The Motivations of Palestinian Suicide Bombers in the Second Intifada (2000 to 2005)

Article excerpt


WHEN I INTERVIEWED the mother of Saher Tumam, the first Palestinian suicide bomber, she told me that I was the first researcher or journalist to interview the family despite the fact that her son's attack was conducted 13 years earlier and was probably the first suicide bombing in the Islamic world organized by a Sunni religious organization. Scholars have conducted many studies about Palestinian suicide bombing since Tumam's attack in 1993. Many generalizations and theoretical claims accompany them. However, as the remark of Tumam's mother suggests, research about suicide bombers based on primary data is rare (Kimhi and Even 2004; Merari 2007; Ricolfi 2005). What is more, no studies have been based on representative samples of Palestinian suicide bombers, as many researchers have acknowledged (e.g., Andoni 1997; Hafez 2006; Hassan 2001; Kimhi and Even 2004; Merari et al. 2010a).

To overcome deficiencies in our knowledge about suicide bombers, I conducted interviews with close relatives and friends of 42 suicide bombers, randomly selected from the pool of 173 Palestinian suicide bombers during the second intifada (2000 to 2005). The interviews were conducted in the spring and summer of 2006 in the homes of the families of the bombers.

During that year, I also conducted 45 interviews with senior leaders of six Palestinian political organizations (Araj 2008). However, while in that article I focus on the effect of harsh Israeli state repression on Palestinian suicide bombing mainly at the organizational and societal levels, in this article I concentrate on its effects at the microlevel.

I define suicide bombing as "the use of explosives against one or more people by one or more attackers. The attackers enjoy organizational support and know in advance and with certainty that their actions will result in their deaths." By that definition, "merely planning an attack does not qualify as a suicide bombing; the attacker must be en route to his or her target. Nor is death or injury a necessary part of [the] definition since on occasion a suicide bomber is apprehended and disarmed after an attack has been launched but before detonation" (Brym and Araj 2006:1974).

I begin by reviewing the literature on suicide bombers, particularly those that focus on the Palestinian case. After outlining how I collected the data, I analyzed the motivations of Palestinian bombers. In concluding, I discuss the theoretical implications of my research.


Five major approaches have been developed by social scientists to studying the phenomenon of suicide bombing which has increased since the early 1980s: the psychopathological, deprivation, cultural, rational choice, and harsh state repression. Let us briefly consider each of these approaches in turn.


Some analysts assume that suicide bombers are necessarily suicidal or suffer from some other psychological problems such as a narcissistic personality disorder or an authoritarian personality, to the point that they lack a moral compass (Lester, Yang, and Lindsay 2004; McCauley 2007:14; Post 1990:25). Kimhi and Even (2004) and Kennedy (2006) provide useful reviews of the psychopathological approach to suicide bombing.

After reviewing much of the relevant literature, Brym and Araj (2006) concluded that psychopathological explanations "are of no value in helping us understanding the rising incidence of suicide bombing" (p. 1970). Among other works, they cite Pape's study of all 462 suicide bombers who attacked targets worldwide between 1980 and 2003. Pape "found not a single case of psychopathology (depression, psychosis, past suicide attempts, and so on) among them, and only one case of probable mental retardation" (cited in Brym and Araj 2006:1970). In fact, it seems that potential recruits who display signs of pathological behavior are typically weeded out for reasons of organizational security (Brym and Araj 2006:1970; cf. …