On Wednesday, at French Hill in Jerusalem, the Palestinians reached a new record of dubious worth: the 120th suicide bomber since the beginning of the el-Aksa Intifada on September 29, 2000. And this is still not the end. Hamas promised, in a pamphlet distributed on Tuesday after the suicide attack on the Gilo bus, to begin a suicide attack offensive described as, “Suicide attackers from every direction — suicide attackers in a chain, one after the other.”

Fatah, the Marxist PFLP, and of course the Islamic Jihad, have all adopted suicide bombing as a strategic weapon. GSS commanders say that the production of bomb belts is not quick enough to equip the number of volunteers waiting in line to commit suicide.

120 suicide bombers, men and women, do not constitute a fringe phenomenon. They are a sign of a societal norm, a reflection of a new Palestinian culture. This is a phenomenon that enjoys the support of the Palestinian street and leadership, not only in public opinion polls but also in the expressions of happiness after each attack, at the funerals for the suicide bombers, in their pictures on every street corner and in the songs praising them. [… ]

In recent months the chorus of praise has also been joined by the mothers of the suicide bombers. More and more mothers chose to be hotographed with their son the suicide bomber before he leaves for the mission, to congratulate and encourage him. Last Saturday, before Mahmud Hassan Abed of the Sheikh Raduan neighborhood in Gaza left for a suicide mission at Dugit, he had his picture taken with his mother and a Kalashnikov. After he was killed, his mother did not mourn — on the contrary, she celebrated, distributing sweets to relatives. The mother of Hamza Samoudi, who blew up the bus at Megiddo on June 5, was proud of her son: “Hamza wanted to get me into Paradise… He is taking women, the beautiful girls of Paradise, he lived and died as a hero, a blessed hero.”

On the Palestinian street these mothers are known as Hansa, after Hansa the daughter of Amr, who lived in the time of the Prophet Mohammed and became a role model, a kind of Palestinian “Hannah and her seven sons.” Hansa took part in the battle of Kadesiya, one of the most important of Mohammed’s battles, and encouraged her four sons for fight even if it cost them their lives. According to the Koran she told them, “Remember that the eternal world (Paradise) is better than this transitory world.”

They Know What They’re Doing

This new heroic culture has lead to an upheaval: suicide bombings are not viewed as attacks caused by despair, disappointment or in revenge, but as acts of hope. The goal of a suicide bomber is not killing for the sake of killing, but as a means to break Israel’s power of endurance — to undermine society, to shatter the economy, to remove the Sharon government and to force Israel into accepting the Palestinians’ conditions for the permanent solution. The Palestinians feel that have already created a small earthquake that has cracked the social and economic walls in Israel. They believe with a bit more effort they can cause Israel’s collapse.

Hamas leaders said this week, “the suicide bombers are the strategic weapon for reaching deterrence and balance. The Palestinians are creating a new life through the gate of suicide bombings.”

It is worth taking a look at the human profile of the suicide bombers. In Gilo it was Mohammed el-Ghoul, an MA student at A-Najah university in Nablus, which has earned the title of “suicide college.” Over 30 of them have come from this academic institution. Around half of the 120 suicide bombers have university education, another 35% have high school education, and the rest have elementary school education. In other words, these are not rash and unstable people, but suicide bombers who know very well what weapon they are using.

It Will Reach Europe Too

Salah Shahada, commander of the Hamas military wing, said this week in an interview on the organization’s Internet site that the rush of people wanting to become suicide bombers indicates mental health and is not a way of running away from a situation of despair and frustration. He laid down four principles in the process of choosing suicide bombers: “religious devotion — observing prayers, charity and good deeds. Parental satisfaction — we check if the young person is liked by his family and that he is not the only breadwinner, we don’t take single children. His ability to complete the assignment and most important, we ensure that the suicide act be such that it motivates more suicide bombings and encourages jihad among the public.”

In Palestinian terminology, even officially, nobody talks about suicide, but about sacrifice. Even Sari Nusseibeh and Hanan Ashrawi, who on Wednesday released an opinion calling to stop these acts, called the suicide bombings “military acts whose goal is against Israeli civilians.”

The Palestinians have a sense of being pioneers. Arabic television has helped them spread this sense to Arab countries. Clerics from all over the Moslem world, led by Sheikh Kardawi of Qatar, considered the greatest of religious rulers, have given their blessing to these acts, including by women. Even Sheikh a-Zahar, Mohammed Tantawi, has bowed to pressure and issued a ruling that views suicide bombings as legitimate from a religious aspect. Arafat’s mantra “millions of shahids marching to Jerusalem” has become the slogan at demonstrations in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In marches of support of the Intifada in Germany, France or Belgium, children march with dummy explosives belts. “If these is no war against this cancer, it is liable to spread to Europe too,” security sources said this week.

Only on Wednesday night, after the terror attack at French Hill, when the sword of exile was placed at his neck, did Arafat realize that he was liable to end his career as president of Palestine. Only then he called on his people to stop the terror attacks against Israeli civilians. But his call came too late, after the phenomenon of suicide bombers has become rooted — thanks to him as well — and he no longer has the ability to put a stop to this norm.

This piece ran in Yediot Aharonot on June 21, 2002