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Sunday, January 29, 2006
Is Palestinian Suicide Terrorism Evil?

As mentioned before, the Palestinians have elected Hamas--a group dedicated to the destruction of Israel--to an absolute majority in the legislature. Some have commented that the electoral success of Hamas is further proof that Palestinians have embraced suicide terrorism. To me this view--that Palestinian parents would rather celebrate the death of their child if a few Israelis die in the process--and the concomitant debate on the morality of (suicide) terrorism obscures the political nature of the struggle.

Let us begin with the election of Hamas. The party's victory can not simply be viewed as a vote for suicide terrorism; it is possible that the Palestinians were simply voting against the corruption of Fatah. (There hasn't been a parliamentary election since 1996.) Let's consider voting in the American context. Many people voted for Kerry in the last election. Was a vote for Kerry a vote for any of the Democratic proposals at the time? Might it not have also been a vote against Bush, that and no more? Hamas has, among other things, provided much needed social services for the Palestinians. As a voter, corruption and vague future promises of peace from Fatah, or, the promise of less corruption, more services, and vague future promises of peace from Hamas sounds like a no brainer to me.

However, the objection that Hamas supports and encourages suicide terrorism against Israel (their year long truce notwithstanding) gains further support from the idea that Palestinian society is rabidly anti-semitic. This theory suggests that racism within the territories drives domestic support for terrorism; coupled with victories for a terrorist organization, the racism might lead to more strife. Critics of Israel respond that popular racism is not unique to the Palestinians in this conflict, and thus should not be counted against the Palestinians. Nevertheless, societal racism is not sufficient to explain either the Palestinian use of the suicide tactic nor Israeli willingness (before the late Sharon period) to move populations, flatten homes, and kill Palestinians. The true explanation is that the political elites of both societies were trying to convince the respective populations that longing for control over Palestine was extremely costly. Now both sides are exhausted and wish to disengage. Israeli elites are trying to convince Palestinian elites that the struggle for all of Palestine is futile. The Palestinians are doing the same thing in reverse.

Israeli leaders, particularly since the accession of the Likud under Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, believed that strategic depth of territory was necessary for the defense of Israel. This belief was present in the early days of the state from Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, on the right, to David Ben-Gurion, on the left. Jabotinsky was much more clear that the creation of Israel would require that either an iron wall be erected between Arab--there were no Palestinians in his narrative-- and Jew in mandatory Palestine, or, that the future citizens of Israel cleanse the Arabs from the land in a sorting process similar to what was happening in post-war Europe at the time. However, we now know that Ben Gurion's pragmatic policy of accepting the UN mandate and waging calculated wars of aggression to defeat the existential threat posed by the Arab armies amassed around the new Jewish state was shrewd. The quick wars of independence gained Israel a foothold but left it without strategic depth-- the minimum amount of land necessary to prevent a blitzkrieg through the state. The wars ended in what have now come to be called the "pre-1967 borders", or, the truce lines of 1949.

Students of history will recall the Israeli interventions into Lebanon in 1978 and 1981 and wonder how my theory accounts for those. The Lebanese interventions, as well as decade earlier cooperation with Jordan during its little civil war, was aimed to end the PLO as an organization. After 1967, the PLO, Yasser Arafat's organization, migrated to live amount the substantial Palestinian minority in Jordan, formerly Transjordan, and carry out the same attacks against the Israeli state that first began in the 1950s. However, Arafat, like most refugee organizations in exile, became ambitious and tried to organize a coup against the Jordanian king in what became known as the Black September of 1970. Jordan cooperated with Israel to remove Arafat, and his organization, from Jordan.

Arafat then migrated to Lebanon, which, by that time had collapsed into a civil war and continued to harass Israel from its borders. The Israeli armed intervention of 1981 finished what the first intervention of 1978 started; the mission was a success if you limit the parameters of evaluation to whether or not Sharon, then defense-minister, successful ejected Arafat et al. from Lebanon. What the Ministry of Defense did not foresee is that the Israeli army would become the target of Hezbollah, another armed guerrilla group, once the PLO had been removed. Hezoballah also began rocket attacks against Israeli settlements in the occupied territories once the Syrian-backed peace agreement in 1989 ended the Lebanese civil war. (Israeli troops finally withdrew from southern Lebanon under Ehud Barak in 2000.) After the ascension of Yizhak Rabin to the premiership, the Israeli elite began to believe that you could cede strategic depth for protection from insurgencies. However, they did not want the Palestinian elites to believe that they had just run from the fight due to the insurgency, and tried to negotiate a settlement while applying military pressure. Sharon personified this strategy after he ascended to high office and thoroughly killed off militant leadership in Palestine through "targeted strikes" throughout the duration of the second Intifadah.

The Palestinians had also modified their strategic goals from 1948 to 2005. Just as the Israelis abandoned their notion of strategic depth--the rhetoric about a return to "pre-1967" borders proves this--so did Palestinians elites shift their goals from the whole of Palestine to a two-state solution.

The original goal of the Palestinian political leadership was, as far as I can tell, concocted with the rest of the Arab League and consisted in wiping Israel off the map. As Palestinian nationalism coalesced in the then unoccupied territories, the attacks of the fedayeen (miltants) which plagued Israel from 1950 to 1967 intensified. The fedeayeen fled with Arafat to Jordan after the 1967 war. The remembrance of what the Israelis like to call the "War of Independence" on 1948 as Al Naqba (the disaster) adequately reflects the Palestinian elite's view of what they considered to be a colonial enterprise.

1967 and 1973 changed the strategic thinking of Palestinian elites because they had to go into exile to other Arab states. They used these safe havens to launch attacks on Israeli territory. The dramatic conquest and subsequent humbling of the Israeli military giant in the wars of 1967 and 1973 meant that it was no longer productive for the Palestinian elites to imagine a future without Israel; though it was not impossible to catch the Israelis by surprise, the 1973 war proved that, between their superior technology, brilliant generals (like Sharon), and American support, Israel was an accomplished fact unlikely to change. Thus, the Palestinian elite thinking split three ways. First, there was the old guard, who, with Arafat would go into exile in Jordan, then Lebanon, and then to Algeria and turn to a life of political, though not suicide, terrorism. (Recall the Munich Olympics.) Second, there were the militants who wanted to create a state of permanent insurrection to grind down the Israeli military and resist the growing settlement blocks in the West Bank and Gaza. Like most militants in the region, they became radicalized over time. Finally, there were those Palestinians who pushed for citizenship and inclusion within Israel, or, for political existence along Israel in a separate state.

Suggestions that Islam is a culture of martyrdom to explain suicide terrorism, therefore, seems particularly naive because we can't explain the rise of suicide terrorism with sole recourse to Islamic beliefs given that suicide terrorism emerges over time whereas the Islamic beliefs are constant over that period. If Islam caused suicide terrorism, we would have witnessed suicide terrorism from the earliest days of the nationalist resistance, circa 1950. In fact, suicide terrorism emerged as a modern phenomena, first used by the non-Muslim Tamil Tigers; this tactic spread across the word as a useful, effective method of resistance. Now as to why some groups choose suicide terrorism over non-suicide terrorism, I cannot say. What I can say is that all the smoke and mirrors about Muslims wanting to die is large pile of horse pluckey.

At the present moment in Israeli-Palestinian relations-- after the death of Arafat and the destruction of most of the political, security, and terror apparati in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Gaza, as well as the fence-- the Palestinian elite's will, which encouraged and channeled suicide bombers, has ebbed.

This mini history lessons all does to say this: suicide terrorism is not a unique moral question. Either all warfare is murder, or we must recognize that the decision to use force for most politicians and political elites is not a moral question but a political one. It seems silly and a bit imperialist to judge suicide terrorism from a moral point of view as Americans. From the Palestinian point of view, suicide terrorism is a technology in a war of national liberation; it would be facile to demand that the Palestinians deploy tanks, Apache helicopters, and infantrymen to wage their struggle. From Israel's point of view, it is fighting a counter-insurgency against a national liberation struggle. The weight of history--whether industrialized countries generally win counter-insurgency wars against national liberation movements-- is not on its side here.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not about morality, racism, or evil--all words often over-used in these tired debates. The conflict is about about the liberation of the destiny of one nation which has found itself in unwilling intercourse with another that seeks its security at the expense of that nation's well being. The struggle is about whether Israel will ever know peace for its children and normalize relations with its neighbours. The war has caused the Palestinians to ask "Need we always be oppressed" whereas the Israelis query "Need we always be pariahs?" It's not clear that ascriptions of evil answers the respective questions of either side.