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April 06, 2002
Wounds and Madness. Why we've become suicide bombers.

By Eyad El Sarraj


My sister, a professional and a mother of four, was visibly shaken as we were watching Israeli tanks torturing the streets of a refugee camp and soldiers rape its homes. She shocked us all when she declared that she would like to become a martyr. Few hours later a young woman turned herself into a human bomb and exploded in Jerusalem killing more Israelis. In the following weeks more women joined the queue of suicide bombers, as the world stands alarmed and bewildered. To try to understand why Palestinian men and now women are blowing themselves up in Israeli restaurants and buses is to understand the question of the Israeli Arab conflict, and the environment that produces human bombs. This is a country of anger and defiance. The struggle today is how not to be a suicide bomber. I was told that there are long queues of young and willing people to join the road to heaven, and I believe it. What propels people into such action is a long history of humiliation and a desire to revenge which every Arab harbours. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the resulting uprooting of Palestinians, deep seated feeling of shame has taken roots in the Arab psych. Shamefulness is the most painful emotion in the Arab culture producing feelings of unworthiness of living. The honourable Arab is the one who rejects shame or dies in dignity. Repeated defeat of Arab armies and impotence of their regimes have thrown the masses into a chronic state of helplessness.

The thirty five years of Israeli military occupation of the West bank and Gaza has further served as a continuous reminder of Arab weakness. But it was the destruction of the PLO in Lebanon by the Sharon which has decisively shifted the Palestinian Israeli confrontation to the occupied territories and Israel. Helplessness and shame gave way to anger which later poured into the streets of defiance. That was the first Intifada. Suddenly Palestinians felt that they were restoring their honor by fighting the aggressor, by not being helpless victims. Facing a superior Israeli army with a formidable arsenal they felt morally victorious as the children of the stone became heroes of defiance. While that sense of victory served Arafat as a psychological platform to launch his peace initiative and recognition of Israel, it was the Oslo agreement and the peace process that followed which disillusioned the Palestinians and threw them into a new episode of confrontation. The reluctance of Israeli governments to implement its army withdrawal from Palestinian land, and then the catastrophic failure of Camp David talks has prepared the fertile soil for new breed of militants and suicide bombers. It was the re entry of Sharon to the political scene that served to spark the new Intifada. Scores were killed and maimed as Sharon declared his intentions to cause as many casualties as possible. This time round however, Israeli soldiers were not on foot, and not even visible as they were shooting from their tanks. Militants in Palestine were frustrated as their funerals were streaming. Their target was then shifted to the exposed Israeli civilians in restaurants and cafés. For the extremist militant there is no difference between Israelis. They are the enemy, all the same. It is the same paranoid positional logic that prepared Bush and Bin Laden to divide the world between "all of us" and "all of them". It is a well documented observation that throughout the vicious cycles of violence, suicide bombing is a phenomenon that is inversely related to the degree of hope. Whenever there is hope, death and dying travel away. Martyrdom as such is a sign of despair.

In every case of Martyrdom, there is a personal story of tragedy and trauma. A curious journalist asked me once to show him a potential martyr for an interview. When he asked "why would you do it?" he was told "would you fight for your country or not? Of course you would. The difference between you and me is that you would probably die but I will not. You will be respected in your country as a brave man, and I would be remembered as a martyr". This is where the influence of the Islamic teaching of the Qoran, the most potent and powerful book in Arabia for the last fourteen centuries. In the holy book God promised Moslems who sacrificed themselves for the sake of Islam that they would not die. They would only live. Moslems, men and women, even seculars hold to the promise literally. Heaven is then the ultimate reward of the devout who has the courage to take the ultimate test of faith.

What the young man did not say was that he was burning with a desire to revenge. He was a tearful witness to a scene when his father was beaten by Israeli soldiers twelve years ago. He was six years old. He would never forget his father, being taken away, bleeding from the nose. As he was growing, he was continuously haunted with the image of his father bruised face. Many Palestinian children at that time identified with the Israeli soldier as the model of power with his gun and screams. As Sharon was taking Arafat hostage and grinding salt of humiliation to the sour wounds, he was taking us into a new horrific level of madness. A young Palestinian girl blew herself up in a Jerusalem shopping centre, killing two Israelis and wounding more. She will not be the last.

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Gaza Community Mental Health Programme

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