An Israeli friend recently told me he’d like to see a blog about my take, and the Palestinians’ take, on Palestinian terror. I told him my take was pretty simple: I support international law as an instrument of peace, and I oppose all deliberate and/or disproportionate attacks against civilians. As for the Palestinians, I can’t speak for them. But I hope this excerpt from my book, and the article that follows, will prove illuminating.

The excerpt below is different from any I’ve posted before. Rather than just being a story, it’s infused with historical and political analysis. The analysis becomes more frequent and more sophisticated as the book goes on, the reader learns more, and the big questions become more urgent.

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EXCERPT from Chapter Six: Suicide Bomb

I was chatting with some coworkers in my office [in Ramallah] on August 31, 2004, when Muzna received a text message on her phone. Her face changed as she read it.

She looked up and said tonelessly, “There’s been a bombing.”

It was the first suicide bombing in six months. We were all apprehensive as we waited to find out how many had been killed, where, and by whom. And what Israel’s response might be.

I called Dan [a friend in Israel] to make sure he was all right. He said tiredly, “We’ve been waiting for something like this ever since Yassin was assassinated.”

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was a paraplegic, white-bearded old man who wore flowing white robes. Like most Gazans, he was a refugee, driven out of his home in 1948. In 1987, when the first Intifada broke out, Yassin and other members of the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood[1] co-founded Hamas, which called for the establishment of an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine.

Islamists were initially tolerated and even encouraged by the Israeli authorities as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the PLO. They were allowed to set up a wide network of schools, clinics, and charitable organizations that increased their power base and popularity. They carried out their first violent attack in 1989, targeting Israeli soldiers and settlements.

Then in 1994, an American-Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein gunned down twenty-nine Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque / Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron [believed to be the burial place of Abraham and his wife Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah, of primary importance to both Jews and Muslims] and wounded a hundred more. The PLO called on Israel to evacuate the increasingly extremist settlers from the heart of Hebron or at least bring in international peacekeepers to protect the Palestinians. Instead, the Israeli army enforced a closure on the Palestinian areas of the West Bank in order to prevent reprisal attacks—in effect punishing the Palestinians rather than the settlers.

After that, Hamas began targeting civilians inside Israel, Yassin said, to “show the Israelis they could not get away without a price for killing our people.” The attacks also had the effect of escalating the conflict, enlisting new supporters for Hamas, and exposing the PA’s helplessness in the face of settlement expansion, closures, and the killings of Palestinian civilians.

Aside from being morally indefensible, Hamas’ targeting of Israeli civilians was disastrous for the image of the Palestinian struggle for justice and a godsend for Israeli hardliners who opposed any compromise. Every bombing drove the Israeli public further to the right—toward believing no peace was possible because there was “no partner for peace.”

Yassin had rejected the Oslo Accords of 1993 and was initially marginalized by the hopes surrounding the peace process. He gained popularity only as talks broke down, settlements went up, and Palestinian civilians continued to be killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers with few or no repercussions. Israel’s devastation of Palestinian Authority institutions during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 left Palestinians further dependent on Hamas’ social services.

In March—six months prior to this latest bombing—a Hamas suicide bomber from Gaza had killed ten Israelis in the port city of Ashdod. It was a retaliation for two weeks of Israeli incursions that had killed twenty-six Palestinians in Gaza. Eight days later, in the small hours of the morning after pre-dawn prayers, an Israeli helicopter fired three Hellfire missiles at Sheikh Yassin as he was being wheeled out of a Gaza City mosque in his wheelchair. He and two bodyguards were killed along with five bystanders. Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, was assassinated a few days later.

The assassinations were condemned around the world and by some in Israel because it was clear they would only lead to further radicalization and violence.[2] Even Palestinians who didn’t support Hamas were appalled. Hamas had vowed revenge, as they always did when their leaders were targeted.

The attacks today appeared to be it. Hamas in Hebron claimed responsibility for the attacks—two bombings within minutes of each other on two city buses in Beersheba in southern Israel that killed sixteen Israelis and wounded dozens.

I said grimly to Dan, “I guess now it’s the Palestinians’ turn to wait for the retaliation for this retaliation.”

An American friend sent me an article with profiles of the Israeli victims. Part of me didn’t want to read it. I was having enough trouble absorbing the psychological impact of the constant Palestinian casualties. But I knew that the moment I declined to mourn for the innocents killed on the other side, I would effectively become a part of the problem. With a heavy heart I clicked the link, read the article, saw the pictures, and was physically sickened.

Most of the victims were immigrants like [my Russian-Israeli friend] Dan who’d come to Israel looking for a better life. They probably didn’t even know much about the political situation. A three-year-old boy was killed. A woman who’d immigrated from Tbilisi, Georgia, to be with her family. A young man from Azerbaijan who’d just finished his degree in biotech. A Ukrainian biology teacher. A woman from the Black Sea region of Russia whose son was a cellist. Several of them had done charity work with children and the elderly. Sixteen unique, striving lives, all in one minute, gone.

The international news was blanketed with headlines about how this savage attack had shattered a six month ‘lull’ in the violence. It was true that since the last suicide bombing, only three Israeli civilians, eight settlers, and eighteen soldiers had been killed by Palestinians. Those were very low numbers compared to similar periods over the previous two years.

But in the same six-month period, more than 350 Palestinians, including 90 children, had been killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. The press was conspicuously silent about that.

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The prisoners’ hunger strike was broken two days later, on September 2, after eighteen days of protests and suffering. [The prisoners’ demands included more frequent contact with their families, improved sanitary conditions, more access to public telephones, adequate medical care, allowing prisoners to pursue their education by registering at universities, reducing prison crowding, and ending the practice of beating detainees en route to courts.] Some Palestinian prisoners had reportedly lost half their body weight. One mother fasting in solidarity with her imprisoned son died.

A spokesman for the Israeli prisons authority claimed, “Israel has not caved in to any demand of the prisoners and nothing is being discussed.” Other sources close to the Palestinian prisoners said some demands had been met. It was hard to know who was telling the truth.

Later, when I was reading Haaretz’s account of the end of the hunger strike, one of the advertisements on the page read, “Make your point: Why haven’t the Palestinians turned to non-violence? Click to send your response.”

I could only shake my head at the unintended irony. Last I checked, hunger striking was one of many textbook forms of non-violent resistance the Palestinians employed constantly. I thought to myself, A better question might be: “Why does the world demand non-violent activism from Palestinians and then totally ignore them unless they do something violent?”

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[1] The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt, is an Islamist organization and the largest political opposition movement in many Arab countries, especially Egypt.

[2] Extrajudicial assassinations, known as ‘targeted killings’ in Israel, have been a common tactic of the Israeli army during the Second Intifada. Such assassinations violate international law as they bypass due process and amount to execution without trial. They also frequently involve the killing of innocent bystanders. As of the end of 2008, 233 Palestinians were assassinated and 153 bystanders were killed in the course of Israeli assassinations. See B’Tselem’s statistics. For an example of the widespread condemnation of the Yassin assassination, see “Israel Plays with Fire” from The Nation.

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Pasted below is an article about another suicide bombing. This one happened six months after the bombing talked about in the excerpt above — and after Arafat died, Abbas took his place, and a ceasefire was brokered between Israel and the PA in the run-up to the Gaza Disengagement. Hamas respected the ceasefire, but a more radical (and far less popular) militant group called Islamic Jihad did not. Here was the result.

(As for what happened during and after the Gaza Disengagement to lead to the sorry state we’re in now, you’ll have to read the book.)

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Tel Aviv bomber’s family shunned

Conal Urquhart
The Guardian
March 1, 2005

Scores of chairs lined the rooms and corridors, and jugs of coffee and water and trays of figs were ready to welcome men paying their respects.

But the family of Abdullah Badran, the 21-year-old who blew himself up at the entrance to a Tel Aviv nightclub on Friday, killing five Israelis, were left alone in their grief.

For seven days after a burial a Palestinian family receives mourners, normally a big social event involving colourful banners and patriotic music.

But yesterday seven members of the family occupied the otherwise empty chairs and when asked if Abdullah’s death had achieved anything they all shook their heads, and one said no in English.

Abdullah’s brother Ibrahim said they were mystified and angered by his death.

“I really do not know what was on his mind. Maybe he was thinking about the killing of Palestinians in recent weeks, the building of the wall, the lack of goodwill from the Israelis in the political process. He wanted to be a teacher, to get married and get a home. He seemed optimistic in spite of everything. It never occurred to any of us that he would blow himself up.”

Deir al Ghusun is a hill town of 8,000 inhabitants. The flags of Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the leftwing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fly from many buildings, but there are none near the house of mourning.

Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for the bombing, was keeping a low profile. [Fatah and its armed offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, openly condemned the bombing.]

Sami Qadan said the whole town was shocked and angered by the bombing and in protest no one was paying respects to the family.

“Things were getting better and then no sooner do we have money coming in again then it is stopped by this suicide bombing. This intifada has killed us and the wall has destroyed us. We cannot even leave our homes and we want it to stop,” he said.

Six of his sons were working as builders in Israel but when they tried to cross the checkpoint on Sunday they were told: “No one from Deir al Ghusun is coming into Israel.”

Abdullah, a student of Arabic literature at a branch of the al-Quds (Jerusalem) University in Tulkarem, was last seen at breakfast on Friday. “We didn’t ask where he was going because it wasn’t our normal practice. There was nothing in him to suggest that he had no plans to return,” his brother said.

The family realised that something was wrong only when Israeli soldiers arrived at 5am on Saturday morning and told them that he had killed himself and four Israelis — a fifth died of injuries yesterday.

Abdullah’s father, Said Badran, refused to believe them, insisting that his son was still in bed. The army arrested the two brothers in the house and later the local imam and five of Abdullah’s friends.

The family had not suffered any particular grievance at the hands of the Israelis, Ibrahim said, although he was detained in 1989 and held for 18 months without trial.

The town has lost a large part of its livelihood because the separation barrier has cut it off from its 825 acres (334 hectares) of farmland. In theory they can reach it through a gate, but it is rarely open, and the Israelis have begun chopping down some of the trees.

Ibrahim said that the family was extremely angry with the people who had chosen and prepared Abdullah for his suicide mission.

“I don’t know who they are but we want them to stop this and reach out their hands for peace. That is the only way the situation will improve.”

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