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
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
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
"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,
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.