Palestinian terrorism is not about self-determination - opinion

In today’s jihad-oriented Middle East, Islamic faith is being placed in the defiling service of terror-violence.

 The IDF guards the Israel-Gaza border. Not only would a Palestinian state fail to inhibit or halt Palestinian terrorism, it would render such grievous wrongdoings increasingly likely and still more injurious, the writer argues. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
The IDF guards the Israel-Gaza border. Not only would a Palestinian state fail to inhibit or halt Palestinian terrorism, it would render such grievous wrongdoings increasingly likely and still more injurious, the writer argues.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

At its core, Palestinian terrorism against Israel has nothing to do with high-minded, law-based principles of statehood or national self-determination. As a pragmatic tactic of terror, such principles merely disguise relentless criminality usefully sanitizing darkly primal objectives. 

Israel must first examine Palestinian violence against the innocent in terms of the wider human need to belong. This compelling need can be expressed harmlessly, as in sports hysteria and rock concerts, or perniciously, as in jihadist terror. Further, the Hamas murders of Israeli noncombatants on October 7, 2023, went far beyond the pernicious. Prima facie, they were conspicuously barbarous and patently inexcusable.

What does this candid assessment suggest about the seemingly authentic Palestinian demand for a “two-state solution?” Above all, it reveals a demand that is based upon deliberate misinformation and orchestrated subterfuge. Not only would a Palestinian state fail to inhibit or halt Palestinian terrorism, it would render such grievous wrongdoings increasingly likely and still more injurious.

In explaining these many-sided security matters, analytic thinking and philosophy will deserve pride of place. Long ago, Aristotle understood that “man is a social animal.” Typically, the seminal Greek thinker recognized that even “normal” individuals can feel empty and insignificant apart from tangible membership in the “mass.”

Aristotle’s reasoning endures. Sometimes that “mass” is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes the faith (always the “one true faith”). In the case of Palestinian terror violence, it is the aspiring state.

 Hamas parade in Gaza  (credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah AJ/TC)
Hamas parade in Gaza (credit: REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah AJ/TC)

Details aside, whatever the “mass” claims at a particular historical moment, it is an unquenchable craving for belonging that threatens to produce the catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility and correlative triumphs of collective criminality. 

In jihadist-centered parts of the Middle East – and this includes places that harbor the Shiite Hezbollah as well as the Sunni Hamas/Fatah/Islamic Jihad – belonging is generally determinative. Unless millions can finally temper the all-consuming psychological desire to belong, all military, legal, and political schemes to control virulent terrorism will fail.  

Why do people become jihadists?

TO MORE genuinely understand what lies behind Palestinian terrorism against Israel, science-based analysts must first learn to look more deeply behind the news to explain jihadist fusions of susceptible individuals into murder-centered terror gangs. In the jihadist Middle East, neither terrorism nor war could plausibly take place in the absence of such steeply corrosive identifications.

In science, relevant concepts were already elucidated by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Whenever individuals crowd together and form a mass, both psychologist-philosophers surmised, the exterminatory dynamics of a dangerous mob could be unleashed. 

More precisely, Freud and Jung discovered that these dynamics would lower every single person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where even anonymous mass killing would be welcomed and encouraged. Significantly, this lethal “lowering” is precisely what animated Hamas’s October 7, 2023 attack upon vulnerable Israeli civilians.

In today’s jihad-oriented Middle East, Islamic faith is being placed in the defiling service of terror-violence. At its core, Hamas terror against Israel is fueled by effectively-unchallengeable evocations of “divine will.” Ironically, the net result of such perfidious summoning is to drown out any residual hints of sacredness or godliness.

Doctrinally, for Hamas and other jihadists, once empathy and compassion are extended outside the murdering mass, they must be condemned, not exalted. In the particular case of Jews, moreover, humane sentiments must be suppressed and actively punished. Here, in a morally upside-down universe, empathy and compassion become not merely extraneous, but also religiously and politically explosive.

In the name of purportedly divine commandment, jihadist terror crimes offer the wider world neither salvation nor holiness, but only “groupthink.” 

Among other things, the dissembling rhythms of this annihilating ethos make it futile for Israel to advance even the sincerest efforts at elementary human cooperation. 

This basic policy dilemma can never be solved by pundits, political leaders, or self-declared “experts.” Instead, true solutions will require the concentrated intellectual efforts of uncommonly gifted thinkers. For Israel, it could then emerge that any alleged two-state solution would only be another “final solution.” At that stage, the pertinent ironies would have become both insufferable and unconscionable.

To undertake meaningful investigations of Hamas terror-criminality, capable scholars and policymakers will need to look more closely at the complex determinants of human meaning. Before we can slow down terror violence against Israeli and other national noncombatants, Hamas and kindred groups will have to be shorn of their goal to bestow celebratory status upon murderers. To usefully affect those mass-directed individuals who turn to terrorism (i.e., ritualistic murder) for affirmations of their personal worth, dedicated thinkers would first need to identify more benign but still comparably attractive sources of belonging.

IN THE deepest analytic sense, Hamas terror-violence represents the aggregate result of individual human failures to draw personal meaning “from within.” In Gaza and other mass-directed Palestinian areas, “redemption” always requires the “faithful” to present tangible proof of belonging. In any such presentation, participation in barbarous violence against defenseless Israeli men, women, and children would be a self-evidently meritorious or gainful act. Accordingly, the highest status a Palestinian jihadist fighter can acquire by ritualistic murder is that of a shahid or “martyr.”

At its heart, Palestinian terror-violence against Israel is always a problem of displaced human-centeredness. Ever anxious about drawing meaning from their own “inwardness,” Hamas adherents draw ever closer to mass-based defilements of “unbelievers.” In this connection, a blood-soaked voice of anti-reason can make even the most sordid forms of terror-killing appear “glorious.”  

When it is correctly understood as a form of religious sacrifice, Hamas terrorism promises to confer more than “just” belonging. It also promises the greatest conceivable form of power, the presumed power of immortality or power over death.

Among other things, this incomparable conferral augments the Hamas terrorist’s already-shameless inclinations to rape and slaughter with a tangible patina of cowardice. 

Lest anyone forget, the “heroic death” that Palestinian “martyrs” expect to “suffer” is never anything more than a transient inconvenience on the path to life everlasting. In essence, it ought never be forgotten by Israelis that the Palestinian shahid “kills himself” (or herself) in order not to die.

At birth, each person contains the possibility of becoming fully human, an opportunity that could reduce potentially destructive loyalties to any particular murderous mass.

Israel must not misunderstand the causes of Palestinian terrorism

ONLY BY nurturing this indispensable possibility can Israel ever seek to remedy the scourge of terrorism. In principle, at least, Israel’s long-term struggle against Hamas and other jihadists should be framed to encourage potential terror killers to discover the way back to themselves as empathetic human beings. Nonetheless, for anyone who can recall October 7, 2023, that could hardly express a realistic suggestion.

It’s time for an aptly analytic summation. Israel should never misunderstand or misrepresent the core causes of Palestinian terror. To wit, Hamas killers are not fundamentally interested in sovereignty, “self-determination” or statehood. Rather, these criminals seek their heinous satisfactions in personal belonging, pretended heroism, and faith-defined immortality.

For the immediate future, Israel will need to continue its life-saving military response to jihadist terrorism, especially when Hamas leaders remain determined to sacrifice entire Palestinian civilian populations for narrowly cynical and atavistic purposes. If Hamas leaders really believe their own “sacred” promises to “martyrs” of a life everlasting, why are they unwilling to “sacrifice” themselves or their families for the sake of “Palestine?” Why do they choose instead to inhabit luxury hotel suites in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia?

It is only when such core questions are asked and answered that Israelis can finally understand why acceding to expectations of Palestinian statehood would inevitably “miss the point.” 

That point is the immutable metaphysical supremacy of “I believe” over every expressed mantra of Palestinian nationalism. If self-determination and sovereignty had ever been true objectives, Palestinian leaderships over the past 50 years would have acted very differently in their conduct of diplomacy. Most obviously, they would not have rejected absolutely all Israeli offers of Palestinian statehood.

The writer is an emeritus professor of international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and scholarly articles on international law, nuclear strategy, nuclear war, and terrorism. His 12th and latest book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; second edition, 2018).