Suicide Bombers: Dignity, Despair, and the Need for Hope


Eyad El Sarraj, a psychiatrist, is the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in Gaza, whose clinics have treated, without payment, one in ten residents in the Strip. He is also secretary-general of the Independent Palestinian Commission for Citizens' Rights and the recipient of the Physicians for Human Rights Award in 1997 and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights in 1998. He was interviewed by Linda Butler of JPS in Washington, D.C., on 2 May 2002.

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Eyad El Sarraj, a psychiatrist, is the founder and director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) in Gaza, whose clinics have treated, without payment, one in ten residents in the Strip. He is also secretary-general of the Independent Palestinian Commission for Citizens' Rights and the recipient of the Physicians for Human Rights Award in 1997 and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights in 1998. He was interviewed by Linda Butler of JPS in Washington, D.C., on 2 May 2002.

Butler: At the time of Oslo, many people commented on how Palestinians were willing to "forgive and forget" the occupation and put the past behind them. Today, in the light of what has happened, especially in the West Bank, will this be so easy?

Sarraj: Of course the distrust and hatred are far deeper now. One of Sharon's great victories is the way he has increased the level of hatred on both sides. If the strategy was to destroy any possibility of peace, he has scored a huge success.

Still, if there is a solution that is fair--and I mean the 1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem, a fair resolution for the refugees, dismantled settlements--I believe the Palestinians will accept it, and the Israelis too. If that happened, it would change dramatically the psychology of the people on both sides. But if the Palestinians come out feeling that they have been defeated, the solution won't last. There will be new violence, and even greater violence, the way each cycle is more violent than what preceded.

Butler: In that regard, can you compare the two intifadas?

Sarraj: Let me tell you first that the people who are committing the suicide bombings in this intifada are the children of the first intifada--people who witnessed so much trauma as children. So as they grew up, their own identity merged with the national identity of humiliation and defeat, and they avenge that defeat at both the personal and national levels. That is one observation.

The escalation of the level of violence is unbelievable. In the first intifada it was stones at best. In this intifada it's machine guns and homemade mortars and explosives and especially suicide bombings. The next intifada, which, if there is no solution, will certainly happen in another four to seven years, will be even worse than we have witnessed in the last two years.

Butler: Aside from weapons, to what do you attribute this extraordinary escalation of violence in the second intifada? Is there a psychological dimension as well?

Sarraj: Of course. It's despair. The hopelessness that comes from a situation that keeps getting worse, a despair where living becomes no different from dying. Desperation is a very powerful force--it's not only negative. It propels people to actions or solutions that previously would have been unthinkable. What is unthinkable today becomes accepted tomorrow. Whoever would have imagined suicide bombings in Palestine ten years ago? There is no precedent in our society. This is what I mean when I say that if this continues, there will be new methods of escalation of the violence too horrific even to imagine today.

Listen. In the last uprising, children used to play a game called "intifada." It was a cowboys-and-indians-type game--more specifically, Israeli soldier versus Palestinian stone thrower, with the kids trading off between the role of the soldiers armed with sticks to represent guns and the Palestinians with kufiyyahs and stones. Many of the children at the time preferred to play the Jew, basically because the Jew with the guns represented power. This game has entirely disappeared. Today, the symbol of power is the martyr. If you ask a child in Gaza today what he wants to be when he grows up, he doesn't say that he wants to be a doctor or a soldier or an engineer. He says he wants to be a martyr.

Butler: How has this happened, from identifying with power, even of the oppressor, to wanting to die?

Sarraj: People, including young people, need to feel respected. They want status within their society. Today the martyr is glorified. The martyr for them is the power of the people, the power to take revenge on behalf of the victims. They have all these romantic notions. They see the martyr as courageously sacrificing himself or herself for the sake of everyone, as a symbol of the struggle for freedom, because this is what these people are fighting for.

So all these are different meanings of power, especially in light of the demolition of the father image in the eyes of the children. During the first intifada, studies showed that 55 percent of the children had witnessed their fathers being humiliated or beaten by Israeli soldiers. The psychological impact of this is stunning. The father, normally the authority figure, comes to be seen as somebody who is helpless, who can't even protect himself--let alone his children. So children became more militant, more violent. People are the products of their environment. Children who have seen so much inhumanity--basically the Israeli occupation policies--inevitably come out with inhuman responses. That's really how to understand the suicide bombings.

Butler: Of course, in the last analysis, the suicide bombings have given the Israelis an excuse to come in. This being the case, is there a popular reaction against suicide bombings as a factor contributing to their suffering?

Sarraj: Well, you see, suicide bombings and all these forms of violence--I'm talking as a doctor here--are only the symptoms, the reaction to this chronic and systematic process of humiliating people in effort to destroy their hope and dignity. That is the illness, and unless it is resolved and treated, there will be more and more symptoms of the pathology.

Before I left Gaza this time, one of our child psychiatrists at the clinic told me how some of the children he is treating tell him about how they are passing their time--not with games, but trying to manufacture mortar--figuring out how they can do it by hand. One can imagine that some of them might start thinking of chemical weapons or projectile suicide bombings.

Butler: You talk about suicide bombings being, in a way, a psychological response to the occupation, but to what extent are they manipulated by Hamas and other such groups?

Sarraj: Hamas has its own ideology. I'm not really versed in this, but as far as I know, they have an ideology that calls for an Islamic state in all of Palestine through holy war and killing the enemy. They believe that the Israelis can only listen to the language of force. To that end, they are ready to use any means, including suicide bombings. And there are plenty of volunteers. . . .

Butler: But do they encourage these children to volunteer? When the Holy Land Foundation, the leading Muslim charity in the United States, was closed by President Bush after 11 September, one of the reasons cited was that the organization funded charities supported by Hamas, reported to extol suicide bombings in the schools and through active recruitment. . . .

Sarraj: This is false, of course. Americans also talk about the way the Palestinian curriculum in general promotes hatred against Jews. But if you look at both curricula, you'll see that there is nothing that teaches this hatred. You don't need schools for that--all you need is to see Israeli soldiers humiliating your father or Phantom-16s destroying your homes, and the message gets through. Hamas doesn't need to recruit. One of my colleagues told me about a patient who became very depressed when he was passed over as a suicide bomber; he had missed his chance to be a martryr.

Maybe this is difficult to understand in the West, though in the West, too, you glorify your war dead, you build memorials to those who fall for the nation. In every society, such people are respected. But to this you have to add the level of utter despair that's in the territories, the hopelessness. And added to this is the religious notion that life begins with death. This is what religious people believe. The militant ones believe that if they die as suicide fighters in the struggle for justice, they are conquering defeat and death itself--that they don't die, that with death they begin to live (though this talk of the virgins in Paradise is rubbish, and no one has done it for that). If life is intolerable, with no hope, and if there's a promise that if you die as a martyr you'll have a new and better life, why not take the chance?

Of course, in Islam, suicide for personal reasons is a sin; it's forbidden. But martyrdom is something else. And there are so many interpretations of suicide bombing, because obviously, it didn't exist at the time of the Prophet Muhammad--in fact, it's an entirely new phenomenon in Islam. It was first practiced by Hizballah after Israel occupied southern Lebanon in 1982, and the highest Egyptian and Saudi religious authorities have ruled against it. So it is very much debated in Islam: Is it a form of sacrificing yourself for God? Is it acceptable to kill civilians? The militant Muslims say that all Israelis are military people anyway, including women. Another argument, even by Hamas, is that they wouldn't turn their bodies into bombs if they had F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks, or a tiny fraction of the weapons Israel gets from the United States. They say that if you want to attack an Israeli soldier--who is absolutely invulnerable in his bunker or tank--how else can you do it? To their minds, the Israelis have the power of the F-16s, while we have the power to die. So we have reached this deeply paranoid position.

I personally am totally against suicide bombings, on principle, on moral grounds. I believe that Islam is about life. Islam tells us that we must protect women and children and even trees during war. These are the words of the Prophet Muhammad. So under Islam, how can you kill yourself and innocent civilians in this way? But militant Muslims have different interpretations.

Butler: From press reports here, one often gets the impression of a kind of celebratory atmosphere within families whose sons were killed as suicide bombers, which reinforces the notion that, in contrast to Israelis, Palestinians don't care very much about human life or even their own flesh and blood. There is also talk of financial reward, that the families get money.

Sarraj: Anyone who actually believes such an interpretation is in a process of racist dehumanization. How can you believe in your own humanity if you don't believe in the humanity of the enemy?

But about this atmosphere of celebration you mention, this is the way our culture reacts to death under any circumstances. In our tradition, when someone dies people go to the families for days on end to pay their respects. The customary formulas are that this man or woman has been blessed, has been called by God, so that we should not be sad but should actually be happy for this person who is now with God. Everyone says these things to the family to help them get through their feelings of loss and grief. And this continues for forty days, this support--this is the tradition.

Now when it comes to a person who has sacrificed himself or herself for God, they are even more respected. They reach a status of holiness in the eyes of the people for reasons I already described. And the overwhelming support of society helps the family deal with the loss. There's the heroism of dying for others, of not accepting humiliation and defeat, and more than that, of being supported by God, and that whatever happens to us is a test of our faith. We have to be good Muslims to please God. And the ultimate way to be a good Muslim, they think, is to die for God.

So this is the atmosphere. Later on, of course, the families begin to feel it, in what we call delayed grief reaction. Once all this social support and solidarity subsides and they're left on their own, they start to realize: Where is my son? And they feel the pain like anyone else.

As for the money, of course people support the martyrs' families. I myself am deeply opposed to suicide bombings, yet I too support the families. As a Palestinian, as an Arab, as a Muslim, and as a human being, I feel obliged to support them. I cannot leave their children in poverty--I have to do what I can to leave them some hope and dignity. This is why we support the families--certainly not to encourage suicide bombing. And no person has ever become a martyr for such reasons.

Butler: One hears that there's a debate in Palestinian society about the militarization of the second intifada and especially the suicide phenomenon, that there are those who think that this has been very damaging.

Sarraj: There is a debate among the intellectuals, but among the people, it's not there yet--not in this atmosphere, when people are under siege, under attack. There's a deep anger, defiance, so even if people know deep down that these tactics will not bring a solution, they still support them. It's an emotional reaction.

In Palestinian political circles, there is a debate. It's not about morality; it's about politics: Is anything achieved from suicide bombing or not? And I believe that more and more people are beginning to realize that it's completely counterproductive, disastrous, and that politically all it does is radicalize Israelis, who continue to support Sharon--who feeds off this--and give him justification to do whatever he wants. More and more people believe this, but so far it's especially in intellectual circles.

Butler: Have there been studies about the long-term effects of this kind of violence on a society, for example in Bosnia?

Sarraj: I haven't seen any studies about Bosnia, but all you have to do is look at places where there was a particularly brutal colonial regime and see what happened later. The violence among the South African black townships after independence. And Algeria, where the level of brutality and atrocity the French exercised was almost unimaginable--mass murder, whole villages wiped out, and so on. They were determined to totally obliterate the Algerian culture. All this was taken into the psyche of the Algerian people, and today you have this suppressed rage being turned against themselves.

Butler: This doesn't bode well. . . .

Sarraj: All it means is that there is an absolute need for a thorough and deep process of national reconciliation that allows Palestinians to come to terms with their pain, their trauma, their grief and loss--and the same thing for the Israelis, by the way. But it can't happen without a political solution first, one that is fair and dignified and gives hope.

Butler: So what does this mean for the Palestinian society, in the long run? People have been writing for some time about an upsurge in violence in Gaza over the years, even of a certain disintegration of society. . . .

Sarraj: There is no question that violence has increased, but you have to realize that it's starting from a very low threshold: If you knew Gaza before 1967, homicide was practically unheard of--maybe one every few years. But over the years, with the violence of the occupation and the violence it brought to the society, it has increased--political violence, violence against women, and so on. But it should be mentioned that the violence is restricted to the political level or within the social network. Violence is within the family, within the tribe, or along tribal lines. If you are an ordinary person who isn't involved in politics or clan feuds, you're absolutely safe. There's no anonymous or random or chaotic violence here. That hasn't changed.

And you can't say society is disintegrating in that the tribal or clan structure is still very much intact. This is the structure people rely on for security and for protection, for support and help.

Butler: Do you see it as a source of hope, in a way?

Sarraj: No, it is not a source of hope; it's a source of endurance. Once there is peace, it's something we have to move beyond and learn true notions of citizenship. But in times of siege, under extreme duress, it enables people to live, to survive. This is the history of Gaza, where the state has always been alien. This is the way people lived for centuries, relying on themselves and their clan. It's part of the reason for the extraordinary resilience of people. Gaza has not been under siege like the West Bank, but even here, you can't move around, you're under closure, the power is cut, water is scarce. You can't get to hospitals. And yet people manage; they make do. Under the heavy cloud of despair and frustration and helplessness, there is still deep conviction and very strong feeling of defiance, coupled with the feeling that God is with us--that He is testing us now, but that He will come to our aid. All this means that people can still endure, and it ensures that with new layers of confrontation, if it continues, the people will still be there.

These people can take so much, I tell you. They can take so much more, so much more. That's why, deep inside, they are still so defiant.

Butler: Do you see hope in the long term?

Sarraj: Yes, absolutely. I believe in the basic humanity of our people. And I believe that there will be peace, because there's no other option. More and more people will see that killing and murder are not the solution. Even Israeli military experts, like [Benjamin] Ben-Eliezer, say there is no military solution. More and more people will come to this. What I hope is that this happens sooner rather than later so that we can spare the lives of so many people who don't need to die--this is what I hope. It's possible that there will be a few more thousand on each side, but if, at the end of the day, we're going to reach a peaceful solution based on what we already know, why should there be all these deaths?


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