Amira Hass Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Occupation and Terrorism: Conversation with Amira Hass, Columnist, Haaretz; October 24, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Suicide Bombers

Let's talk a little now about the suicide bombers, because in this recent phase, the last couple of years of the second Intifada, this has become a series of events that have shattered our ability to understand what is actually going on in that part of the world, and has obviously been tied to the U.S. policy and war against terrorism, and links have been made, whether they are justified or not. Help us understand how suicide bombers emerged in this conflict on the Palestinian side.

The first suicide bombings, which occurred in Palestinian territory, not in Israel, were in '93. This was ten years after the first suicide bombings in Lebanon, which means that for ten years, Palestinians, who are mostly Muslims, did not think of endorsing such a way. Their fight was always based on hope for life, not for death. Now, '93 is two years after the imposition of the pass system and of the closure policy. I think it has to do -- you feel this impotence, this terrible impotence that Palestinians felt in the times when their space was reduced. And this was only '93, and [comprised] three or four [suicide] attempts inside the occupied territories -- Gaza and the West Bank -- against mostly military targets, and settlers (who are seen by Palestinians as military, not as civilians).

The first suicide bombings inside Israel were in '94. These were one month or so, or two months after the murder conducted by a Jewish-American physician or doctor in Hebron, where he killed twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in their holy place. So this was a revenge one time, and then [more] revenge started. It started to be emulated by Hamas and by jihadis against Israel, always saying that this is retaliation against Israeli actions in killing those civilians. But it had a clear political motive on the part of Hamas, and this was to foil the Oslo agreements, or to push to a corner the Palestinian Authority. This is, I think, is obvious. So it had a political motive and especially an internal political motive, the struggle within the Palestinian Authority.

So the factions within the Palestinian leadership, in their competition with each other for popular support, see this as a tool?

It was a tool then by Hamas. In this Intifada, it became a tool in the competition between everybody. These factions are using people's disgust with life, total loss of hope, the need for revenge, because so many Palestinians civilians have been killed during the last three years, almost unnoticed by the entire world. They feel this need to take revenge, and they feel this need to get out, even for a moment, from their captivated and very limited space, vis-á-vis Israeli military technology, and to be omnipotent even for one moment. They're ready to die for this, because they don't see any point in living. But then the factions are using this readiness, not because they strategize and they think this will bring them closer to independence, but because they compete with each other on their popularity within the Palestinian population.

Let's broaden our understanding of this. What you have is a hypothetical person whose family's land is taken away, or who loses a relative, or ...

Or who sees so much blood around them.

Right. Who has been led to unbelievable depression and frustration, and becomes a target of opportunity for factions among the Palestinian leadership, who want to use him in this way to strike back at Israel.

Very often they don't have to work hard to recruit him or her. Very often such people voluntarily look for someone and say, "We would like to make a suicide attempt." So they come themselves very often.

But from our side of the water, it's hard to understand what would lead a person to take this act. One is not sure whether they're motivated by religion, by going to heaven. Talk a little about that.

For me as a secular person, it's also very difficult to, on the one hand, to believe or to understand when people do talk about heaven. So I need the help of my Palestinian friends and acquaintances, who might not be very secular but not either very religious. Most of them say that going to heaven, or the religious motivations of being shahid, being martyred, and getting eternal life in heaven, these are not the main motivations, they only come last, or they are being adopted because it is accepted as the norm.

The real motivations are those personal community ones -- not even personal in the sense that one's life is a total wreck. No. We see that many of those who went to explode themselves had careers or started to have careers, were not coming from the poorest families, were enrolled into universities. So it's not people who were a total loss in Western norms, or even Palestinian norms. They felt they represent the society in its despair, and they want to do something, [make] some use of this despair, revenge.

It is a very delicate interplay between the personal despair, but not immediate despair, and the political community despair. Many of them got strength by becoming more observant, by going to the mosque, by praying five times a day, by reading Koran over and over again. It's only then. Some of them started with the Koran at the beginning of the Intifada when they saw so much bloodshed. So many of their neighbors and friends and relatives getting killed, civilians getting killed by Israeli soldiers. They found compensation and solace with reading the Koran. So it strengthened them.

But this was not the motivation. It was, maybe, the support. At the same time, as I told yesterday in my lecture, I did speak to one person from Hamas who eventually was killed, not in a suicide attempt. He was always going out vis-à-vis the Israeli military tanks and soldiers, and eventually he was killed in one of those battles. He with his gun and invading tanks in his neighborhood. We had talked a year before he was killed, and he saw himself as a candidate for suicide, because this was suicide. To fight against the Israeli army is almost suicide, because the proportions are such that you are always getting killed. He didn't mention religious motivations at all, only the national ones, only to think how many of his friends got killed. He was a very educated person, and also very religious, theoretically religious. He didn't use religion as the first motivation for him at all. It gave him support, but not motivation.

Next page: Leaders and Motives

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