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 Must Innocents Die? The Islamic Debate over Suicide Attacks

Over the last two years, the issue of suicide attacks or "martyrdom operations" against Israel has dominated public discussion throughout the Arab

world. Since the outbreak of the current Palestinian intifada, in September 2000, the Palestinian resort to suicide attacks has won widespread Arab

public acceptance as a legitimate form of resistance against Israeli occupation. Some Muslim clerics and other commentators justify them on political,

moral, and religious grounds. Even those attackers who bomb and kill women and children are hailed as martyrs for their heroism in confronting the

enemy.It is often said that the "martyrdom operations" are acts of religious extremism. The operatives who recruit young men and women to detonate themselves in crowds of Israelis manipulate religious fervor by wedding the ideas of heavenly reward to martyrdom. A young believer who detonates himself in the midst of the enemy will ascend straight to heaven and enter paradise—so he or she is indoctrinated. This is presented as the ultimate sacrifice and reward for a devout young Muslim.

But the operations themselves are very carefully calculated maneuvers. Islamist and other groups launch suicide attacks because they are seen as effective means to demoralize Israel. The "martyrdom operations" are deemed the only answer to the vastly superior military capabilities of the Israeli army. In the words of the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, "Once we have warplanes and missiles, then we can think of changing our means of legitimate self-defense. But right now, we can only tackle the fire with our bare hands and sacrifice ourselves."[1] Advocates have described the attacks as the most important "strategic weapon" of Palestinian resistance.[2] And while religious justification of such attacks is important for many Muslims, secular groups related to Fatah such as the Tanzim and Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade have resorted to similar tactics.

Suicide attacks enjoyed almost unquestioning support in the Arab world—until the suicide attacks of September 11, 2001. Overnight, Muslims everywhere found themselves defending their religion against charges of espousing violence and terror. Many Muslim scholars have responded by condemning the assault against America as terrorism. But even as they affirm that the attacks in America were terrorism—because they killed innocent civilians—many of the same scholars still regard attacks carried out against Israeli civilians as "martyrdom operations," a form of legitimate resistance to occupation of holy Muslim land. These scholars now seek to explain the difference between suicide operations in New York and Washington and those perpetrated in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The acceleration of Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians in spring 2002 complicated the issue still further. The "martyrdom operations" against Israeli civilians, following one another in rapid succession, licensed Israel to launch massive reprisals. Before these reprisals, Arab governments and opinion-makers had been content to let the "suicide fever" run rampant, in the media and in street demonstrations. But as Israeli military responses escalated, Arab governments sent their clients—Muslim clerics, journalists, and officials—to throw cold water on the frenzied enthusiasm of the masses.

The specter that such operations might spread to their own countries, threatening their own security, cannot be far from their minds.In short, three main arguments have emerged: the first, endorsing the attacks of September 11 and against Israeli targets; the second, rejecting attacks like September 11, but supporting attacks against Israeli targets; and the third, rejecting all suicide attacks, wherever they take place. The debate is now fully engaged, yet it is not entirely new. The debate over "martyrdom operations" goes back to the 1980s, when various groups employed the technique against U.S., French, and Israeli forces in Lebanon. But the sheer number of Palestinian "martyrdom operations" against Israel and the unprecedented number of Americans killed in New York and Washington have imparted a new urgency to the debate. What follows is a sketch of the recent arguments for and against the operations against Israel. It is important to acknowledge that a debate is underway. It is also crucial to recognize

that those who sanction attacks against Israeli civilians seem to be winning it.(Haim Malka)