A Comparative Study of Lebanese and Palestinian Perceptions of Suicide Bombings: The Role of Militant Islam and Socio-Economic Status

Article excerpt


Martyrdom operations represent an odd and abnormal type of violent behavior. The regularity with which they occur signals the perpetrators' rejection of compromise and their recourse to unconventional warfare. They point to the level of agitation and disruption in the social order within which they operate. The failure of the Oslo accords to provide a just and peaceful settlement for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict triggered an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings by Palestinian Islamic militants. Sixteen attacks between 1994 and 1998 killed 167 Israelis, of whom 132 were civilians. The beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada on 28 September 2000 led to a new wave of suicide bombings that dwarfed its predecessor in terms of number of attacks and human deaths. This ferocious and unremitting round of terror has caused a surge of conflicting interpretations of the motives of suicide bombers and the role of Islam as a facilitator of terrorism against the West in general and Israel in particular.

The era of religiously motivated suicide missions against western targets was inaugurated during the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), especially in the 1980s. Taking inspiration from Iran's Islamic revolution during the 1980s and supported by Syria, suicidal Hezbollah militants, claiming legitimacy in their nationalist struggle, led a carefully planned suicide attack against the US Embassy in Beirut in December 1981, killing 69. In 1983, Hezbollah fanatics embracing martyrdom were particularly effective in staging a devastating blow to western military presence within the multinational force in Lebanon killing 241 US marines and 58 French parachutists. The suicide bombings were spectacularly successful in forcing the eventual withdrawal of all US and French troops from Beirut. By extension, they employed suicide tactics against the Israeli military presence to force them to pull out all their troops between 1983 and 2000. The new rules of combat in the Jewish state's low intensity Lebanon war seemed utterly incomprehensible to the western-minded Israeli politico-military establishment. Using the concept of self-sacrifice or istishhad--in which the attacker faces certain death in the cause of Islamic struggle--Hezbollah not only succeeded in achieving a balance of terror with a powerful enemy, but was able to force Israel to abandon Lebanon by May 2000. The effective and decisive results of this lethal and retaliatory tactic have had repercussions, even if subtle and belated, on Islamists operating within Palestinian territories. (1) Therefore, it is no accident that Hamas and Islamic Jihads' suicidal campaign began in September 2000, only a few months after the IDF definitive pullout from Lebanon. (2)

Statement of Objective and Significance

Fadlallah (2003: 81) stresses that jihad does not pertain solely to the Islamic faith; he perceives it as a 'preventive and defensive action applicable as well to non-Muslim combatants serving their cause beyond the call of duty'. Basing his inquiry on the details of 188 suicide operations around the globe, Pape (2003) observes that there is no link between suicide attacks and religious motives. Several prominent scholars, however, highlight the Islamic character of suicide operations. Haber insists that the 'suicide bombers ... were brainwashed into seeking "martyrdom" via self-immolation for a political cause with promises of heavenly rewards' (2001: 2). Taylor and Horgan (2001: 46) conclude that the suicide bombers displayed unmistakably millennial thinking, which they 'clothed in Islamic terms'. Hassan (2001: 38), admits that 'all (suicide bombers) were deeply religious, believing their actions sanctioned by the divinely revealed religion of Islam'. Using data from Lebanese and Palestinian samples collected in Lebanon during summers 2002 and 2003, the major goal of this article's study is to contribute to a better understanding of the social determinants of attitudes toward suicide terrorism within a comparative context. …


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