Why We Have Become Suicide Bombers
Understanding Palestinian Terror
by Dr. Eyad Sarraj (August 1997)*
See below: A Suicide Bomber's World (MER)
A few weeks ago I said that the struggle of Palestinians today is how not to
become a bomb and that the amazing thing is not the occurrence of the suicide
bombing, rather the rarity of them.
The BBC interviewer appeared to understand. I was shocked because it is our
understanding that the world out there will never understand. And who on earth
in their right mind would understand terror and the killing of innocent people?
Why do Palestinians kill themselves and Israelis in such an horrific way at the
bus stop or in a crowded market? Do you really care to know? Well, let me try
I believe it is an act of absolute despair and a very serious stage of the
seemingly perpetual conflict. Since the uprooting of the Palestinians in 1948
triggered by Irgun Jewish terror under the leadership of Yitzak Shamir and
Menachem Begin, we have tried every thing. We have tried Nasser and Arab
Nationalism, only to be invaded in 1956 in our second homes in the refugee camps.
It was only because of the Russian threat to bomb London and Paris, and the
resolve of American president Eisenhower that ended the Israeli occupation.
We have tried the United Nations and its Security Council, which by the way have
made excellent resolutions on our behalf. For example Resolution 194 calling on
Israel to allow us to return to our homeland, but to no avail. So we kept
wandering around, between airports and refugee camps, waiting for a hero or an
earthquake. All we wanted was to go home. But our story was getting worse and we
grew bitter as we heard that a Jew from Poland would be declared a citizen of
our country - a country now called Israel. We were told that officially we were
stateless with undefined nationality. So we went toniversities. We believed then
that Jews were so clever because they were educated. We were told that Jews
controlled the world with their education. They are doctors, lawyers and
scientists, never beggars or boxers. In twenty years many of us became
university graduates and
we were in every university. We had some pride. Some of our educated people
formed the resistance movement. They believed that the Arab countries would
never fight Israel, and that we had to force them to fight. Fatah with Yasser
Arafat was born. They forced the Arabs to fight by inviting Israel to attack
Egypt in 1967. In the course of six days the Arabs were defeated again but worse.
This time we lost Gaza and the West Bank, Egypt lost Sinai, and Syria lost the
Golan. In a sudden stroke our fate was sealed and we had to live under Israeli
military occupation for thirty years. Do you know what does it mean to live
under Israeli military occupation? Do you really care to know? Let me tell you a
* You are given an identity number and a permit to reside. If you leave the
country for more that three years in succession, you lose that right to
* When you leave the country on a trip, you are given a laissez passez, a
travelling document, valid for one year and it tells you in its recording of
your particulars that you are of undefined nationality.
* Israeli occupation means that you are called twice a year by the intelligence
for routine interrogation and persuasion to work as an informer on your brothers
and sisters. No one is spared. If you are to be a member of a political
organisation you will be sentenced for ten years. For a military action you will
be sentenced to life.
* To survive under the Israeli occupation you are given the chance to work in
the jobs that Israelis do not like, sweeping the streets, building houses,
collecting fruit or harvesting. You will have to leave your home in the refugee
camp in Gaza at 3 am, go through the road blocks and check posts, spend your day
under the sun and surveillance returning home in the evening to collapse in bed
for a few hours before the following day.
We simply became the slaves of our enemy. We are building their homes on our
villages, and we clean their streets. Do you know what does it do to you when
you have to be the slave of your enemy in order to survive. No you will never
know how painful it is unless your country is occupied by another force. Only
then will you learn how to watch in silence pretending not to see the torture of
your friends and the humiliation of your father.
Do you know what it means for a child to see his father spat at and beaten
before his eyes by an Israeli soldier? Nobody knows what happened to our
children. We don't know ourselves except we observe that they lose respect for
their fathers. So they, our children, the children of the stone as they became
known, tried the Intifada - the Uprising. Seven long years our children were
throwing stones and being killed daily. Nearly all our
young men were arrested, the majority were tortured. All had to confess. The
result was every one suspected that all people were spies. So, we were exhausted,
tormented and brutalised. What else could we do to return to our home? We had
almost forgotten that and all what we wanted was to be left alone.
What else could we try? Oh yes, peace. When the news came that Arafat had signed
a peace treaty in Washington we were jubilant. At last we thought we were to get
rid of that miserable life of military occupation, at last. So we had hope.
We could not believe our eyes when there were no more curfews and we could
spend our evening on the beach or wander in streets which were now ours after
eight o'clock at night. We were ecstatic. We even had elections and we had a
parliament, so we were told.
Then came Binyamin Netanyahu.
He refused to meet Arafat and was clearly forced to shake hands in obvious
disgust. He refused to free our prisoners, to have a safe passage for us to move
between the West
Bank and Gaza. He even surrounded our towns and villages with his tanks and
arrested our policemen Then he went after our holy places and opened a tunnel
under our holiest Mosque. Tens of our children and also Israeli soldiers were
killed because of that tunnel, but he went on insulting us and driving out our
Arafat called for patience and we were patient, then Netanyahu started to build
settlements in Jerusalem and drive the remaining Palestinians out. Settlers in
Hebron spat on our prophet and called him a pig. All in the name of peace we
were humiliated, even arrested and tortured by Palestinian forces to protect the
peace. Our Authority was turning against us to please Netanyahu. Our officials
were driving in big cars and building big villas. They have VIP cards and cross
the check posts like human beings while we are left to rot.
I 've told you a few things. Now do you understand why we have turned into
*Dr Eyad Sarraj - Palestinian Psychiatrist, Chairman of the Commission of
Citizens Rights and Physician for Human Rights Awardee. Dr. Sarraj was himself
arrrested three times last year by Arafat forces, tortured and threatened with
death. Last year Dr. Sarraj was featured on MER-TV speaking at Georgetown University (MERTV Programs #40 & #41). For information about MER-TV go to
MER FlashBack - First published August 1997: MID-EAST REALITIES
(202) 362-5266 / Fax (202) 362-6965 / Email:
| REFLECTIONS ON
THE "Suicide Bombers"
"A photograph exists of Nidal's head and upper torso
after the bombing. Much of what it depicts is a grisly
mess. But his face is unblemished, his hair neatly
combed, his eyes almost fully closed. The expression
is one of peace."
MID-EAST REALITIES © - www.MiddleEast.Org - Washington - 8/18:
In a sense, a very important sense, the "Suicide Bombers" now so much in the
news should have stamped on them "Made in Israel, Encouraged by USA". There were
few if any "Suicide Bombers" just a few years ago. The phenomena first arose out
of Israel's destructive invasion of Lebanon in and before 1982, then the
occupation of about 10% of that country which only ended last year. During the
first Palestinian Intifada there were few if any "Suicide Bombers". But as the
military occupation has become even more brutal, and as "the peace process" has
grown even more deceptive and onerous, a generation which has only known fear
and torture has turned to new and more grissly tactics of their own. And if no
serious and just solution is found to today's predicament this cycle is likely
to continue on into the next generation when tactics and weapons of mass
destruction may come into play.
A SUICIDE BOMBER'S WORLD
By Cameron W. Barr
[The Christian Science Monitor - 14 August]: Palestinian militants are intensifying their use of
suicide attacks against Israel. Since March 4, 15
suicide bombers have taken the lives of at least 52
people, the vast majority of them Israelis. One of the
most deadly occurred last Thursday in a pizza
restaurant in Jerusalem; another bomber struck a
coffee shop near the Israeli port city of Haifa Sunday
In recent weeks, the Monitor has interviewed
Palestinian militants involved in suicide bombings, a
young man who has considered carrying out such an
operation, the father of a deceased bomber, and some
Israelis who were affected by one attack. The
following accounts offer a closer look at this form of
violence - the motivations of its perpetrators and the
experiences of its victims.
CAREER OPTION: MARTYR
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK
Hassan, as he asks to be called, holds a brand-new
professional degree from a Palestinian university. He
faces a career choice that says much about the future
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On the one hand, he might like to get into human
rights work. Another option is "martyrdom" - perhaps
by carrying an explosive into a crowd of Israelis and
"I have become capable of sacrificing myself for my
religion and my homeland," says Hassan, who was
interviewed on the condition that his real name not be
used. Having spent several years in Israeli jails for
militant activity, he worries that the exposure could
put the Israelis back on his trail.
A slender, soft-spoken young man with wiry brown hair
and a narrow face, Hassan wears jeans, a brown
T-shirt, and delicate, metal-framed glasses.
He has the intense, slightly uncertain demeanor of a
university intellectual - hunching his shoulders and
crossing his legs, he smokes a lot and fidgets
endlessly with a ring on his right hand as he speaks.
During a two-hour meeting in the leafy garden of a
private home in Ramallah, Hassan is gentle-humored in
his explanations of the theology and logistics of
Martyrdom-seekers, as they consider themselves, reject
any notion that their actions constitute suicide,
which is forbidden by the Koran. Hassan says
candidates are chosen for their piety and sincerity;
anyone who seems troubled or suicidal is screened out.
The proper motive is to take jihad - a holy war to
defend or promote Islam - to the extreme. Those
preparing for an operation, Hassan says, spend much of
their time in prayer in an attempt to separate
themselves mentally from the world as they know it.
They see jihad as a "pillar" of Islam, an obligation.
"As long as people occupy Muslim land," Hassan adds,
"that obligation remains." Hassan is a member of
Islamic Jihad, a militant group that advocates the
eradication of Israel.
Would-be bombers are always free to step back, even
during the final moments of their missions, Hassan
"It is written in the Koran that the hearts of
believers are in the hands of God," he says. "He can
make them change their minds, so the choice is always
The bombers typically are not members of Islamic
Jihad's secretive "military wing," which is known as
the Jerusalem Brigades. They are part of a corps of
pious volunteers who implement a bombing's final
Members of the military wing handle just about
everything else involved in suicide operations. Some
specialize in assembling the combination of explosives
and nails that most bombers employ, others in defining
targets, still others in penetrating Israeli security
and bringing the bomber close to a target site.
Operating in small cells with different functions, the
militants are linked by intermediaries and have little
or no contact with each other, to defend against
infiltration by Israeli agents, Hassan says. The
militants work with a bomber only when an operation is
set in motion.
He is unfazed by questions about the legitimacy of
actions in which civilians and even children are
"According to my religion, I'm doing Jewish children a
favor, because if they get killed [in an operation]
they go to Heaven instead of dying as a soldier and
going to Hell," he says.
The bomber, too, is promised admission to the highest
level of paradise, the one reserved for prophets and
saints, Hassan says. Martyrs win salvation for 70 of
their relatives and enjoy the eternal pleasures of a
like number of heavenly virgins.
Bombers are freed from worry about their families'
futures, since Islamic Jihad undertakes to provide for
those left behind. Hassan says a colleague once told
him: "Don't talk to me about earthly things - I'm in
MR. RED AND MR. BLACK
NABLUS, WEST BANK
In a vacant suite of offices in a busy commercial
building in this West Bank city, three Islamic Jihad
operatives - two militants and their "handler" from
the party's political department - sit down to talk
about their work with three foreign journalists.
The operatives insist on staying in the suite's
airless hallway, away from windows that might admit an
Israeli missile more easily than stone-and-cement
walls. They keep their eyes on the door.
The militants' faces are wrapped in Palestinian
headscarves, or keffiyehs, to prevent identification.
One man wears a red-checked scarf. The other's
keffiyeh is the same black check worn by Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat.
They provide no names; the handler gives only a first
name that he asks not be published. The militants sit
mute through questions about their backgrounds,
operations they have participated in, and what they
are training to do. The handler vetoes these topics as
The journalists, wary of hoaxsters with clever
imaginations, begin to get exasperated. Mr. Red begins
to get annoyed. He pulls a handgun from under his
plaid shirt, displaying it in a way that violates
several rules of firearm safety.
"This is how I would identify myself," he says.
In the end, his comments, and those of Mr. Black, are
more convincing than the weapon.
They claim two motivations for joining the military
wing. "Our main objective is to satisfy God's will by
undertaking jihad," says Red. The other is to regain
the Palestinians' "stolen land and dignity."
The handler explains that the two men are not would-be
bombers, but militants who help the bombers carry out
their missions. He identifies Red as a bombmaker and
Black as a "sender," someone who devises operations
and brings the bomber or bombers within striking
Yet the two men themselves sound ready for the
"We are living martyrs; we are martyrs who are not yet
dead," avers Black, adding that his enthusiasm is
shared by the bombers with whom he has worked.
He recalls one operation, on May 25 in the Israeli
seaside resort of Hadera, in which two Islamic Jihad
bombers died when they detonated an explosive-laden
minivan near the city's bus station.
The mission had been conceived as a solo attack, but
two candidates to carry it out were fighting over the
So the militants changed the plan to allow for a
second bomber, who was supposed to detonate an
explosive in a place apart from the minivan. For
reasons known only to the bombers, they died together,
injuring more than a dozen people.
Red, Black, and their handler identify the main
criteria of a mission's success: a high number of
casualties, the penetration of the Israeli security
cordon, and the derailment of whatever negotiations or
cease-fire efforts are under way.
The handler explains that Islamic Jihad is under no
that suicide bombings can defeat Israel's military,
the most powerful in the Middle East.
The organization's goals are to "escalate the
conflict" so that the "Islamic world" will join the
Palestinian struggle, to "balance the terror" that the
Israelis inflict on Palestinians and to demonstrate
that the Israeli security forces are not invincible.
Black, the sender, stresses the importance of
defeating Israeli efforts to prevent bombings. On July
16, the Israelis were expecting an attack in a town
"To reach the target and explode the bomb" under such
circumstances, he says, "that's success."
That is exactly what a young Palestinian farmer named
Nidal Abu Shadouf did. Although Islamic Jihad has a
reputation for indiscriminate killing, Black also
considers Binyamina the most successful of the group's
recent operations because its victims were Israeli
|The BINYAMINA BLAST
At nearly half past 7 p.m. on July 16, Nidal Abu
Shadouf's sender dropped him off a short walk from the
train station in Binyamina, a town of red-roofed
bungalows in central Israel that mainly serves as a
bedroom community for Tel Aviv and other cities.
Binyamina is nine miles from the "green line" that
divides Israel from the West Bank.
The Israel Railways Authority had assigned extra
security guards to the station. As in other areas of
the country, people girded themselves for the worst.
Abu Shadouf, the eldest of 11 children from a farming
family in the northern West Bank village of Burqin,
proceeded along a two-lane road that runs past the
The day was fading into dusk, and the light dimmed
still further as he walked under a shade tree that
towers over the station entrance.
Every weekday, between 7:25 p.m. and 7:35 p.m., three
trains stop at the station, depositing scores of
passengers onto its platforms. These people may have
been the bomber's intended target.
But a guard at the front of the station caught sight
of Abu Shadouf, says Chanan Graf, head of security for
the Railways Authority.
What the guard saw sets off mental alarms anywhere in
Israel today: a 20-something Palestinian carrying a
knapsack. The eyes of the guard met the eyes of the
Abu Shadouf apparently changed course, hurrying across
the street and walking up to a bus stop. Four soldiers
were in the small shelter because Binyamina is close
to an Israeli military training facility.
Miri Shamir and her 2-year-old son had just parked in
front of the station. She had brought a big balloon to
greet her husband. It said "Happy Birthday." At 7:34
Ms. Shamir, a Tel Aviv lawyer, answered a call on her
cellphone. Then Abu Shadouf set off his bomb.
Less than 100 yards away, in a garden filled with
sculptures, an artist named Gabriel was enjoying the
cool of the early evening with a friend.
The noise of the blast deafened the ears and its shock
wave jarred the stomach, says Gabriel, who wouldn't
give his second name.
The two men sensed there were casualties and ran
toward the scene. The smell of explosive filled the
Silence descended. "It was quiet like a desert," says
Gabriel. All traffic had stopped. Everyone who could
had fled. Those who couldn't - the dead and the
wounded - lay on the ground.
Then Shamir stepped out of her station wagon, its
windows shattered, its sides punctured. Blood from a
wound on the back of her head was staining her white
Inexplicably she left her sandals in the car and
walked barefoot on broken glass to reach her son and
get him out of the car seat. He was screaming that he
Security guards and soldiers soon reached her and took
care of the boy, who was unhurt except for a scratch
above his eye.
Gabriel and his friend, a medic in Israel's military
reserves, helped Shamir until emergency teams arrived.
She and a half-dozen others were hospitalized with
Shamir is recovering from her injuries and feeling
vulnerable. "In Israel, it's like Russian roulette.
You never know when you are going to get it," she
says. In June, the family had moved from Tel Aviv to a
town near Binyamina because they feared bomb attacks
in Israel's largest city.
Avi Ben-Haroush and Hanit Arami, the young soldiers
who died in the blast, are memorialized in a plaque
that Binyamina authorities installed next to the
reconstructed bus stop.
"They were murdered at the hands of a son of injustice
who lacked humanity," the inscription reads.
|'WE HAVE NO TANKS'
BURQIN, WEST BANK
Ibrahim Abu Shadouf found out about his son's death on
TV the night of July 16. He says he never knew that
Nidal was involved with Islamic Jihad, much less
contemplating a suicide bombing.
Mr. Abu Shadouf is vague about what feelings of loss
he might be experiencing.
"You know how parents feel when their child gets
killed," is all he will say about hearing the news.
Neighbors and friends soon distracted him with
When Palestinian suicide bombers die, their families
receive accolades, not condolences. Posters depicting
Nidal in heroic poses were quickly printed and put up
throughout his village.
The Abu Shadouf family lives in a whitewashed hillside
home in Burqin, a West Bank village known as the site
where Jesus healed 10 lepers. The eldest son of a
partially blind father, Nidal sacrificed his
birthright and deprived Abu Shadouf of daily help in
the fields when he carried out his mission.
A gruff man with a head of wavy white hair and a
bristly beard, the father is without complaint.
"You can't ask others to liberate you," he says. "We
don't have enough people to support us for the time
being - that's why we end up throwing ourselves in
front of tanks."
Of suicide attacks, Abu Shadouf says: "That is what is
left to us. We have no tanks, no Apache helicopters."
Many Palestinians say the current conflict is making
life unbearable, the worst period in their modern
history. Abu Shadouf calls it "the best period"
because he sees Palestinians fighting for their
"The jihad is the only way to achieve our freedom," he
says. "Although it is tough and we pay with the blood
of our children, still it is good.... I am willing to
sacrifice my seven sons so that one day justice can be
Abu Shadouf says his son was distraught over the death
of a cousin, a Palestinian security-force member who
was killed by Israeli fire in December. Nidal may have
wanted to avenge his cousin's death.
On the day he died, says Abu Shadouf, Nidal stopped
working at about 4 p.m., showered, and prayed. He put
on some clothes he had recently bought - a black
T-shirt and trousers - and left as if he were going to
hang out with friends. There were no meaningful
goodbyes, not even to his mother.
A photograph exists of Nidal's head and upper torso
after the bombing. Much of what it depicts is a grisly
mess. But his face is unblemished, his hair neatly
combed, his eyes almost fully closed. The expression
is one of peace.
For latest information, including how to receive MER weekly direct to your email,
just email to:
or go to:
[For list of MER Newsletters --