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Dismally significant suicide bombings in Beersheba

09/01/2004

Nobody who is concerned for peace between Palestinians and Israelis can ignore Tuesday's double suicide bombing in Beersheba, which killed at least 16 people. In more than one way, this bombing has a dismal and tragic significance for Israelis and Palestinians, beyond the brute force of the mayhem and anguish caused by many of the bombings during the long years of the Oslo accords and especially during the "Intifada."

One meaning is spiritual and social. Arun Gandhi, grandson of the great saint of nonviolence, came to Palestine to plead for nonviolence. His carefully orchestrated and well publicized appearances excited little popular enthusiasm. In contrast, the bombing was an instant popular success. About 20,000 people congregated in spontaneous celebrations of joy in Gaza. According to a Reuters report:


"Revenge is so sweet," said one Hamas activist at a rally in Gaza.

Cheering in the streets of the Gaza Strip after the bombings, thousands of Hamas supporters threw sweets into the air and sang songs after the attack which killed 16 people and wounded 86, many shoppers returning from an open-air market.


The second meaning must inform our strategic understanding of what this conflict is about and how it might be ended. This sort of barbaric display is so common after such bombings that it hardly gets any attention at all. But it is the real news, and the real significance of the bombing. The bombing itself is the work of a handful of people, but it signifies the support of the masses. The handful of organizers can be easily overcome, the masses cannot. To Arun Gandhi's plea for nonviolence, the Palestinian masses have resolutely answered, "Just say no!"

The love of violence has characterized the Palestinian political scene at least since 1936. Any group that desires political support must prove its patriotism and worthiness to lead by acts of violence, and any such act is certain to attract the admiration of the masses. In the nascent Palestinian Arab community, Haj Amin El Husseini gained leadership because of his acts of violence against the Jewish community. In contrast, the terror of the Irgun and the Lehi ("Stern Gang") guaranteed the political isolation of Israeli right-wing extremists for nearly a quarter of a century. The massacre at Deir Yassin in 1948 is a blot on the record of Zionism, but it was not cheered by masses of people. Most of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were revolted by the parade of innocent prisoners staged by the Irgun and Lehi. They did not greet the Irgun with cheers and candy.

It doesn't matter that at least a part of the Palestinian leadership has understood that at present the violence is counter-productive for Palestinian national goals. As usual, they denounced the violence in a perfunctory manner. They wouldn't dare to try to stop the Hamas and other extremists who are the source of the violence, because that would mean the certain downfall of the Palestine Authority.

As is true for most such bombings, there was an excuse for these twin bombings. This paper thin excuse allows those who want to claim it is so, to say that the bombings were part of the "cycle of violence." They were supposedly "revenge" for the killing of Hamas leaders Yassin and Rantissi. Just so, the bus bombings of 1996 were supposdly "revenge" for killing Yihye Ayash, "the engineer." Of course, Ayash's bombing activities must've been revenge for something else, or perhaps they were revenge for nothing at all.

The "cycle of violence" theme is a deficient explanation. Just a few days ago, we were treated to a spontaneous example of violence. An innocent Israeli garbage truck that had been repaired, followed in a separate vehicle by the mechanic who repaired it, wandered by mistake into a Palestinian town. No organizing hand was necessary, and no motive for revenge was required. The two vehicles were surrounded by an angry mob, and the drivers escaped with their lives thanks only to the help of a few Palestinians and the interference of the Israeli army. The penchant for violence is an ugly and undeniable fact, and nobody can ignore it: not the Israelis, not the Palestinian leadership and not the Americans and Euripeans who want to mediate peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.

A third aspect of the significance of this attack concerns the short-term assessment of the current tactical situation. Many analysts were for some reason convinced that because there had not been attacks for many months, the Intifada was over. Everyone in Israel drew their own conclusions according to their political views. The right believed that Sharon's policy was vindicated, and that there is a military solution to the Palestinian problem. The left, and many US policy analysts, believed that a profound change had taken place in Palestine; the violence was over, and that it was time to renew peace negotiations.

Unfortunately, even before the attack, the most superficial view of the situation would show conclusively that the Intifada is not over. In July, Israel thwarted 17 suicide attacks. The lack of attacks was not due to lack of trying. Israelis who want to make believe that Palestinians do not exist unless they are blowing something up, must understand that it is not so. Quiescent or not, the Palestinian problem is there, and as long as it is not resolved, it will be a cause of tragedy. We cannot wish it away, we cannot wall it out of our lives.

The Palestinian authority for its part, had taken no steps to rein in the terror groups. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad, financed in part by Iran through the Hizbollah, have every reason to carry out these attacks, which assert their greater "patriotism" and better credentials in contrast to the Fatah, and which are designed to give them control of Palestinian politics after Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Stirrings for reform in Palestine were soon coopted by the apparently invincible Yasser Arafat, and anyhow, moderation vis-a-vis Israel was never the issue in these internal Palestinian struggles. We cannot hope to say that Intifada is really over until at least a month goes by without an attempted terror attack, however unsuccessful, and until there is at least lip service by all the Palestinian factions to an orderly process of negotiations and cessation of attacks against civilians. Even then, we have only the beginnings of a solution. Unless the adulation of violence is banished from Palestinian political life and society, any peace process is bound to fail. Peace cannot be founded on indefinite continuation of the occupation, but it can't be founded on glorification of violence for the sake of violence either.

It gives me no joy to write these words, but if we truly want peace, we have to understand the nature of the obstacles to peace, and then seek ways to overcome them. We cannot have peace as long as bloody and barbaric acts can draw cheering crowds. To be sure, Palestinian violence cannot simply be answered by Israeli violence and repression either. The violence must not be made into an excuse for perpetuating the occupation. The occupation doesn't cause the violence, which existed beforehand, but the occupation is a breeding ground for multiplying the violence, and the proximity of Palestinians and Israelis provides the opportunity for violence. However, we cannot afford the luxury of illusions and delusions regarding the likely direction of Palestinian politics or the magnitude of the problem.

Ami Isseroff

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