Gingerly, Arabs Question Suicide Bombings

Wed Jul 3, 9:07 AM ET
By JAMES BENNET The New York Times

JERUSALEM, July 2 It has been muffled by Israel's latest military offensive in the West Bank and the Bush administration's demands for the ouster of Yasir Arafat, but a debate is under way among Palestinians over suicide bombing.

Criticism of such attacks is made in code and pitched to Palestinian self-interest rather than broader moral concerns. The critics are trying to avoid alienating Palestinians who feel that any weapon is legitimate when turned against Israelis, whom they view as stealing their land and using overwhelming force to keep it.

Like President Bush ( news - web sites)'s demand for democratic change and new leaders, the criticism of suicide bombing cuts to the heart of competing Palestinian visions for statehood, of the proper means for achieving it, and of the deference that should be paid to Israeli or American public opinion.

"You have to appeal to people's self-interest, in terms of what works and what doesn't work," said Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator from Ramallah.

Dr. Ashrawi was among 55 Palestinian politicians and intellectuals who published an unusual appeal to fellow Palestinians on June 19 in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Quds. It called for a reassessment of "military operations that target civilians in Israel" not in the West Bank or Gaza and urged those behind them to "stop pushing our youth to carry out these operations."

The appeal clearly stopped short of a blanket condemnation of all suicide bombings. But the open letter did say that the attacks were not "producing any results except confirming the hatred, malice and loathing between the two peoples" and endangering "the possibility that the two peoples will live side by side in peace in two neighboring states."

The day the advertisement was published, a suicide bomber killed six people at a Jerusalem bus stop. That and the new Israeli offensive into the West Bank, begun after another suicide bombing just the day before, shouldered the development aside.

But among Palestinians, the appeal reverberated in conversations and the Arabic news media. It continued to run in Al Quds for several days, gathering more than 500 backers, some through the Internet.

A rebuttal was published elsewhere, calling for the use of "all ways and all means" of "armed struggle." It gained about 150 signatures.

Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, a leader of the Islamic group Hamas, bitterly denounced the signers of the first petition, which he called "the appeal to declare war on the Palestinian resistance." Despite such strong criticism, none of the original petitioners have reported any threats.

Even some Palestinian politicians who said they opposed attacks on civilians shied away from the petition, calling it one-sided for focusing on Palestinian attacks.

President Bush has denounced suicide attackers as "murderers." Yet even signers of the appeal balked at directly criticizing the bombers, who are called martyrs but are revered in nationalist as well as religious terms. They are pitied as desperate victims or romanticized as patriots who strike back against Israeli tanks with their only weapons, their own bodies.

This help explains why, though a narrow majority of Palestinians support suicide bombing, a far broader majority oppose arresting those behind the attacks.

"There is a global culture of that, of how sweet it is to die for your liberty," Dr. Ashrawi said. "You can find quotations from the American Revolution."

She said that although she opposed any violence against civilians, it was no time "to take the high moral ground" on the subject of suicide bombing, with Israeli forces holding hundreds of thousands of Palestinians under curfew in the West Bank. "We should make it a political debate," she said.

Today Israeli forces continued to operate in seven of the eight major Palestinian cities and towns, rounding up suspects in what the army called a continuing hunt for militants. In Hebron, the army lifted the curfew to allow students to take exams, then detained about 300 students at one college for questioning, witnesses said.

Leaders of the peace camp in Israel heard in the original appeal a call for a halt to all violence, a halt to the intifada the uprising itself. "What they are saying is really, `Stop the violence,' " said Galia Golan, a leader of the group Peace Now.

But the appeal was more narrowly tailored than that, not using the word "suicide" and referring only to attacks on "civilians in Israel." That is understood by Palestinian as referring only to pre-1967 Israel and not to the West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in 1967. Palestinians overwhelmingly support attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in those areas, arguing that such attacks amount to legal resistance.