What is Theologically and Morally Wrong with Suicide Bombings? A Palestinian Christian Perspective
The following is taken from an article by Canon Naim Ateek published in the Sabeel journal Cornerstone, and subsequently expanded into a 35 page booklet. It is the best critique of suicide bombing I have read.
“The issue of Palestinian suicide bombings has become a familiar topic to many people throughout the world. It is easy for people to either quickly and forthrightly condemn it as a primitive and barbaric form of terrorism against civilians, or condone and support it as a legitimate method of resisting an oppressive Israeli occupation that has trampled Palestinian dignity and brutalized their very existence.
As a Christian, I know that the way of Christ is the way of nonviolence and, therefore, I condemn all forms of violence and terrorism, whether coming from the government of Israel or from militant Palestinian groups. Having said that clearly, it is still important to understand the phenomenon of suicide bombings that tragically arises from the deep misery and torment of many Palestinians. For how else can one explain it? When healthy, beautiful and intelligent young men and women set out to kill and be killed, something is basically wrong in a world that has not heard their anguished cry for justice.
The Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip took a very important turn since the early 1990s. Young Palestinian men, and more lately women, started to strap themselves with explosives, make their way to Israeli Jewish areas and blow themselves up, killing and injuring dozens of people around them. Between the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 and February 22, 2003, Palestinian militants carried out 69 suicide bombings in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank including Jerusalem, as well as inside Israel, killing, according to Israeli statistics, 341 Israelis including soldiers, men, women, and children. In the same period, the Israeli army killed 2,106 Palestinians including police, men, women and children.
For the last 35 years, the Palestinians have been engaged in resisting the occupation of their country. For many years they have worked through the international community to bring an end to the Israeli occupation, but they have been unsuccessful.
Historically speaking, the Palestinians did not begin their resistance to the occupation with suicide bombings. There were no suicide bombings before the Oslo Peace Process. It is the result of despair and hopelessness that started to set in when an increasing number of Palestinians became frustrated by the deepening Israeli oppression and humiliation.
Breeding ground for suicide bombers
Besides the basic political injustice and the oppressiveness of the occupation, there are four major areas that constitute the breeding ground for suicide bombers. To begin with, many young men have become permanently unemployed.
Moreover, it is the young men more than others who are humiliated, harassed and provoked by the Israeli soldiers. Furthermore, there is hardly any Palestinian family in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that has not experienced some kind of pain or injury. Many families have lost their loved ones. Almost every aspect of Palestinian life is controlled by the Israeli army and many people have lost the ability to dream of a better future or envisage a better life.
There is another group of young Palestinian men and women that must be mentioned. Many of these have been arrested and tortured in Israeli prisons and “concentration” camps. In fact, Israeli prisons have become the “factories” for creating and “manufacturing” collaborators. Young men are detained for indefinite periods of time and are pressured into becoming spies and collaborators. They are simply trapped and some of them do not know how to shake it off. This phenomenon causes some of them to exist in constant self-contempt and scorn for having betrayed their own people. They are ready to become suicide bombers in order to purify and redeem themselves and express their utmost loyalty and patriotism for their country and people.
For these young people, daily life has become an experience of death. Indeed, many of them feel that Israel has practically pronounced a death sentence on them. They feel they have no options and very little to lose. Consequently, they are willing to give themselves up for the cause of God and the homeland (watan), believing that with God there is so much to gain.
From the perspective of those who believe in and carry out these suicide operations, there is a simple and plain logic. As Israeli soldiers shell and kill Palestinians indiscriminately, Palestinian suicide bombers strap themselves with explosives and kill Israelis indiscriminately.
The suicide bombings become a more powerful phenomenon when their religious underpinnings are emphasized. It is difficult to determine whether the religious dimension followed and enhanced the political decision for its use or whether the religious significance preceded and prompted it. It is most likely that both went hand in hand, since any Palestinian killed by Israel, whether a militant or an innocent bystander, was regarded as a martyr. Consequently, groups like Hamas were referring to these acts not as suicide bombings but as “martyrdom operations” and “martyrdom weapons.” Nationalism and faith have been fused together and imbued with power. People regarded the suicide bombers as martyrs and believed that paradise awaited them. Other Muslims argued strongly that Islamic law forbids the killing of non-combatants and, therefore, the killing of innocent Israelis is wrong.
Effects of suicide bombings
Although Israel was deeply hurt by suicide bombings, the consequences that the extremists were hoping would happen did not take place.
First, Israel had many more options than the Palestinians thought they did. As it turned out, Israel had a good number of military options; and due to its successful media campaign, everything it did was justified as self-defense.
Second, the West Bank is not southern Lebanon. Hizballah was, indeed, successful in driving the Israeli army from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation (May 25, 2000). The West Bank is different. Religious Jewish settlers and right-wing Zionists find strong biblical and historical roots in the West Bank and it will not be easy to evict them from there. The presence of the illegal settlements is one of the most difficult issues in the struggle for peace.
Third, the U.S. is the only great world power today and has an unflinching commitment to the well-being and security of the state of Israel. It will come to its rescue politically, militarily, and economically whenever it is needed.
Fourth, Israel was successful in its media campaign internationally. Many countries in the world are against suicide bombings.
Fifth, the Israeli society did not crumble economically in spite of hardships.
And sixth, the vast majority of the Israeli people, perceiving the struggle as a fight for the very existence of the state of Israel, supported Sharon and his right-wing policies.
Although suicide bombings were condemned by some Palestinians, including the Palestinian Authority, they were accepted popularly by many as a way of avenging the Israeli army’s daily killings of resistance fighters and innocent Palestinians. And while the American government rushed to condemn suicide bombings and expected the same from the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s killing of Palestinian leaders and ordinary civilians did not abate and was not condemned publicly by the U.S.
Be that as it may, it is important to reiterate clearly that the Palestinian community is not totally in support of the suicide bombings. On Wednesday, June 16, 2002, 58 Palestinian men and women, Muslims and Christians, among whom are well-known personalities, signed a public statement published by the most read Arabic daily, Al-Quds, asking for a halt to all suicide bombings. They made it clear that such operations only widen and deepen the hate and resentment between Palestinians and Israelis. They also destroy the possibility for the two peoples to live in two states side by side. The statement mentioned that the suicide bombings are counterproductive and will not lead to the fulfillment of the Palestinian national aspirations. They only allow Israel to justify its increasing vicious attacks on Palestinian towns and villages. The statement was published in the paper on five consecutive days before it was transferred to the website with hundreds more signatories.
There were voices inside Israel that were calling for more drastic and severe measures to curb the suicide bombings. One of those was Gideon Ezra, the deputy public security minister who openly on television on August 19, 2001, called on his government to execute the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. He argued that if potential suicide bombers know that their families will be wiped out then they will refrain from committing the act. Apparently, Ezra was basing his suggestion on a Nazi practice that used to arrest and inflict suffering on the families of those who were suspected of undermining the state. Shockingly, Ezra’s words did not draw any protest or criticism from the Israeli government.
By contrast, there are courageous voices that called on their Israeli government to examine its harsh policies against the Palestinians that breed suicide bombings. In one case, Rami and Nurit Elhanan lost their 14-year-old-daughter who was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in September 1997. In spite of the tragic loss, the parents became actively involved in peacemaking. They blamed the Israeli occupation, saying, “Our daughter was killed because of the terror of Israeli occupation. Every innocent victim from both sides is a victim of the occupation.” The couple established the Bereaved Family Forum with Izzat Ghazzawi, a Palestinian whose 16-year-old son Ramy was killed by Israeli troops.
Was Samson a suicide bomber?
In discussing suicide bombings from a religious perspective, it is worthwhile to reflect on the story of Samson in the book of Judges (13—16). It is a story of a strong young man who rose up to save his people who were oppressed by the coastal powerful neighbor, the Philistines. Obviously, from the perspective of the Israelites he was regarded as a hero and a freedom fighter while from the perspective of the people of power, namely the Philistines, he was, in today’s language, a terrorist.
According to the story, Samson was very successful in his brave adventures against his enemies. Eventually, he was captured by the Philistines and tortured. They pulled out his eyes and kept him in jail. In order to celebrate their victory over their archenemy, Samson, the Philistines brought him to a big event attended by 3,000 men and women, including their five kings. His final act of revenge took place when he pushed the two main columns of the building and pulled it down, killing himself and all the attendees. Samson’s final prayer seems very similar to the prayer of a suicide bomber before he blows himself up. “Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once, O God, so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.”
Read in the light of today’s suicide bombers, how do we evaluate the story of Samson? Was not Samson a suicide bomber? Was he acting on behalf of the God of justice who wills the liberation of the oppressed? Was God pleased with the death of thousands of men and women of the Philistines? Is it legitimate to tell the story today by substituting the name Ahmad for Samson? Is the dynamic under which God operates that of Jew versus other people or is it that of oppressor versus oppressed? Is the story of Samson legitimate because it is written in the Bible while the story of Ahmad is rejected because it is not and therefore he is condemned as a terrorist? Do we have the courage to condone both as acts of bravery and liberation or condemn both as acts of violence and terror? Or do we hold a theology of a biased God who only stands with Israel whether right or wrong?
Why we condemn suicide bombings
Although some people in our Palestinian community admire the sacrifice of the suicide bombers and although we understand its deeper motivation and background, we condemn it from both our position of faith as well as a legitimate method for resisting the occupation.
First, we condemn suicide bombings because they are a crime against God. Ultimately, it is only God our creator who gives us life and who can take it. Those who love God do not kill themselves. Moreover, those who love God do not kill themselves for the sake of God. Indeed, they should be ready to die and even be killed for God’s sake, but they will not do it themselves.
Second, we condemn it because we believe that we must refrain from inflicting suffering or death on others. From a Christian point of view, the tragedy lies in the fact that these young men and women do not only kill themselves, they cause the death of others, many of whom are civilians and innocent. We must hasten to add that we equally condemn the state of Israel’s killing of Palestinians. Indeed, it constitutes the underlying cause of the conflict. Be that as it may, from our position of faith we say that even when the cause for which a person kills himself/herself is noble, as it is in the case of Palestine, nothing justifies the killing of innocent people. Christ accepted suffering on himself and did not inflict it on others. In fact, from a New Testament perspective, when Christians suffer, it should make them more compassionate for the suffering of others rather than bitter and vengeful. In the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., Martin Luther King, Jr., recognized the heavy price that needs to be paid for freedom but refused to accept any violent method to achieve it. He said, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King insisted on the teaching of Jesus and Gandhi that unearned suffering is redemptive. Furthermore, for the Christian, suffering endured can serve as evidence of Christ’s victory over suffering and death. It can also be a way of exposing the evil and the injustice that must be resisted.
Third, we condemn it because we believe that when we are confronted by injustice and evil, we must resist it without using its evil methods. We bear it but do not accept, submit or succumb to it. Some Christians have developed nonviolent direct action as a method of resisting unjust governments and systems. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed it well when he wrote: “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.” It is our faithfulness to God that drives us to work for justice and for the ending of the occupation of Palestine. But it must be carried out through nonviolence, no matter how long it takes. It is only nonviolence that can guarantee the restoration of the humanity of both sides when the conflict is over. Moreover, nonviolent resistance contributes to a speedier process of reconciliation and healing because it does not violate human dignity.
Fourth, for the Christian, the supreme example is Christ. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly” (1Peter 2:23). This is not passive resignation. It is total surrender to the God of justice who established this world on justice and who is going to make sure that injustice does not have the last word. We condemn suicide bombings because they are trapped with the same violent logic exercised and perpetrated by the Israeli government. It is based on the law of revenge expressed in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Although it is very difficult for us as humans, we are still encouraged as Christians to seek a higher law.
Fifth, it is probable that Prime Minister Sharon (and the right-wing religious extremist ministers and settlers around him, including some Christian Zionists) believes that the war against the Palestinians can be justified biblically because he is doing exactly what Joshua did in the Old Testament. Therefore, as Joshua’s actions (Joshua 1—11) pleased God so must Sharon’s actions. Similarly, the suicide bombers believe that by blowing themselves up and killing those around them they are fighting in the cause of God by ridding their land of the injustice inflicted on it by “infidels,” and so earning for themselves a place in paradise. Our basic problem with both lies in their concept of God. We reject any understanding of God that reflects war, violence or terrorism. God is a God of justice, but God’s justice is not expressed in violence or in terrorizing people. God’s justice is expressed supremely in love, peace and forgiveness.
Sixth, in the midst of the injustice, suffering and death inflicted on us, we believe that God in Christ is there with us. Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that). God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed. God has not abandoned us. We reject suicide bombings because, from a Christian perspective, they reflect feelings of total despair and hopelessness.
Seventh, we condemn suicide bombings because they practice, in essence, collective punishment against people, many of whom are civilians. They are guilty of the very things Palestinians detest in the Israeli government. When suicide bombers commit collective punishment, they become what they loathe. When the Israeli army incarcerates whole towns for long periods of time or a suicide bomber blows himself up in a market place and indiscriminate killing ensues, both are collective punishment directed at largely innocent people.
Eighth, although people may be ready to die for their faith or even for their country, they need to do everything they can to stay alive and witness in life rather than kill themselves. So long as they are alive, they have the opportunity to witness to the truth. Indeed, they need to remain faithful until death but they must not give up on life and kill themselves. We reject suicide bombings because we believe in life before death as well as life after death. In spite of the despairing situation, these young men and women deserve to live. There cannot be room for hate if we want to live together. And live together we must. Ending the occupation will certainly end the suicide bombings. All peace-loving people, whether people of faith or not, must exert greater concerted effort to work for the ending of the occupation.”
The original, much longer version of this essay is available on the Sabeel website.
Naim Ateek’s arguments may be summarised in these eight points:
1. Suicide is a crime against the God who has given us life.
2. However noble the cause, it is wrong to inflict death and suffering on others.
3. Christians are called to confront evil and injustice without using evil methods.
4. Christians are called to model themselves on Christ and break the logic of revenge killings.
5. The god of both the bombers and Israeli religious extremists, including some Christian Zionists, justifies war, violence and terrorism. This understanding must be rejected in the name of the God of love, mercy and peace that we see in Jesus Christ.
6. Christians must not fall into the despair of the bombers. Christ is to be found in the midst of suffering and injustice.
7. Suicide bombers, much like the Israeli army in its treatment of the Palestinian towns with curfews and closures, practice collective punishment. This is immoral as it affects the innocent and is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.
8. Our duty is to stay alive so we can witness to the truth and take every opportunity to use our life to build a better society, rather than destroy that gift.
While the right of resistance is acknowledged in international law, there are no moral or theological grounds, from a Christian perspective, that justify terrorism and more specifically, the use of suicide bombings. Non-violent resistance of evil is the way of Jesus Christ. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9)