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"The suicide bomb is the 'smart bomb'
in the Palestinian arsenal"

CHENNAI - When 29-year-old Hanadi Tayseer Jaradat blew up herself and 19 others in a restaurant in Haifa, Israel on October 4, she joined the long and fast-growing list of Palestinian suicide bomber "martyrs". Claiming responsibility for the attack, the Islamic Jihad said that revenge had motivated Jaradat to carry out the mission.

There has been a significant spurt in suicide attacks since the start of the second intifada in September 2000. In 2001, around 36 suicide attacks were carried out - a sharp increase from the four attacks carried out the previous year. Suicide bombers became a part of the Palestinian militant armory only in 1993 - almost a decade after the Lebanese Hizbollah carried out a wave of suicide attacks in Beirut.

The first suicide attack by the Sri Lankan militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was in July 1987. The Tigers lead the pack, having carried out over 200 attacks since, several of them against prime ministers and presidents. Latecomers to the suicide mission strategy, the Palestinian militant groups, are said to have carried out around 150 attacks, most of them since September 2000.

Pre-September 2000 it used to be fairly easy to describe the Palestinian suicide bomber. A rough profile would read: young, male, unmarried and fanatically religious, with a bleak future. The profile has since changed. In fact, it has become increasingly difficult to define what a suicide bomber would be like.

Today a suicide bomber could be a brilliant student like 18-year old Ayat Akhras. It could be a newly-engaged 21-year old like Maher Habashi, who killed himself and 15 others in a bus in Haifa in December 2001. Or it could be a 47-year-old-father of eight, like Daoud Abu Sway, who carried out a suicide attack in a hotel in 2001. The suicide bomber could even be a woman, like 28-year old Wafa Idris, who became the first Palestinian woman suicide bomber on January 27, 2002. A suicide bomber does not have to be an Islamic fundamentalist. Idris, for one, did not fit the profile of a fundamentalist. Family pictures show her wearing makeup and sleeveless dresses.

Jaradat, who is the fifth Palestinian woman suicide bomber, had a bright future ahead of her. She had completed her law studies in Jordan five years ago and was working as a trainee in Jenin. She was just days away from qualifying as a full-fledged lawyer.

The Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have carried out most of the suicide attacks in Israel. Some years ago, Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants would hunt around for recruits to carry out suicide attacks. Mosques, funerals and protest demonstrations were their favorite hunting grounds where they would look for religious, committed and angst-ridden young men. Those who showed an inclination would be indoctrinated and trained for the mission.

Today the process is far easier. It is said that several volunteer to carry out missions. Consequently, the indoctrination and training process is not a tough job or a time-consuming process. There is a steady stream of volunteers to choose from.

Revenge appears to have motivated Jaradat to strap herself with explosives and blow herself up. Israeli forces in a raid on Jenin killed her 25-year-old brother Fadi and a 34-year old cousin Salah, both Islamic Jihad militants, in June. The two were killed in the presence of Jaradat. It is said she was inconsolable after their death. Always religious, the incident appears to have set off an even more intense religiosity. This, together with a desire to avenge the death of her cousin, would have made her volunteer to carry out a suicide attack. She would not have needed much persuading by the Islamic Jihad. But revenge alone is an inadequate explanation.

Analysts who have been trying to understand the mind of a suicide bomber have come up with a variety of theories to explain their motivation. Some have looked for answers in religion. Islam, they quickly point out, holds out the promise of a place in heaven for a martyr, including the attention of 72 virgins who will serve him in heaven. Seventy relatives, too, find places in heaven thanks to the "martyr's" sacrifice. But these are rewards for a martyr. Islam clearly forbids suicide.

Some clerics have opposed the use of suicide bombs. Reuven Paz of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Herzliya draws attention to the reservations over excessive use of suicide bombs that were expressed by Sherf Mohammed Serifadla, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Hizbollah. Incidentally, Shi'ite Islam draws inspiration from Hussein's march to certain death at the battle in Karbala. Some Shi'ites have justified suicide bombing citing this incident.

In 2001, Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah al-Sheik, the supreme religious leader of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa equating suicide bombings with suicide and declared it unacceptable to the religion. Several Islamic clerics have echoed his ideas.

But there are others who interpret issues differently. Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, a leading Sunni Islam doctrinal authority, wrote in the Cairo daily al-Ahram that "if a person blows himself up, as in operations that Palestinian youths carry out against those they are fighting, then he is a martyr. But if he explodes himself among babies or women or old people who are not fighting the war, then he is not considered a martyr."

Islamist militant groups have sought to sidestep the debate for now. They do not describe the self-detonation of human bombs as suicide attacks. They refer to these as an act of sacrifice, a part of the jihad, a powerful tactic to fight the occupation of Palestinian land by the Jews.

To many, the willingness to blow oneself up might seem as the crazed act of a religious fanatic, an act of self-destruction so enormous and revolting that it can be done only under the influence of narcotics, perhaps. It does not appear so crazy to the thousands who live in the overcrowded Gaza and the West Bank.

To Palestinians living under decades of Israeli occupation the resort to suicide bombings is easy to explain. As Mouin Rabbani, director of the Palestinian American Research Center in Ramallah, argues: "Palestinian suicide bombers are neither products of a passive and unquestioning obedience to political authority nor pressed into service against their will." He sees suicide bombings as the result of "the bitter experience of what they [the Palestinians] see as Israeli state terror".

"Without exception, the suicide bombers have lived their lives on the receiving end of a system designed to trample their rights and crush every hope of a brighter future ... Confronted by a seemingly endless combination of death, destruction, restriction, harassment and humiliation, they conclude that ending life as a bomb - rather than having it ended by a bullet - endows them, even if only in their final moments, with a semblance of purpose and control previously considered out of reach."

In a moving account "Why we have become suicide bombers: Understanding Palestinian Terror", Dr Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist and renowned human rights activist, draws attention to the utter despair that has gripped the Palestinian people and the humiliation of life under Israeli occupation. He recounts the various moderate and legal steps the Palestinians took to fight the occupation and failed. To him, as to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, suicide bombing is the direct result of Israeli occupation and oppression. It is a political act.

Indeed, the glorification of dead suicide bombers and their glorification as part of the martyrs' cult indicate the support that the phenomenon of suicide bombing has among the Palestinian people. In fact, a suicide bombing and the death of yet another Palestinian suicide bombing is not an occasion for mourning but for celebration of the martyrdom attained by the individual. Advertisements in newspapers that announce the death of a suicide bomber extend an invitation to the public for the funeral. The announcements read like wedding invitations. However, an important question is whether families would celebrate their son or daughter's decision to become a suicide bomber if they knew of it ahead of the mission.

For the Palestinian militant groups, the suicide bomb is a useful, low-cost, highly effective weapon to deploy against the Israelis. The Israel Defense Force is among the most well-equipped in the world. It has used tanks, missiles and air power against the Palestinians. The Palestinian arsenal is rather low-tech - assault rifles, grenades and a few missiles, even stones.

The suicide bomb is the "smart bomb" in the Palestinian arsenal. It is a bomb that has a brain. It cannot only cause death and destruction, but also dodge and hide. What is more, it refuses to be defused easily. For an army that is trained to occupy territory and defend it, the suicide bomber is a complex enemy to fight. Often the suicide bombers disguise themselves as Orthodox Jews or soldiers and saunter casually into buses, pizzerias and discos to carry out their attack.

The suicide bombs have dealt deadly blows to Israel. They have narrowed the gap in the ratio between the numbers of Palestinians killed to the number of Israelis killed. More importantly, they have undermined the confidence of the Israeli state and society like no other Arab military operation has. The use of suicide bombs has plunged Israeli society into a a state of almost endless terror.

The Israeli government has sought to tackle the suicide attacks by eliminating suspected bombmakers and bulldozing the homes of the families of suicide "martyrs" in a bid to deter the attacks.

Its strategy isn't working. The human bombs appear to be queuing up for their suicide missions faster than they can be deployed.

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