Deadly Embrace

Jacqueline Rose

  • My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing by Christoph Reuter, translated by Helena Ragg-Kirkby
    Princeton, 246 pp, £15.95, May 2004, ISBN 0 691 11759 4
  • Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers by Barbara Victor
    Robinson, 321 pp, £8.99, April 2004, ISBN 1 84119 937 0

All suicides kill other people. However isolated the moment, suicide is also always an act of cruelty. Anyone left behind after someone close to them commits, or even attempts, suicide is likely to spend much of the rest of their life wondering whether they themselves have, or should have, survived. Suicide is rarely the singular, definitive act it appears to be. The ego, Freud tells us, turns onto itself the hatred it feels towards the object. But the object is never spared. No one commits suicide, the psychoanalyst Karl Menninger wrote in 1933, unless they experience at once ‘the wish to die, the wish to kill, the wish to be killed’. You can die, but you can’t commit suicide, on your own.

At the end of Anna Karenina, Vronsky, Anna’s lover, responds to her suicide by joining the thousands of volunteers leaving Russia for Serbia to protect the Slavs against the Turks. He had already tried to kill himself when, much earlier in the novel, Anna was assumed to be at death’s door after the birth of their illegitimate child. Tolstoy’s novel is riddled with suicidal moments. But this final one – since it is clear that Vronsky wishes only to die – is different. These men are sacrificing themselves for a noble cause, as Anna’s brother, on his way to the war, insists when he converges both with Vronsky and with Levin – the inspired man of the countryside – on the same train. ‘But it’s not just to sacrifice themselves,’ Levin responds, ‘it’s to kill Turks.’ Levin will not accept that the ‘fine-talking’ volunteers and the newspapers reporting them truly speak for ‘the will and thought’ of the people – ‘a thought that expressed itself in revenge and murder’. Sacrifice, even in a noble cause, is an ugly affair. Today in Britain there is outrage, especially among their parents, that soldiers have been sent to Iraq for a lie. We can also see the injustice of the tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, especially civilians’. But that war is murder, whatever the cause, as Levin insists, is not something that any of us is encouraged to contemplate.

By sending Vronsky off to fight in Serbia, Tolstoy brings suicide into the public domain. The last suicide in the novel is not Anna’s: it is that of a man, already being fêted as a hero by many, who wants to kill and die in the same breath. Suicide bombing is a recent phenomenon, but it’s an illusion to believe that it’s only in the mind of Islam that a link has been made between war and suicide, murder and martyrdom, killing the enemy and killing yourself.

Suicide bombing is most often considered a peculiarly monstrous, indeed inhuman aberration that cannot – or must not – be understood. When the Lib Dem MP Jenny Tonge observed, ‘If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself,’ the Israeli Embassy responded with this statement: ‘We would not expect any human being – and surely not a British MP – to express an understanding of such atrocities.’ Tonge was sacked from her party’s front bench. We can be fairly sure that had she expressed similar understanding of the policy of targeted assassination, or extra-judicial killing, in response to suicide bombings, she would not today be out of a job. The wording she used – ‘If I had to’ – is crucial. She was not sympathising: she was trying to imagine what it was like to be a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories. (She condemned the bombings.) When Cherie Blair said in June 2002, ‘As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress,’ Downing Street apologised. What need never be apologised for is the violence of state power. But perhaps there is a logic here. If the case for war is weak – or non-existent – then the ugliness and guilt of war rise perilously close to the surface of the public mind: war, in Levin’s words, as murder and revenge. In which case, it helps to be able to point to something far worse, preferably from another culture or world, with which no reasonable human being could possibly identify. But apart from being evasive, this is inept. In the film The Fog of War, Robert McNamara presents the first of his 11 rules of war: ‘Empathise with the enemy.’

Suicide bombing kills far fewer people than conventional warfare; the reactions it provokes must, therefore, reside somewhere other than in the number of the dead. It is, of course, feared as a weapon against which there appears to be no protection, and to which there is no viable response: targeted assassinations simply provoke further retaliation (and Israel’s security wall is already proving incapable of deterring attacks). The horror it inspires cannot, however, be explained in terms of the deliberate targeting of civilians: according to McNamara, 100,000 people were burnt to death at the end of the war in the Allied attack on Tokyo, and in On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald describes the ten thousand tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs dropped on the densely populated residential areas of Hamburg in the summer of 1943.

The horror would appear to be associated with the fact that the attacker also dies. Dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior. Why dying with your victim should be seen as a greater sin than saving yourself is unclear. Perhaps, then, the revulsion stems partly from the unbearable intimacy shared in their final moments by the suicide bomber and her or his victims. Suicide bombing is an act of passionate identification – you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, and there is less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be the closest they can get.

There is a historical aspect to that proximity. By fostering Shia resistance, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 created a space for Hizbollah, who carried out the first suicide bombings in the early 1980s. Israel began supporting Hamas in the late 1980s after the decision was taken to strengthen Islamic groups in order to weaken Arafat and divide the Palestinians among themselves. The Islamic University of Gaza was created, with the approval of the Defence Ministry; when cinemas in Gaza were stormed by Islamic groups and restaurants set on fire for selling alcohol, Israeli soldiers stood by and watched. All this is described by Christoph Reuter in My Life Is a Weapon. Hizbollah in turn would gain a permanent foothold inside Israel when it offered vital support to the 415 leading cadres of Hamas and Islamic Jihad expelled into Southern Lebanon by Yitzhak Rabin following the abduction and murder of an Israeli soldier in December 1992. It has always been a paradox for Western observers that Hizbollah, which promotes an Iranian-style Islamic revolution for the whole of the Middle East (the organisation was created following the arrival in Lebanon of a thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the early 1980s), is also the most efficient provider of welfare and support for displaced Palestinians in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.

That Israeli policy engendered suicide bombing was acknowledged by Rabin. Having originally promoted indiscriminate bombing of South Lebanon ‘until there’s nobody left there’ – he was defence minister at the time – he finally came to the view that ‘terror cannot be finished by one war; it’s total nonsense.’ By replacing ‘PLO terrorism’ with ‘Shia terrorism’, he acknowledged, Israel had done ‘the worst thing’ in the struggle against terrorism: ‘Not one PLO terrorist,’ he said, ‘has ever made himself into a live bomb.’

According to Eyad El-Sarraj, the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, today’s suicide attackers are, for the most part, children of the first intifada. Studies show that during the first uprising, 55 per cent of children saw their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers. Martyrdom – sacrificing oneself for God – increases its appeal when the image of the earthly father bites the dust. ‘It’s despair,’ El-Sarraj states baldly, ‘a despair where living becomes no different from dying.’ When life is constant degradation, death is the only source of pride. ‘In 1996, practically all of us were against the martyr operations,’ Kamal Aqeel, the acting mayor of Khan Yunis in Gaza, explains. ‘Not any longer . . . We all feel that we can no longer bear the situation as it is; we feel that we’d simply explode under all this pressure of humiliation.’

That life begins after death is a widespread religious belief, by no means exclusive to Islam. For those wishing to denigrate suicide bombers and their culture, which is not the same thing as condemning the act, it is easy to degrade that belief. Most often we are told of the 72 virgins proffering their favours in the skies. In fact the virgins reputedly awaiting the martyr in Paradise are symbols of purity and innocence: this is a sacred utopia, a late exalted compensation for the wretched of the earth, not a second shot at worldly pleasures. ‘Thoughts of Paradise,’ the Haaretz journalist Amira Hass writes, ‘embody the evaporation of the dream of a Palestinian state.’ Or, in the words of the psychologist Shafiq Masalha, interviewed by Barbara Victor in Army of Roses, ‘to be tempted to go to Paradise means that life on earth is hell.’

On the one hand, suicide bombers are beyond any understanding. On the other, the mind of Islam can be uncovered in its most intimate detail. Reuter opens his book by asking: what motivates a suicide bomber? Or rather: what ‘kind of people’ are they? He knows there is no answer. Suicide bombers are not a species. He also knows that his question is loaded. If suicide attacks are political, they call for a political response. If they stem from ‘perversity’, then the perpetrators can be treated as a ‘criminal sect’, to be isolated, arrested, suppressed. Behind the argument that suicide bombers should not, or cannot, be understood lies a subtext of dehumanisation. When El-Sarraj is asked if it is true that Palestinians do not care about human life, even that of their own ‘flesh and blood’, he replies: ‘How can you believe in your own humanity if you don’t believe in the humanity of the enemy?’

How, then, should you write about suicide bombing? It is not just, as Avishai Margalit puts it, that every statement about it is liable to be contested. Nor is it just that the vocabulary is disputed (describing these attacks as ‘suicide bombing’, as the term appears in the title of each of these books, is already to beg the question). What is at issue is something more like an ethics of form. Reuter has chosen to write a history, or perhaps a geography, that traces the beginnings of today’s attacks to Khomeini’s child battalions, cannon fodder who went into battle with a key to Paradise around their necks, through Syria to Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. This allows Reuter to present the Palestinians not as freaks of nature (or culture), but instead as heirs of a contemporary realpolitik, for which the West bears more than a share of responsibility (Britain supported Saddam Hussein in the war against Khomeini). As Reuter also points out, the PLO were originally secular, but by now, the Palestinians are strangely in step with many of their Zionist counterparts in aligning nationalism with religious fervour. For both sides in the conflict, the struggle over Palestine constitutes a holy war.

What is unique about the suicide attacks of the second intifada is that they come ‘from the people for the people’, as Reuter puts it, unlike the more sect-based cults of the Tamil Tigers or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This makes them almost impossible to defeat militarily. If suicide attacks come from below, as the reaction to an occupying army, the simple conclusion is that they will cease when the armies pull out. Enthusiasm for suicide attacks has dramatically declined since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Sheikh Fadlallah, spiritus rector of the most radical Lebanese Shias, was one of the first high-ranking Islamic scholars to condemn the attacks of 11 September 2001. In Iran today, the idea of killing oneself in order to enter Paradise has all but disappeared. There is a lesson here. What made the difference is not military intervention but Iran’s internal development, the growing desire for democracy after two decades of theocratic experiment. Against the violent Manichean rhetoric of the times, and its brute interventionism, Reuter offers a counter-narrative: suicide attacks in Israel-Palestine will stop when Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories; more generally across the region, the West should keep out.

Reuter has written a history, but Barbara Victor, a novelist and journalist, has produced something more like a novel or short story collection. As the subtitle of Army of Roses suggests, she sets herself the task of entering the world of the women suicide bombers, to tell their stories. Empathy here is in no short supply (‘she tries to understand, even to feel,’ as Christopher Dickey puts it in his foreword). For many in the West, the female suicide bomber is the most inhuman, since she violates women’s perceived role in life. Victor’s aim is to redeem her: ‘This book tells the story of the women who died for reasons that go beyond the liberation of Palestine.’

Above all she narrates, uncovering the most private, indeed frequently humiliating details of these women’s lives – six of them at the time of writing, more since. On 4 October 2003, as Victor was finishing Army of Roses, Hanadi Jaradat blew herself up at Maxim’s restaurant in Haifa on the eve of Yom Kippur, killing 21 Israelis and injuring many others. From a privileged Palestinian family, on the verge of opening her own law practice in Jenin, Jaradat had witnessed the killing by the Israeli army of her cousin Salah and her brother Fahdi when they were sitting together in a café the previous May. Without preamble, the soldiers drew up and shot them. According to Victor, a bomb-laden car that Fahdi was to drive into Haifa the next day was parked only a few feet away. Jaradat fled but ‘ran directly into the arms of Yasser Obeidi, one of the most wanted men in the West Bank’, a 29-year-old married man and the military commander of Islamic Jihad in Jenin. (Literally into his arms? Was he standing on the street corner?) A very different account by Kevin Toolis in the Observer states that she was, in fact, in Jordan shopping for Fahdi’s wedding when he was killed, but returned to Jenin to identify him in the morgue. Victor’s story – as may already be clear – is a story of romance, passion and cynical intrigue. In her version, Jaradat is cruelly manipulated by Obeidi, who persuades her to become a martyr: ‘He became her lover, mentor and one-way ticket to Paradise,’ where they would find ‘eternal happiness as man and wife’. The source for this narrative is not given. In fact, as it emerges, there are several conflicting stories as to how and why Jaradat ended her life. For the Palestinians, it was to avenge the deaths of her cousin and brother. For the Israelis, she was a 29-year-old woman depressed at her lack of marriage prospects: ‘Allegedly she intimidated men because of her good looks and education.’

The Israeli reading of Jaradat’s motives should warn us that, whether or not what they attribute to her is accurate, personalising the female martyr can be a way of denying the abuses of the army – the killing of her brother and cousin, the denying her sick father permission to attend a hospital in Haifa – and of silencing the Palestinian political case. Here the distinction between suicide and martyrdom is crucial. According to Islam, it is a sin to commit suicide. Your life belongs to God and is only his to dispose of. Martyrdom, however, is something else. ‘If a martyr wants to kill himself because he’s sick of being alive, that’s suicide. But if he wants to sacrifice his soul in order to defeat the enemy and for God’s sake – well, then he’s a martyr,’ the late Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi explained in 2001. In Victor’s analysis, the only possible explanation of a woman’s decision to become a suicide bomber is that she is sick of life (the back cover refers to the women’s ‘blighted inner lives’).

Wafa Idris, the first female suicide bomber, was in despair after being divorced on grounds of her infertility; Darine Abu Aisha was determined to avoid marriage; Zina, the accomplice of Izzedine Masri, who detonated himself in Sbarro’s Pizzeria in Jerusalem in August 2002, had had her illegitimate child taken away: ‘Without exception, every woman and young girl who attempted to or succeeded in blowing herself up had been marginalised by Palestinian society.’ Victor is protesting the place of women in the Muslim world. She also sees herself as fighting a ‘misguided feminist movement’: ‘We die in equal numbers to the men.’ The problem is that the more she tries to apply her analysis to all women in the culture, the more its power to explain individual cases declines: if life is unbearable for women under Islam, then why this particular woman? Slowly and painstakingly, Victor has turned these women from martyrs into suicides. Some, such as Ayat al-Akhras, are described as taking their destiny into their own hands – she acted in order to redeem her father, who had been accused of collaborating with the Israelis, and to save her family from disgrace. But the overall message is clear. Not one of these women is truly the political agent of her own life.

In this form, empathy can start to look like a cover for prejudice. The Palestinian Zina – anonymous by family request – ‘has a history of problems’, whereas the Israeli Malki Roth, killed by the Sbarro bomb that Zina played her part in planting, was a ‘well-balanced, wholesome teenager’; Rachel Levy, killed in March 2002 by Ayat al-Akhras in a grocery store in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Kiryat Yovel, was finally adjusting to the ‘rhythms of teenage life’. In fact these young Israeli women are living in, and acutely suffering from, a society that encourages them to be blind. In a letter addressed to God on the occasion of the Jewish New Year, Malki Roth ended with the hope ‘that I’ll be alive and that the Messiah should come’. (Is this wholesome?) Rachel Levy’s mother never discussed the political situation with her children: it was too frightening. Rachel would come home and turn off the television: ‘She just didn’t want to know.’

Although Palestinian suffering under the occupation has a central place in Army of Roses, at moments such as these Victor comes close to an idealisation of Israel not far from the myth that Israel continues to promote about itself. Put simply, the Israelis are better people. Faced with loss, they do not commit suicide, or kill, but care for their families, carry on with the business of living. The violence of the state is pushed aside. Life continues. Suicide bombing, on the other hand, involves abandoning limits ‘as we understand them with the democratic mind’. Is it finally empathy at all if you enter a person’s – a whole culture’s – mind, only to make such a clean and confident exit?

One way of underscoring the precarious nature of such distinctions is to look back in time. Towards the end of Galoot (Exile), a remarkable documentary by the Israeli film-maker Asher Tlalim, Ariella Atzmon, a former lecturer in philosophy and education, recalls her life as the daughter of militant Jewish nationalists who arrived in Palestine in the late 1930s. She was named after Arie Itzhaki, who made bombs in his cellar. On the day she was born, he blew himself up, crying: ‘Death to the British’. He was about to be arrested. As a child she sang songs to Shlomo Ben Yosef, who had lobbed a grenade onto an Arab bus, killing women and children: ‘She will sit and weep, this woman who mourns for her son, so dear, so great.’ We did not want peace, she says. The Palestinians will want peace when they have a country.

For years, Israeli secret service analysts and social scientists have been trying to build up a typical profile of the suicide ‘assassin’, only to conclude that there isn’t one. It may indeed be that your desire to solve the problem is creating it, that burrowing into the psyche of the enemy, far from being an attempt to dignify them with understanding, is a form of evasion that blinds you to your responsibility for the state they are in. There is one thing that nobody will disagree with: the story of suicide bombing is a story of people driven to extremes. ‘Children who have seen so much inhumanity,’ El-Sarraj states, ‘inevitably come out with inhuman responses.’ We need to find a language that will allow us to recognise why, in a world of inequality and injustice, people are driven to do things that we hate. Without claiming to know too much. Without condescension.