Palestinians are waging an unusual debate over terrorist tactics following recent suicide attacks carried out by a mother of two and the bereaved brother of an Arab killed by Israeli troops.
The brouhaha has centered largely on whether they should stop recruiting vulnerable candidates for suicide operations. Many Palestinians, including family members of the respective bombers, are harshly criticizing the decision to recruit the 22-year-old mother Reem Salah al-Riyashi and 17-year-old Iyad al-Masri.
But the debate does not seem to have undermined the consensus among Palestinians in support of what they dub “self-sacrifice operations.” Instead, the fight revolves mainly around recruitment tactics and the strategic question of whether it would be better to step up attacks against soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, while halting strikes against Israeli civilians inside the pre-1967 borders.
“There is a strong sentiment that the focus should be on soldiers and settlers, because that would show the futility of the Israeli fence,” said West Bank journalist Hafez Barghouti, the editor of the daily al-Hayat al-Jadida, an unofficial mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority.
“There is some debate — however superficial or tactical — but people are saying that it’s a mistake. You don’t send a mother out for an operation, leaving behind a nursing baby,” Barghouti said.
Barghouti wrote an editorial last week in which he criticized the decision to have Riyashi blow herself up at a border crossing that serves as a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. He also questioned the rationale behind recruiting Masri less than a week after his cousin and 14-year-old brother were killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers in Nablus.
“Maintaining our humanity, which the occupation is trying to destroy,” Barghouti wrote, “is more important than achieving petty successes.”
In Riyashi’s case, “success” was killing two Israeli soldiers and two civilian security guards, and injuring nine. Masri’s explosive belt went off prematurely, after he apparently lost his way in a field near Nablus, taking his life only.
Masri’s cousin complained to a Palestinian reporter: “Those who sent him are godless. His brother and cousin were just killed. How can we have three dead in the family in one week?”
The failed bomber’s parents, who learned of his death January 11 from a Lebanese satellite television newsflash, demanded an inquiry and faulted the militant Islamic Jihad for manipulating Masri’s anger. They refused to celebrate his death as a shahid , or “holy warrior,” as parents of suicide bombers usually do.
Riyashi’s parents also opposed opening a celebratory “house of condolences,” according to Palestinian journalists. They reportedly were outraged that Hamas had recruited their daughter, a mother of a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy, to become a suicide bomber. Riyashi’s brother-in-law, Youssef Awad, told Chicago Tribune correspondent Joel Greenberg: “This is against our customs and traditions, and we don’t support it. It’s wrong, whether someone has children or not. If we had known about it beforehand, we would have nipped it in the bud.”
Using the Arabic word for holy war, he added, “The greatest jihad is raising your children.”
Similar criticisms appear to be reverberating throughout Palestinian society.
Influential columnist Hassan al-Batal, a veteran PLO intellectual, wrote an article last week in the daily Al-Ayyam in which he praised the two families for speaking up against sending their loved ones to blow themselves up. The article was headlined “A Family’s Revolt Against the Culture of Death.”
“Maybe this will be the beginning of a strategic transformation in terms of the concept, the notion and the culture surrounding this type of attacks,” he wrote. “If society does not have the courage to speak out on this issue, we could soon see 10-year-olds and pregnant women blowing themselves up.”
Batal concluded: “What we Palestinians should be interested in is that we don’t defeat ourselves by compromising our humanity.”
Even before the recent suicide missions, support for attacks in Israel proper was already dropping.
A public opinion poll taken in the West Bank and Gaza last month found that 87% of Palestinians support attacks on soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At the same time, support for attacks against Israeli civilians dropped to 48%, the lowest level since the start of the intifada in 2000 and down from 59% in October. An October poll, taken days after a female suicide bomber, Henadi Jaradat, blew herself up in a Haifa restaurant, killing 21 Jewish and Arab Israelis, found 75% support for the attack.
Jaradat, a 29-year-old single and childless lawyer-in-training from the West Bank town of Jenin, allegedly was motivated by personal revenge. She reportedly saw her own brother and cousin killed by Israeli troops outside their home last June.
Riyashi, according to the official Palestinian version, was driven by sheer ideological zeal. In her traditional pre-suicide videotape, holding an AK-47 assault rifle, the petite woman said she had long yearned for “the honor” of becoming a martyr, and was proud to be the first female sent on a suicide mission by Hamas. “I have two children and love them very much. But my love to see God was stronger than my love for my children, and I’m sure that God will take care of them if I become a martyr,” she said.
But according to another version of the story being circulated by Israeli intelligence sources and suggested to the press, Riyashi only agreed to carry out the mission after she had been caught cheating on her husband. Proponents of this version claim she was pushed by her husband to carry out the operation as an act of penitence.
“It seems logical that something like that was going on. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense,” said Colonel Zohar Palti, an Israeli army expert on Hamas, who is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hamas has plenty of men waiting in line to become suicide bombers.”
Distress over the decision to send Riyashi will not diminish the overall popularity of Hamas in Palestinian society, Palti said. Regardless of its conduct of terrorist attacks, Hamas is viewed as the “clean” alternative to the corrupt Palestinian Authority, he said.
Palestinian public opinion polls show a rise in the number of Palestinians who believe their government is corrupt (82%, according to one survey conducted in December 2003), with a corresponding spike in the popularity of Hamas and drop in support for Yasser Arafat’s ruling Fatah faction.
“Support for self-sacrifice operations has little to do with support for Hamas, and a lot to do with Israeli policies,” Barghouti said. “Whenever people feel that [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon is increasing his violent actions, they seek retaliation.”