The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

6 January 2003

The Strategy of Suicide Bombs

By Gwynne Dyer

 Terrorism isn’t about killing innocent people; that’s just a means to an end. Terrorism is about goading a stronger opponent into behaving in ways that will benefit your cause.

On Sunday, for the first time since November, a couple of Palestinian suicide-bombers got through and blew themselves up in central Tel Aviv. At least 23 people were killed, most of the foreign workers from Africa and Asia who came to Israel to do the low-wage jobs that were once filled by Palestinians. With wearisome predictability, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman blamed Yasser Arafat: “This terrorist attack has earned the Palestinian Authority’s stamp of approval. It is a direct result of persistent incitement coming out of the Palestinian Authority and its refusal to rein in the terrorists in its midst.”

Sorry, could you run that by me again? You’re talking about Yasser Arafat, the man whose whole career was dedicated to the goal of getting his people recognised as Palestinians (with rights to at least some of the land of what used to be called Palestine), rather than mere refugees with a right only to a tent and daily rations? The man who then risked assassination by his own hard-liners by renouncing terrorism, signing the Oslo accords with Yitzhak Rabin, and then, after Rabin was assassinated, waiting patiently while Binyamin Netanyahu stalled for three years on fulfilling the terms of the accords? You reckon he sent the bombers?

Sharon’s spokesman doesn’t really believe that Arafat sent the bombers. He’s just ‘on message’ — the message being that we must discredit Arafat because he’s still the really dangerous Palestinian, the one who wants to make a deal. Sharon isn’t interested in making any deal that gives the Palestinians a viable country in what remains of their original territory, because that would block his purpose of incorporating much of that land into Israel. So his goal is to paint all Palestinians who want to make a deal as unreasonable terrorists who have no interest in a deal.

Yasser Arafat is his own worst enemy, of course. He was a brilliant guerilla/terrorist leader, cunning, long-sighted, and staunch in adversity, but he is an inept negotiator and a dreadful administrator.

The reason everybody has all but given up on the Palestinian Authority is that Arafat never graduated from being a guerilla leader: he maintains control over his administration by appointing three, or four, or five men to do the same job, setting them against one another so that only he can adjudicate the disputes. When you finally get in to see him, five or six hours after the agreed time, you are likely to find him personally signing cheques for only a few hundred dollars: Arafat is a bandit chieftain who never managed the transition to real power.

The last and greatest service he could have done for the Palestinian people would have been to die in the siege of Beirut twenty years ago, leaving it to a younger, better educated generation of Palestinians to negotiate a land-and-peace agreement with a triumphant but still vulnerable Israel. Alas, he didn’t.

So there he sits still, a trembling, superannuated relic who now serves mainly as an Israeli bogeyman. But did he really send the bombers to the Tel Aviv bus station to kill all those foreigners? Don’t be silly.

Comfortable people in safe places see the phrase ‘enemies of peace’ as mere rhetoric. I mean, nobody could really be the enemy of peace, could they? But there are people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who are genuinely the enemies of peace — or at least, of peace on any terms that would be acceptable to the other side. They are the whole-hoggers, who don’t ever want to compromise on the territory they believe is theirs, and many of them are quite willing to kill in order to prevent the wrong kind of peace. On the Palestinian side, most of them are Islamists, but some are not.

The al-Aqsa Brigades who claimed responsibility for Sunday’s Tel Aviv bombings are not Islamists. They are a faction that still has a formal connection to Arafat’s Fatah organisation (unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who do not) But either al-Aqsa are a very stupid group of people who have let their anger lead them astray, or they have consciously gone over to the side of the Islamists who dream of a total victory over Israel in the long run, and fight to prevent a negotiated peace in the short run.

The effect of these attacks, obviously, is to improve Ariel Sharon’s chances of being re-elected at the end of this month, which would guarantee that there is no risk of a negotiated peace that gives Palestinians only part of Palestine for the indefinite future. It was never likely that the peace candidate, Amram Mitzna, would win, but you can’t be too careful. So the bombers are out in force, just as they were in 1996 when there was a risk that the peace candidate, Shimon Peres, would win against Netanyahu. Terrorism is never ‘blind’; it is politics by other means.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“The reason…power”)