"Ordinary People" and "Death Work": Palestinian Suicide Bombers as Victimizers and Victims

By Berko, Anat; Erez, Edna | Violence and Victims, December 2005 | Go to article overview

"Ordinary People" and "Death Work": Palestinian Suicide Bombers as Victimizers and Victims


Berko, Anat, Erez, Edna, Violence and Victims


Applying criminological/victimological concepts and theories, the study addresses the social processes involved in Palestinians' suicide terrorism and describes Palestinians' pathways to suicide bombing. The data are derived from in-depth interviews of 7 male and female Palestinians serving prison sentences in Israel for attempted suicide bombing. The social background, context, and experiences of the interviewees, including their recruitment, interactions with the organizations that produce suicide bombing, the tangible and intangible incentives and rewards that motivated them to become suicide bombers, their preparation for the mission, and the strategies employed by the organizations to sustain recruits' resolve to conform to the plan are described and analyzed. The implications of the findings for theory and public policy are drawn and discussed.

Keywords: suicide bombing; terrorism; martyrdom; Palestinians; victims; victimizers

The "war on terrorism"1 declared by President G.W. Bush, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, events, has led to new laws, security regulations, and the restructuring of government. The 19 Islamic hijackers who took their own lives in order to kill and terrorize have left the Western world apprehensive and bewildered. The idea that some communities would rejoice over suicide, death and destruction has been particularly baffling.

Contentious debates about the political, social or cultural milieu that produces candidates for suicide, the role of religious/cultural convictions in their recruitment and willingness to die, and the conditions wherein the ideology of martyrdom flourishes, have since engaged politicians, academics, military personnel and public policy makers. As a unique and "extreme" form of terrorism, suicide in the service of national causes or religious convictions has aroused the public's fascination.

The US was first victimized by suicide bombing in Lebanon in 1983, when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. Six months later another suicide attack killed 241 American servicemen who were stationed at Beirut International Airport to help keep the peace.2 In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suicide terrorism has occurred for over a decade.3 The phenomenon has been accompanied by a fierce debate over definitions of suicide bombers (see Ganor, 2001, 2002), or their presentation in the media or other forms of communication.4 Palestinians and their supporters have praised suicide bombers as freedom fighters, portraying their action as the ultimate altruism in advancing one's religious or national interests.5 Israelis and their allies have referred to the act as barbaric terrorism and to its perpetrators as cold-blooded murderers (Erez, 2005).6 In both camps, mystification of the phenomenon grew, as speculations about perpetrators and their motives flourished.

The phenomenon also initiated scholarly explorations into the roots, organization and structure of suicide bombing. The recent involvement of Palestinian women in suicide bombing7 (Beyler, 2003, 2004) has been particularly intriguing. Although women have been previously involved in terrorism, generally, prevailing notions through history and across cultures that women should be sheltered from participation in war activities, and near-total exclusion of women from combat forces, have worked against women participating in warrelated activities (Goldstein, 2001). Furthermore, Islamic tradition-to which Palestinian women involved in suicide bombing typically belong-explicitly relegates females to the private sphere, and restricts their participation in the public domain. By and large, national movements striving for independence (e.g., Yuval-Davis, 1997), and Palestinian leaders in particular,8 have emphasized the domestic aspects of women's contribution to national causes, limiting it to bearing and raising children and caring for the family, the basic unit of the nation. …

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