The Ugly Truth About Suicide Bombers

The appearance in court on May 15 of four Arab-Israeli women accused of helping Palestinian militants carry out attacks in the Jewish state raises a disturbing question because it has received so little public attention.

To be sure, Israeli security officials have spoken of the "increased involvement" of Arab-Israelis in the Palestinian uprising, but given their penchant for heavily publicizing such matters via a pliant media, one has to wonder why they have been so relatively reticent to go after this one with the usual enthusiasm.

Israel's Arab community has ample reason to hold divided loyalties. Ethnic Palestinians whose homes were either in the areas granted to the Jewish state by the UN's 1947 partition plan or on territory captured in the war that followed the Jewish state's creation in 1948, their citizenship carries many asterisks.

Despite making up approximately one sixth of the population, Arab-Israelis are prohibited from serving in the military and other security bodies, which in turn denies them eligibility to hold many civil service positions. Their human rights have been routinely violated under official policies and court decisions that allow investigators to hold them for long periods of time without laying charges and to use torture as a means of interrogation.

Their neighborhoods receive far less financial support from the state than do Jewish areas, with the result that their schools, roads, sewer systems and other indicators of infrastructure development are decades behind those of their neighbors. Even their allotment of water - whether for household consumption or irrigation - is a small fraction of that provided to Jews.

Given the quasi-apartheid treatment afforded to Israel's Arab citizens, is it reasonable to assume that significant numbers of them are sufficiently disillusioned to help their Palestinian brethren carry out attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians? According to some of the people with whom I spoke, it would be unrealistic to have any doubts about the matter.

Suicide bombings have brought the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to a standstill by sparking a chicken-and-egg argument over how they can be stopped and who has the responsibility to do so.

Those who largely back Ariel Sharon's hard-line policies insist that the Palestinian Authority is to blame for continuing attacks on Israeli civilians - either because Yasser Arafat has failed to unleash his security apparatus against militant groups or because he has actually masterminded their activities.

Those who generally sympathize with Arafat point out that the Palestinian Authority's capabilities in this regard - as in many others - have been badly degraded by a year and half of conflict with one of the world's most powerful militaries: many security officers have been assassinated, and even if they could round up militants, dozens of buildings that might have been used to incarcerate them have been destroyed. Apart from undermining Arafat's ability to maintain law and order, Israel's consistent reliance on military force serves to provide a steady supply of the anger and despair that contribute so mightily to militancy.

Making Israelis and their government understand this is no easy matter. Alex Fishman, a relatively moderate commentator for the right-wing Maariv newspaper, concluded after the suicide bombings on May 19 that the "military achievements" of the Israeli offensive in the West Bank "are evaporating." In fact, unless a diplomatic breakthrough is achieved in the near future, the conseqences of that bloody rampage have only just begun to make themselves felt, and Israeli civilians will pay most of the toll with their lives.

In any event, the pro-Palestinian argument goes, terrorism is simply the response to continuing occupation: end that and you end suicide bombings.

There are certain elements of truth on both sides of this debate, but neither of them has fully addressed a key question: How is it that scores of suicide bombers have carried explosives from the Occupied Territories into Israel proper without getting caught?

Dozens of gunmen, after all, have been captured or killed by Israeli soldiers while trying to infiltrate, so why have there been so few reports of would-be bombers suffering the same fate? The reason that neither side has asked such questions is that the answers would be exceedingly inconvenient to both.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that suicide bombers are so much better at sneaking into Israel that their success rate is many times that of gunmen. After all, while a large percentage of the gunmen have received considerable training, suicide bombers are viewed as expendable because they lack the skills required to engage in conventional guerrilla-style operations, which include infiltration techniques. One must therefore assume that in fact many have been caught and/or killed but were still without their deadly implements and so, were not counted as suicide bombers.

Herein lies the problem, for the foregoing conclusion relies on their ability to obtain explosives once they are already inside Israel, a reality that undermines the positions of both sides. For the pro-Arab camp, it means that Palestinian militant groups are most likely being helped by Arab-Israelis on a vast scale, weakening its contention that lifting the occupation will turn their West Bank and Gaza Strip cousins into peace-loving acceptors of Israel's right to exist within secure borders.

For the pro-Israeli side, it means that the modern, efficient Jewish state is itself incapable of accomplishing what it has demanded of the ramshackle Palestinian Authority. It is therefore easy to see why neither side wants to discuss the issue beyond what is absolutely necessary.

As might be expected from people anxious to maintain a veil of secrecy around their methods, calls to a few Hamas and Islamic Jihad men were met with terse refusals to comment beyond the predictable platitudes about Arab solidarity and the right to resist occupation. But one of them, whom I'll call Mahmoud, provided a few hints - indirect ones, of course, but clear indications that I was not far off the mark. After he insisted that "I cannot speak to you," and that "it would be better if you stopped asking other people (too)," I pressed him by asking whether he really thought that talking to me would actually reveal anything of which the Jewish state's vaunted security services were not already acutely aware. Did he think they were stupid?

"No. Absolutely not. [But discussing this] can only hurt the resistance ... even if it is true or not true."

My antenna went up. What if I promised that he could look over what I wrote to make sure he had not inadvertently betrayed some crucial secret? I could hear the gears turning in Mahmoud's head, but then he made his decision: "No. That is all." The conversation ended, but the implications were clear.

A member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an offshoot of Arafat's mainstream Fatah faction, was slightly less secretive but equally unwilling to get into details. "Karim" readily acknowledged that his secular group had benefited from assistance by Arab-Israelis and added a personal assumption that the same was true of Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

It was when I sought to flesh out the level of involvement that he became more circumspect. He refused, for example, to offer an estimate as to what percentage of Brigades operations might have Arab-Israeli help. He also refused to be specific about anything having to do with what kind of assistance was being rendered.

According to Israeli security sources, some of the help has come in the form of providing explosives, but logistical support has also been made available by providing transportation, guides, lookouts, stolen and phony identity cards, etc. Karim did not deny that any of these were being provided, but nor was he willing to talk about the subject.

One Israeli military officer was unusually forthcoming, however, even if he refused to have his name used in print. As a major whose responsibilities include staffing at some checkpoints in the West Bank, the man I'll call "Abe" is well-placed to gauge the likelihood that Palestinian suicide bombers are frequently getting past his troops and only then picking up the explosives they use to such devastating effect in public places.

Asked if he thought Arab-Israelis might be helping groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad on a large scale, Abe dispensed with any and all formalities: "Of course," he replied, adding that it was "impossible" that they were not and even suggesting that Israeli Jews might also be participating ("there are people who will do anything for the right price").

"There is no other way to explain how it is that the terrorists are not caught before the act with the [explosive] belts on," Abe argued. "They've been waltzing through our checkpoints because they don't have to carry the evidence with them. They get it from their friends here. Probably, almost all of them, and everything - dynamite, plastique, nails - you name it. And nobody wants to admit it because that way we look incompetent."

Seeing as how these "friends" live in Israel and hold Israeli citizenship, I then asked, is it not the Jewish state's responsibility to crack down on them?

This presented a particularly ticklish problem that prompted Abe to first repeat his insistence that his name not be used and then to plunge into a rambling soliloquy:

Does everyone in Tzahal [the army] have to be against suicide bombings? I mean, it is not in everyone's interests that they should end. It's not my fault, and I don't know anyone who has done anything to help the terrorists, but is what you don't do not as important as what you do? What if an officer suspects an attack will happen but refrains from sharing it [with his colleagues] so it can be stopped? Why would he do that? Maybe because he thinks that every dead child makes it easier for Israel, for Sharon, to get his way. That can mean [short-term goals like] retaliation or it can mean [long-term ones like] hanging on to land that the rest of the world expects us to evacuate.

Had he ever suspected a fellow officer of harboring such feelings and/or acting on them?

"It would be unspeakable. But it's easy to disguise as something else. You can say you're worried about the welfare of the men in your command."

So had he seen it happen?

"It's hard to say with a certainty. I hope not."

But has he had what he felt were well-founded suspicions?

"Sure. Yes."

Had he ever reported his suspicions to someone higher up in the chain of command?

"You don't know much about Tzahal do you? [Officers] don't make accusations you can't prove, even when it's a minor thing. Something like this? Your career would end if you couldn't prove it. And this would be the biggest scandal. Who knows? Maybe your life."

The next Israeli who agreed to discuss the issue was a former agent with Shin Bet, the Jewish state's internal security service. Now a private consultant who helps arrange protection for visiting businessmen, he maintains regular contacts with his former colleagues.

Did "Avi" think Arab-Israelis were providing assistance to Palestinian suicide bombers on a regular basis?

"No doubt it happens. Maybe not all the time, but why not? It's their relatives, and relatives help each other."

Was the Israeli military aware of how widespread such help was?

"That is another question."

Obviously, but what was the answer?

"Probably they know. But this is not something they air too much in public."

Why would that be?

"I don't know. I don't work for the government anymore."

Could it be because some quarters actually want the suicide bombings to continue?

At this point Avi abandoned the carefully measured tone of an intelligence professional, dismissing my suggestion as "unimaginable" and likening it to "the fabrication" that Zionist organizations passed up opportunities to evacuate Jews from Europe and save them from the Holocaust because they would only accept emigration to Mandate Palestine.

When informed that a serving military officer had not been quite so ready to rule it out, though, Avi became considerably less combative, allowing that it was indeed "possible" that certain elements in the army and/or the security services might be "capable to see this as a lesser evil" than making a peace that calls for the return of occupied land.

All of this does much to explain why Israel's government has not sought to make a major issue out of its own Arab citizens' apparent willingness to help Palestinian militants. It would badly undermine the Jewish state's contention that Arafat has the ability to end all attacks on Israelis. And as mentioned earlier, the Palestinians themselves are loath to discuss matters that might affect future operations. It has never seemed more appropriate to note that "the first casualty of war is truth."

Perhaps if the Israelis and the Palestinians can stop lying to one another (and to themselves) over this issue, they might be able to more realistically address some of the larger matters that keep them from making peace.

Marc Sirois is the managing editor of The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut. He lives in Lebanon. He encourages your comments at marcsirois@hotmail.com

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