Letting suicide bombers speak for themselves

Filmmaker Pierre Rehov asks would-be terrorists why they planned to attack Israelis.

rehov film 298.88 (photo credit: City Lights Media)
rehov film 298.88
(photo credit: City Lights Media)
Sixteen-year old Hassan is deeply frustrated because he was caught by Israeli police before he could blow himself up among a crowd of Israeli civilians. "If I had been killed, my mother would call it a blessing," he says. "My family and 70 relatives would have gone to paradise, and that would be a great honor for me." Hassan is one of more than a dozen Palestinian suicide bombers captured before they could carry out their missions and interviewed in the documentary Suicide Killers by French-Jewish filmmaker Pierre Rehov. The movie's subtitle, "Paradise is Hell," is a deliberate allusion and counterpoint to last year's Oscarnominated Palestinian drama Paradise Now, which some critics charged "humanized" and even glorified its two suicide bombers. The prison interviews of Suicide Killerswill leave most viewers shaken, not because of the ferocity of the would-be terrorists, but because of their calmness and the certitude of their convictions. No regrets or second thoughts are apparent, except for the failure of their missions, with the female terrorists in particular displaying a truly frightening serenity. Producer-director Rehov, who has made six previous documentaries on Israeli-Palestinian relations, brings his own history to some of the topics explored in the film. Born to a Jewish family in Algeria, he said in a phone interview that he grew up among Arab Muslims and continues to feel comfortable among them. That background, and his French citizenship, made it easier to conduct the interviews for Suicide Killers - once the Hamas prison bosses, who in effect control the inmates inside the Israeli prison, gave their permission. Rehov's main purpose, and the most interesting aspect of the film, is to explore the terrorists' minds and motivations. It is Rehov's thesis that although the Israeli occupation, poverty, frustration at checkpoints and a desire to avenge Palestinian deaths may all contribute to convincing young men and women to strap on explosive belts, the real causes behind such acts lie much deeper. He identifies two psychological factors he says are key to the formation of the terrorist mindset, both of which he argues are inherent in Islamic belief and practice: a high degree of sexual frustration and a deep sense of humiliation and wounded pride. Rehov's conclusions, which he says are rejected out of hand as "politically incorrect" in Europe, are borne out to a considerable extent by the prisoners' own words and the commentaries of Arab, Israeli and other experts interviewed in the film. The would-be terrorists rarely speak of nationalist grievances but constantly emphasize their religious mandate. "Our goal is to kill all enemies of Islam," says one young woman. "Those who die for Allah are not dead but live in paradise," a young man proclaims. Such beliefs easily reinforce hatred of Jews. "Jews have never obeyed God and are not part of mankind," adds another prisoner. One former recruiter of terrorists says that volunteers signify their wish to become "martyrs" by declaring that they wish to "marry Allah." A sense of shame is another major motivating factor for aspiring terrorists, according to Rehov. "It is bad enough that the infidel West is superior in technology and wealth, but to have been defeated by Jews, whom Muslims have held in contempt for centuries, is the utmost humiliation," he said. Rehov treads on more controversial ground when he describes sexual frustration as perhaps the key component of the terrorist mind. "Young Muslim men are raised in a highly restrictive atmosphere riddled with sexual guilt and taboos," he said. "They grow up without a natural relationship to women, whom they hold in deep contempt." The fantasy of martyrs receiving 72 virgins in paradise is part of that culture, as is the sense that the more liberal Israeli lifestyle is corrupting Islamic purity, Rehov noted. He observed similar sexual attitudes among serial killers in other countries, one reason he titled his film Suicide Killers. The filmmaker dismissed the argument that Islamic moderates will eventually rein in extremists if given proper support by the West. "All Muslims, even in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, believe that Islam will prevail worldwide in the end, because that's the word of God," he said. "Moderates believe that this will happen sometime in the future. The extremists think that it will happen in their lifetimes, and they want to be part of the victory. It's just a difference in the timing, not in the ultimate outcome." Suicide Killers has screened at film festivals in Europe, the United States and Asia, and Rehov expects that the film will open in theaters early next year.