At the recent conference of world business and government leaders in Davos, Switzerland, Jordan’s foreign minister, Marwan Muasher, declared that suicide attacks against Israeli citizens are morally wrong. His statement was extraordinary because Arab leaders rarely, if ever, have forthrightly labeled such killing immoral. Acknowledging as much, Muasher suggested that Arab states should have “publicly, clearly, unequivocally taken a stand against suicide bombs.” A week later a 24-year-old Palestinian blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus, killing 11 passengers and injuring dozens. But the reaction by Arab leaders and many others around the world was as lame as usual.
Still, Muasher’s observation offers a sliver of hope amid the typically shameful responses to suicide bombings against Israelis. In making his statement, he looked beyond the grievances of Palestinians, or to any other purported reasons, to condemn such behavior. Muasher got it right. No alleged injustice can excuse turning oneself into a bomb deliberately aimed at killing and maiming children and other innocents. The suicide killers are directly culpable, as are Hamas, Islamic Jihad and similar terrorist groups that support them. But, sadly, it is the reluctance of world leaders to unconditionally condemn these perpetrators that helps provide a fertile ground for more terrorism.
Any person of conscience should recoil at the image of toddlers posing in suicide explosive belts. Yet Palestinian children, wrapped in mock explosive outerwear, are repeatedly shown in Arab print media and on television. The militant images are accompanied by their young voices pledging themselves to martyrdom. They will, they say, happily blow themselves up in order to kill Jews. The warmth with which these promises are received by much of the Arab world is astonishing. Where, we wonder, are the voices of sanity?
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has said he opposes the killing of civilians, but then he shifts the onus from the murderers to their victims. Israeli policies have made Palestinians desperate, he says, and that is the cause of suicide bombings. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad expresses sympathy for those who become human bombs and says Israel is responsible. The standard response by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his spokesmen is that “we don’t condone the killing of civilians, either Palestinians or Israelis.” It is a strained equivalency. Israeli policy is to try to avoid killing innocent civilians. On the other hand, while Arafat has sometimes said that Palestinian suicide attacks have been unhelpful, at other times he has encouraged them and called the perpetrators martyrs.
Even when Western leaders condemn suicide terrorism, they routinely instruct Israel about how it should or should not react. In June 2001, following a suicide attack on a Tel Aviv disco that killed 21, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder urged the Israelis not to retaliate. Rather, he said, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon should just negotiate with Arafat. French President Jacques Chirac has called suicide bombings horrible, and then denounced the Israelis for conducting military strikes to stop them. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has mirrored the pattern. In April 2002 he described a suicide bomb attack in Haifa as appalling, but then said he “understands the anger of the Palestinians who see the steady encroachment of Israeli settlers who take their land from them.”
Refusal to deem suicide terrorism an absolute evil regardless of perceived injustice to the Palestinians is pervasive in the United Nations as well. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s criticism of Palestinian terrorism has been commonly followed by commentary about Israel’s purportedly bad behavior toward the Palestinians. Like most world leaders, he refrains from criticizing Arafat directly or the terrorist organizations that flourish under the Palestinian Authority.
Condemnation of suicide terrorism, however, remains unadulterated when the targets are not Israelis. In May 2002, after a suicide bombing in Pakistan killed several French nationals, President Chirac, to his credit, said he “unreservedly condemns this despicable act, which nothing can justify.” And that was all he said. No suggestion to Pakistan about limiting its response. No calls to refrain from military action against the terrorists’ nests. Similarly, in November 2003, when condemning a suicide attack in Turkey, Tony Blair urged an uninhibited Turkish response: “There must be no holding back, no compromise, no hesitation in confronting this menace.” The next month, following a suicide attack in Russia by Chechen rebels, President Vladimir Putin called terrorism “a cruel, insidious and dangerous enemy.” Others agreed, including Kofi Annan, who said, “Terrorism can never be justified.” But unlike when citing Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, they said nothing about curbing the Russian response, urging the Russians to negotiate, or insisting that they address the perceived injustices against the Chechens.
The double standard is not only morally reprehensible, it diffuses the singular horror of suicide terrorism no matter where it occurs.
So what exactly should leaders be saying about such activity? I know of no better response than that of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994. When West Bank resident Baruch Goldstein gunned down 39 Muslims during prayer, Rabin called the attack “a loathsome criminal act of murder.” Rabin said about Goldstein, who was killed by survivors of the attack, “You are not part of the community of Israel.” Rabin continued: “Sensible Judaism spits you out. You placed yourself outside the wall of Jewish law.”
Replace the words “Israel” with “Palestine” and “Judaism” with “Islam.” Then let Arab leaders issue the same kind of categorical denunciation of Palestinian suicide killers. Let them assail rather than applaud the parading of children in mock suicide outfits. And let leaders everywhere condemn suicide terrorism without qualifications wherever it occurs, including against Israelis. To his credit, Jordan’s Muasher has taken a first step in the Arab world in this direction. Who will take the next?
Leonard A. Cole is a former chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University-Newark, where he teaches a course on science and public policy. His most recent book is “The Anthrax Letters: A Medical Detective Story” (Joseph Henry Press, 2003).