Core roots of Palestinian terrorism

Understanding implications for the peace process.

graffiti of freed Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
graffiti of freed Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem will soon have to confirm its final Road Map decisions on "peace." Then, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will need to determine whether the still-fractionated Palestinian side is willing and able to overcome some of its deepest cultural roots. Without such a determination, any formal agreement could be perilous.
Here, insight requires memory. Before a resurgent medievalism took hold in the Islamic Middle East, the fraternity of Palestinian terrorist groups had contained many disparate bedfellows. Virtually every Arab enemy of Israel was more-or-less welcome to join in a battle for "national self- determination" against the "Zionists." Today, the fight has changed from a preeminently secular and tactical one, to a struggle that draws heavily upon still-underlying commitments to religious sacrifice.
In ancient Greece, Plutarch's Sayings of Spartan Mothers identified the exemplary female parent as one who had reared her sons for civic sacrifice. Such a Greek mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died "in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors." There are lessons here for Israel. The deepest roots of jihadist terror originate from current cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these mostly Arab cultures, the key purpose of sacrifice extends beyond any presumed expectations of civic necessity. This rationale goes to the very heart of individual fear, to the palpable human dread of death.
In the Arab Middle East, acts of terror have increasingly become a sacred expression of religion. In these cultures, sacrifice derives, in part, from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death. By adopting such an atavistic practice, the jihadist terrorist expects to realize an otherwise unattainable immortality.
The attraction is clear. A jihadist murderer kills himself or herself, together with assorted innocent others, to ensure a personal life that will never end. The so-called “death” that he or she actually expects to suffer in consequence of this “suicide,” therefore, is no more than a transient inconvenience. However faith-based, the Shahid or martyr can rationally calculate that an anticipated suicide is "cost-effective." In Islam, “martyrdom” has always been associated with Jihad. Unequivocal and celebratory invocations for sacrificial killing can be found in the Koran (9:111), and, more explicitly, in the canonical hadith. "Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead," instructs the Koran, "for they are living by their Lord." For Hamas, there are obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror that must never be overlooked. This two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice - the sacrifice of "The Jew," and the sacrifice of "The Martyr" - is codified in the Charter of Hamas as a "religious" problem." In 2003, late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's own appointed clergy, preaching on the Temple Mount, reaffirmed a core religious precept: "Palestinians spearhead Allah's war against the Jews. The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews...." The jihadists’ terror of death leads them to commit a murderous form of “suicide.” Because dying in the act of killing “infidels” and “apostates” is expected to buy freedom from the penalty of non- being, these terrorists aim to conquer mortality by “killing themselves.”
Of course, Israel and its terrorist enemies have very different orientations to "peace." This stark asymmetry puts the Jewish State at a noteworthy disadvantage.
Israel faces a still-expanding threat of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with opponents who are not only willing to die, but who might ecstatically seek their own "deaths," Jerusalem must quickly understand the critical limits of ordinary warfare, national homeland defense, and strategic deterrence.
The root "peace process" problem is jihadist fear of death, and the consequent compulsion to sacrifice certain despised "others." This compulsion, in turn, stems from a doctrinal belief that killing unbelievers, and also being killed by unbelievers, is the best available path to immortality. In short, Islamist terrorist unwillingness to accept personal death leads to the killing of others, specifically in order to escape this death.
For many of Israel’s terrorist enemies, killing Jews always offers the optimal immunization against personal death.
Resembling more explicitly sacrificial elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the military wing of Fatah is now oriented toward much more than a purely nationalistic “armed struggle.” It is dedicated to religious sacrifice, a commitment that promises its followers not just military victory over “Zionist occupiers,” but, much more appealingly, immunity from death. For the Palestinian terrorist, violence and the sacred remain closely intertwined. Israel, therefore, must think in terms of desacrilizing this relentless adversary, and somehow convincing him that ritual murders of "Jews" will lead not to paradise and limitless sexual pleasures, but rather to the "terrors of the grave." Can such a desacrilization ever be accomplished through ordinary politics and the US-brokered "peace process?" To be persuasive, it would have to originate among certain influential Islamic clerics themselves. How could this origination be made to work? What is the correct "peace" strategy for Israel? As Palestinian statehood is already being validated in the UN, Mr. Netanyahu will quickly need to acknowledge the fallacy of accepting a Palestinian state because it has agreed to "demilitarization." Every state, he will need to recognize, maintains an "inherent" and irreducible right of self-defense. This right would not be withdrawn from "Palestine," whatever else its leaders might have agreed to in pre-independence negotiations.
The "Road Map" coaxes Israel along a twisting excursion to unending war and terror. By ignoring the core roots of Palestinian terrorism, this "Map" can only offer the Jewish State an utterly contrived "Two-State Solution." Should Netanyahu agree to follow US President Barack Obama's lethal cartography, he will have misunderstood the deepest, ineradicable origins of Palestinian terrorism.
For Palestinians, the terror-based struggle against Israel has never been about land or "settlements." It has really been about God.
Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and publishes widely on world politics, terrorism, and international law. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979) ; Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); and Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986). Professor Beres is a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Post.