Amy K is director of programs for Meretz USA. This is an abridged version of “Making Martyrs,” an article in the Winter edition of ISRAEL HORIZONS, adapted from her undergraduate honors thesis at Swarthmore College, from which she graduated in June 2006.
It’s important to begin with recognizing that suicide is specifically forbidden by Islam. The Koran states: “Do not kill yourselves. Surely God is Merciful toward you.” For Palestinians, however, suicide terrorism is not suicide, but martyrdom or shahadat.
Meaning “witness,” the concept of a shahid (a martyr) has long existed in Islamic theology. A shahid is an individual who gives his life up in the service of God; shahadat is obtained through active struggle against injustice and idolatry. In sacrificing his life, however, a shahid does not die. Instead, he goes on to a new life in heaven.
Throughout Islamic history, the most common type of shahid has been the “battlefield martyr,” and the battlefield death of Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson, has played an extremely important role in influencing Islamic interpretations of shahadat. In the first century of Islam, a schism arose over disagreements about the community’s leader: The Shiites viewed the fifth Caliph Muawiyyah as corrupt, and, when he was succeeded by his even more depraved son Yazid, Husayn led the battle to overthrow the family’s rule. Husayn’s small forces were no match for those of Yazid, however, and he was killed in the Battle of Karbala, becoming the first shahid.
Until recently, Husayn’s death was interpreted in a specific way: Prior to going into battle, Husayn had recognized that his forces could not win. Yet, he chose to go into battle anyway, becoming a martyr. Husayn, grouped with several other special individuals, was inimitable. Not many could attain martyrdom.
However, beginning in the 1970s, around the time of the Iranian revolution, a fundamentalist reinterpretation of shahadat began to develop as intellectuals such as Iranian Dr. Ali Shariati and Salhi Nadjaf-Abadi reinterpreted the Husayn paradigm. Nadjaf-Abadi argued that Husayn actually had no knowledge of his impending death before the battle. Rather, Husayn entered the fray believing his troops would win, but chose to die, instead of running away, when he realized they would not. For his part, Shariati argued that, contrary to the notion of his inimitability, Husayn should be an inspiration for any one alienated or oppressed in the world.
‘Honor’ and Revenge
On April 16, 1993, these beliefs motivated a Hamas operative to explode his car outside an Israeli restaurant in the Jordan Valley in the first Palestinian suicide attack in Israel. This was an isolated incident at the time, and no other attack occurred until a year later – after the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein massacred Palestinians in a mosque at Hebron. The suicide bombings, which became more frequent beginning in April 1994, were likely a direct response to Goldstein’s violence. Since then, there have been numerous other attacks, with more than 100 since the beginning of the second Intifada.
For bombers such as these, suicide attacks function as a source of honor and a source of revenge. On a daily basis, Palestinians experience a lack of control over their lives. They face curfews and restrictions of movement imposed by the Israeli army that often make it difficult to get to work, to make money, and to live a normal life – they feel that they live their lives locked in a cage.
When a shahid dies, he is believed to start a new life in the perfect world of heaven. There, he joins a community of Muslim martyrs and escapes the troubles of this world.
Yet, even in this [earthly] world, shahadat is a way for Palestinians to gain honor. In contrast to other Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers, who are also called martyrs, a suicide bomber is given the title “martyr-hero,” which designates his highly honored status. On a popular level, the shahid is celebrated in posters, videos, and tapes. Parties are held in his or her honor, celebrating the day of death as a wedding day – the day the shahid married God. Palestinian suicide bombers gain in death the esteem and status they never had in life.
Frequently, suicide bombers explain that their attack is an act of revenge, the response to seeing children die at Israeli hands. Suicide terrorism is also a way to raise the morale of the Palestinian people. Each attack is a “small battle” that is won, and, with all these victories, how can they be losing? In the minds of Palestinians, suicide terrorism also helps to equalize the pain of oppression – to make the Israelis feel as the Palestinians feel.
Palestinians are thus motivated to attain status as a shahid by their beliefs, but their actions are caused by the combination of social approval and Israel’s political and military policies. It’s a fact that the majority of Palestinians support suicide terrorism. This support was so strong that the secular organization Fatah began to transform its rhetoric to reflect the fundamentalist understanding of shahadat. This shift, which began in the 1990s as Palestinians increasingly became religious, allowed Fatah to rationalize its own sponsorship of suicide terrorism to the Palestinian community. Yet, public opinion polls also show popular support for a two-state solution to the conflict.
For Palestinians, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Most Palestinians support a two-state solution because they desire an end to the conflict. But in the face of continuing Israeli control over their lives and counter-terrorist violence that spills over against them, they also support terrorism as a form of revenge.