TORONTO — In a comprehensive survey of Palestinian suicide bombings, three University of Toronto researchers have concluded that the bombers were not psychologically unstable and were often motivated by personal vengeance rather than by religious passions.
The study, carried out by political sociologist Robert (Bob) Brym, right, and
PhD students Bader Araj and Yael Maoz-Shai, was funded by the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to the tune of
The results have been or will be published in several academic journals – Social Forces, Contexts, Canadian Journal of Sociology and Political Science Quarterly.
Having exhaustively studied the literature on the topic and having conducted extensive interviews with Palestinians and Israelis, the researchers reached the conclusion that the bombers were not, as previously widely believed, simply crazy.
Indeed, virtually all the bombers were stable, reported Brym.
“The organizers of suicide attacks don’t want to jeopardize their missions by recruiting unreliable people. A research report prepared for the Danish government a few years ago thus noted that ‘recruits who display signs of pathological behaviour are automatically weeded out for reasons of organizational security.’ It may be that some psychologically unstable people want to become suicide bombers, but insurgent organizations strongly prefer their cannons fixed.”
He added that the majority of bombers, like a 29-year-old Palestinian woman who killed 20 civilians in a 2003 bombing in Haifa, were motivated by a desire for revenge and retaliation. She acted to avenge the deaths of her brother and cousin at the hands of Israeli forces.
The handlers of bombers, however, tend to think in strategic and rational terms, said Brym, whose previous scholarly interest turned on Soviet Jews.
According to his data, fewer than half of suicide missions were perpetrated by individuals with “discernible religious inclinations.”
In a paper, Brym observed, “In its origins and at its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not religiously inspired, and suicide bombing, despite its frequent religious trappings, is fundamentally the expression of a territorial dispute.”
Brym said that suicide bombing is often informed by political logic. “In many cases, it is used as a tactic of last resort undertaken by the weak to help them restore control over territory they perceive as theirs.”
Brym and his colleagues were able to identify the organizational affiliation of 133 suicide bombers between September 2000 and July 2005. Sixty-four per cent were affiliated with Islamic fundamentalists groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, while the rest were aligned with secular groups such as Fatah.
The Islamists were the target of 124 Israeli assassination attempts, or more than 60 per cent of the total.
Brym found that counter operations are not necessarily effective and that harsh repression may even intensify bombings and prompt bombers to devise still more lethal methods to achieve their aims.
Brym said that after Israel began to crack down ruthlessly on suicide bombings in 2002 – the high-water mark of the second Palestinian uprising – Palestinian rocket attacks against Israeli civilians escalated sharply. “In general, severe repression can work for a while, but a sufficiently determined mass opposition will always be able to design new tactics to surmount new obstacles…”
Brym said that, in 2003, Israel’s then chief of staff, Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, recognized this problem when he acknowledged that Israeli tactics had become too repressive and were stirring up potentially uncontrollable levels of hatred and terrorism.
Yet Israeli operations have had an effect, he said. “We do know that of the nearly 600 suicide missions launched in Israel and its occupied territories between 2000 and 2005, fewer than 25 percent succeeded in reaching their target. Israeli counterterrorist efforts thwarted three-quarters of them using violent means.”
In addition, Israel pre-empted attacks with targeted assassinations of planners. From 2000 to 2005, Israel carried out more than 200 such pinpoint strikes, killing the intended person in 80 per cent of the cases, sometimes with considerable collateral damage.
In a chronology of suicide bombings, Brym said the first attack took place in April 1993 in the Jordan Valley settlement of Mehola. It was the first of 20 such attacks in the next four years, killing 175 people.
A second and more lethal wave began with the eruption of the second intifadah in September 2000.
Altogether, from 1993 to 2005, bombers perpetrated 158 suicide attacks in Israel and the territories, killing some 800 people and injuring more than 4,600.
In an aside, he said the first-ever suicide bomber in modern Middle East history was a Japanese man, a member of the Japanese Red Army group, who blew himself up after a May 1972 terrorist attack at Ben-Gurion Airport that claimed the lives of 26 civilians, almost half of whom were Puerto Rican Catholics on a pilgrimage to Israel.
Surveying suicide attacks from a global perspective, Brym said there have been almost 1,000, with the vast majority having occurred in eight countries apart from Israel: Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Turkey, India (Kashmir), Russia (Chechnya), Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
In an interview, Brym said he and his assistants created a data base about suicide bombings during the second intifadah.
Araj, his Palestinian assistant, interviewed about 75 militant Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and also talked to 25 per cent of the families of bombers. Maoz-Shai, his Israeli Jewish assistant, interviewed 75 counterterrorism experts in Israel.
Brym said there is only one lasting solution to suicide bombings – real peace.
He argued that Israel’s tit-for-tat military approach in responding to suicide bombings has been “empirically false” since it radicalizes Palestinians and exacerbates the Arab-Israeli dispute.
He advised Israel to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority as soon as possible. “George Bush is right,” he said in a reference to the American president’s call for a peace treaty by the end of 2008.