book of Judges (13-16)…It is a story of a strong young man who rose up to save his people who were oppressed by the coastal powerful neighbor, the Philistines [25] [who would have considered him a terrorist].

According to the story, Samson was very successful in his brave adventures against his enemies. Eventually, he was captured by the Philistines and tortured. They pulled out his eyes and kept him in jail. In order to celebrate their victory over their archenemy, Samson, the Philistines brought him to a big event attended by three thousand men and women including their five kings. His final act of revenge took place when he pushed the two main columns of the building and pulled it down killing himself and all the attendees.

Samson’s final prayer seems very similar to the prayer of a suicide bomber before he blows himself up. “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.” [26]

Our purpose can well be served by a barrage of questions. Read in the light of today’s suicide bombers how do we evaluate the story of Samson? Was not Samson a suicide bomber? Was he acting on behalf of the God of justice who wills the liberation of the oppressed?...

Is it legitimate to tell the story today by substituting the name Ahmad for Samson?.. Is the dynamic under which God operates that of Jew versus other people or is it that of oppressor versus oppressed? Do we see the divine involvement of God in one story and not the other?...

Do we have the courage to condone both as acts of bravery and liberation or condemn both as acts of violence and terror?...Or do we hold a theology of a biased God who only stands with Israel whether right or wrong? [27]

Although some people in our Palestinian community admire the sacrifice of the suicide bombers and view it as the penultimate in the offering of oneself for the sake of the homeland and the liberation of the people; and although we understand its deeper motivation and background, we condemn it from both our position of faith as well as a legitimate method for resisting the occupation. Our reasons are based on the following points:

 Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III leads the Orthodox Easter ceremony of the 'Holy Fire' in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 15, 2017. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III leads the Orthodox Easter ceremony of the 'Holy Fire' in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City on April 15, 2017. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

1.     We condemn suicide bombings because they are a crime against God. Ultimately, it is only God our creator who gives us life and who can take it. Therefore, the sixth commandment, “you shall not murder” applies as much to murdering oneself as it does to murdering others…

2.     We condemn it because we believe that we must refrain from inflicting suffering or death on others…We must hasten to add that we equally condemn the state of Israel’s killing of Palestinians. Indeed, it constitutes the underlying cause of the conflict.

3. We condemn it because we believe that when we are confronted by injustice and evil, we must resist it without using its evil methods. We must endure suffering when inflicted upon us by unjust governments. We bear it but do not accept, submit, or succumb to it. Nonviolent resistance is an important tool for using against the enemy. Violence only breeds violence…

Martin Luther King Jr. expressed it well when he wrote: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…”[35]…

4. For the Christian, the supreme example is Christ. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” [36]

This is not passive resignation. It is total surrender to the God of justice who established this world on justice and who is going to make sure that injustice does not have the last word…

5. …We reject any understanding of God that reflects war, violence, or terrorism. The God that we have come to know in Jesus Christ is a God of peace, mercy, and love…God’s justice is expressed supremely in love, peace, and forgiveness.

6. In the midst of the injustice, suffering, and death inflicted on us, we believe that God in Christ is there with us. Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that), God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed. [39] God has not abandoned us…

7. We condemn suicide bombings because they practice, in essence, collective punishment against people many of whom are civilians…When suicide bombers commit collective punishment, they become what they loathe. One of the most hated and resented acts of the Israeli army is its exercise of collective punishment against the Palestinians…

In its primitive religious form, one can find examples in the Old Testament where God warns the ancient Israelites that he will punish the “children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation”…Tragically, acts of collective punishment have been wrongly attributed to God by humans in order to justify their own beastly behavior against their fellow human beings. Such acts, basically contradict our concept of the God of mercy and love. Even God’s justice is not void of mercy…

In modern times, the United Nations’ Fourth Geneva Convention clearly prohibits collective punishment. Article 33 of the Convention makes it clear that “No protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or terrorism are prohibited”…

[I]t is important to lift up the moral and ethical principles of international law, namely, that collective punishment is wrong and must be stopped at all cost.

8. Although people may be ready to die for their faith or even for their country they need to do everything they can to stay alive and witness in life rather than kill themselves. So long as they are alive, they have the opportunity to witness to the truth. Indeed, they need to remain faithful until death [46] but they must not give up on life and kill themselves. Their life is a gift from God and they must not destroy it. We must live the life we have to its fullest. Christ has come so that we might have life and that we might have it abundantly. [47]…

We reject suicide bombings because we believe in life before death as well as life after death. In spite of the despairing situation, these young men and women deserve to live…

CONCLUSION

Our faith motivates and drives us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. [49] We cannot condone suicide bombings in anyway or, for that matter, any use of violence and terror whether perpetrated by the state or militant groups…

As we continue to struggle for justice, peace, and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine, we must keep lifting up the prophetic vision of a world without violence. A world where people (Israelis and Palestinians) will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; [where] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. [50]

This vision is realistic and achievable. Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace if Israel will be willing to share the land with them and accept the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Unfortunately, the present policies of the government of Israel, and those internationals that support those policies, do not lend themselves to such a peace.

In fact, Israel is creating Bantustans (homelands, reservations) for the Palestinians and an Israeli form of apartheid that is much worse than what was practiced in South Africa. Today it is Israel that is creating and breeding extremism on the Palestinian side.

Indeed, the occupation…continues to be the root cause of the violence and terror. This cycle of terror perpetuated today is simply shutting the door on the future for both people. It is killing not only the present but the future.

The sooner we put an end to the occupation the better our life will be. Ending the occupation will certainly end the suicide bombings. All peace-loving people, whether people of faith or not, must exert greater concerted effort to work for the ending of the occupation. Ultimately, justice will prevail, the occupation will be over, and the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, will enjoy freedom and independence.

How do I know that this will take place? I know because I believe in God.

The Reverend Dr. Naim Ateek is the director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.

For footnotes, please see the original document

Kathryn ShihadahComment