Toward A Truer Understanding of Terrorism Against Israel

by Louis Bené Beres, The Jewish Press, July 11, 1997

Violence and the sacred are inseparable. To understand the rationale and operation of Palestinian terrorism against Israel, it is first necessary to understand PLO/Hamas/Islamic Jihad conceptions of the sacred. From these pertinent conceptions it will become clear that Arab terror against Jews is, at its heart, an expression of religious worship long known as sacrifice.

Speaking to Palestinian security forces in Gaza on September 24, 1996, Yasir Arafat remarked: "They will fight for Allah and they will kill and be killed, and this is a solemn oath... Our blood is cheap compared with the cause which has brought us together..." Central to this revealing remark is the duality of sacrificial behaviour; the fighters "will kill and be killed..." Victory for the Palestinian people will come when both the Jews and the Arab "martyrs" suffer death. But while death for the Jews will be final and unheroic, a confirmation of Jewish limitations, death for the Palestinians will be only a temporary inconvenience on the way to immortality. What is more, it is only by killing Jews and subsequently being killed by them that true freedom from death can be realized. This is the true meaning of Islamic terrorism against Israel; it is a form of sacred violence oriented toward the sacrifice of both enemies and martyrs. It is through the purposeful killing of Jews, today through terrorism, tomorrow through war, that the Palestinian embarked upon Jihad can buy himself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed himself.

Once Israel has understood that terrorism is an activity related to sacrifice it will be on the way to effective counterterrorism. Until now, this is an understanding - like other aspects of Israeli security planning - that has lent itself to insubstantial theorizing. For the future, Palestinian terrorism should be approached, at least in part, as a violent and sacred act of mediation between Arab sacrificers and their deity.

In August 1995 Arafat said: "The Palestinian people are prepared to sacrifice the last boy and the last girl so that the Palestinian flag will be flown over the walls, the churches, and the mosques of Jerusalem." Here the PLO Chairman was not speaking of a purely political kind of sacrifice. Rather, pointing toward death in the context of "holy war," it is a sacrifice wherein authentic disappearance will befall only the Jews and where "the last boy and the last girl" will find eternal life.

For the Palestinians who now regard terrorism as sacrifice, it is a sacred violence that rewards doubly. Killing the despised Jew while simultaneously killing death for the Muslim. Palestinian sacrificial terror is the altogether optimal fusion of religion and politics. Moreover, such terror also fulfills the timeless function of sacrifice, which is to quell violence within the community and to prevent intracommunal conflicts from erupting.

What lessons can be learned from this for more effective Israeli counterterrorism? One answer emerges from a more generic investigation of sacrifice. Looking over several thousand years of history, all sacrificial victims are invariably distinguishable from nonsacrificeable beings by one essential trait: between these victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so that they can be sacrificed without fear of reprisal. The practice of sacred violence via sacrifice is always one that can be undertaken without risk of vengeance. In sacrifice, the victim, who lacks a champion, is struck down without fear of reprisal.

Ironically, this feeling of immunity from Israeli and Jewish vengeance now permeates the Palestinian terrorist community. By responding to each act of terror with self-criticism and degrading submission, the Jewish nation of terror victims reinforces the PLO, Hamas/Islamic Jihad idea that the Arab forces are engaged in genuinely sacrificial behaviour. Revolted by a stooped-over people that refuses to fight back, and that even scrapes its own flesh and blood from sidewalk altars without planning for punishment, these Arabs know that what they do must be sacred.

For Israel, it is time to recognize that terrorism and the sacred are closely linked. Before the Jewish State can protect itself from Palestinian terrorism, its policies will have to convince would-be attackers that Israel will not allow itself to become a sacrifice. To accomplish this all-important goal, these policies will have to express the certainty of vengeance whenever Jews are slaughtered by Arab terrorists.

Although such an expression of justice would seem easy enough, it remains inconsistent with the prevailing self-sacrifice of Israel mandated by a hideously misnamed "Peace Process."

There is one last important observation about sacrifice and terrorism. For the Palestinians who act upon linkage between violence and the sacred, the strength of their sacrificial behaviour is drawn from concealment. Religion serves to shelter the terrorists from expectations of reciprocal violence just as their own violence against Israel seeks shelter in religion. To the extent that Israel can persuasively demystify the sacrificial harms of its enemies, openly de-linking these murders from consecrating Islamic institutions, it will stand a better chance of bringing its shielded enemies within a required circle of Jewish vengeance and punishment. While such demystification must lead to escalations of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the short turn, it can at least reduce the likelihood that the Jewish State as a whole will ultimately be sacrificed upon the bloodstained altar of Arab terror.

Louis Bené Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is interested in unorthodox approaches to counterterrorism. For Israel, the orthodox approaches have exhausted their usefulness.

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