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Despair and Martyrdom

12.29.2001 | POLITICS

As Israeli warplanes pounded Palestinian cities earlier this month, Israel's media spin-doctor Benjamin Netanyahu was being interviewed on the Fox News Channel. Echoing earlier Israeli staements, he likened Yasser Arafat to Osama bin Laden and accused the Palestinian leader of having "suicide kindergarten camps" where children train to become the next generation of suicide bombers. Not only are such claims false, but it is exactly this type of far-fetched accusation that helps lead to the deaths of more innocent Palestinians and Israelis.

If the Palestinian children living in the Occupied Territories harbor any hatred toward Israelis, it is not simply being taught to them by parents, schools, churches or mosques. Rather, these feelings grow directly out of the reality of their daily lives, in which Israeli F-16 planes thunder over their homes and launch missiles into their backyards. The fact is that Israel has created a generation of Palestinian children suffering from nothing less than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a direct result of the Israeli occupation. But Israel has managed to turn the Palestinian child into an aggressor worthy of death. Indeed, listening to the mini-army of Israeli media spin personalities, one could be led to ask if Palestinians are even human at all. For 15 months now, Israel's whirlwind media effort has been focused on promoting a campaign to dehumanize the Palestinian people.

Assuming Palestinians are no different than anyone else, we would do well to take a step back and try to understand why any Palestinian would commit suicide, taking innocent Israeli lives along with them.

Edwin Schneidman, a clinical psychologist and leading authority on suicide, has described the ten characteristics of suicide in his book Definition of Suicide.

  1. The common stimulus in suicide is "unendurable psychological pain".
  2. The common stress in suicide is "frustrated psychological needs".
  3. The common purpose of suicide is "to seek a solution".
  4. The common goal of suicide is "cessation of consciousness".
  5. The common emotion in suicide is "hopelessness-helplessness".
  6. The common internal attitude toward suicide is "ambivalence".
  7. The common cognitive state in suicide is "constriction".
  8. The common interpersonal act in suicide is "communication of intention".
  9. The common action in suicide is "egression" (a way out).
  10. The common consistency in suicide is with "life-long coping patterns".
This list represents both the clinical consensus and common sense, yet there remains widespread acceptance of Israeli claims that poor Palestinians find happiness in killing themselves and others, and that such acts of terror are a normal part of Palestinian psychology and politics. Worse yet, some pundits see suicide bombings in terms of a rational and calculated media campaign that can be turned on or off at will by the Palestinian Authority.

The reality is not so simple. Indeed, in the face of such claims it might be useful to apply the clinical research on suicide to Palestinian suicide bombers. Doing so reveals a humanity not often afforded by the media.

Dr. Schneidman believes that " not a bizarre and incomprehensible act of self destruction. Rather, suicidal people use a particular logic, a style of thinking that brings them to the conclusion that death is the only solution to their problems. This style can be readily seen, and there are steps we can take to stop suicide, if we know where to look."

Although Schneidman's work deals with suicidal individuals, and not suicide bombers, his set of common characteristics also applies to the typical Palestinian bomber. These individuals seek to end overwhelming emotional pain--pain that is a direct result of Israeli occupation.

According to Schneidman, every suicide seems logical to the individual who commits it. In the suicidal individual's mind, suicide is the only way out of an unbearable situation. A person can only cry so long with nobody listening before suicide becomes an answer. In working with the "typical" suicidal individual, the first step is listening and trying to understand the pain, frustration, hopelessness and helplessness that he is feeling. And it is hopelessness and helplessness that best describe the feelings of the Palestinian people. Few want to hear the hard reality of the situation in occupied Gaza and the West Bank, and yet then are astonishmed when one of these horrendous acts is committed.

It must be stressed that suicide bombers are never justified in their actions, but their motivations must be seriously understood if they are to be stopped. We must scratch the media surface and see that the Israeli occupation has become more entrenched and brutal with every passing year since 1967--even after the Oslo accords were signed. Systematic oppression breeds horrible responses. It has always been so.

The overwhelming majority of those who carry out the attacks are poor normal young men with little future, either born into Israeli occupation or imprisoned by many years of it. They are victims of Israeli policies of dehumanization and continued military occupation. They lack the means of traditional military resistance while facing a world-class military machine.

As for those radical political entities that feed on the desperation created by the occupation, they take innocent Israeli lives by exploiting Palestinians in despair while simultaneously stripping their own people of any political agency. They thrive on disruption and chaos, and seek to complicate any chance for a negotiated solution. These forces play right into Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy of destroying the potential for a negotiated peace. Sharon continues to give them fertile ground in which to flourish: economic crisis, despair, road closures, and assassinations. Those with an interest in ongoing suicide attacks could not have asked for a better Israeli leader, one that has given extremists a never ending seven day grace period to kill more Israelis.

The US has joined Israeli in demanding Arafat do more to stop the suicide bombings. Arafat only wishes he had the power to stop the suicide attacks. But he does not, for the simple reason that he cannot end the occupation. Israel, and only Israel, can stop the suicide attacks by giving back Palestinians their freedom, dignity and a reason to live. To do this may seem like Israel is giving in to suicide attacks. It is not. If Israel refuses to accept its historic responsibility to end its terrorizing of Palestinians, then it should not question why the psychology of suicide applies to a segment of a terrorized Palestinian people. As Palestinians and Israelis continue to bury and mourn their innocent victims, the world is well advised to remove its head from the sand.

About the Author
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank.
About the Author
Leila Bahour, M.S.Ed., L.P.C., is a Palestinian-American. She is a Counselor at a Psychological Outpatient Counseling Practice in the US who has worked in the psychological field for eleven years. She spent a considerable amount of time dedicated to the research of suicide during her pursuit of her Master's degree and has treated suicidal individuals daily in her work over the years.
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