The non-debate over suicide bombing

On one level, they are correct: blowing other people up is clearly immoral, and however bad things are two wrongs don’t make a right. Violent retribution can never be a political solution and must be rejected. But on another level, the situation is hardly black and white; it is in fact a very murky shade of grey. This is the valuable point that Liberal Democrat MP Dr Jenny Tonge tried to emphasize at a recent Palestine Solidarity Campaign lobby of Parliament, unaware that her comments would be so badly misconstrued and that her party would so conspicuously fail to support her.

Her exact words were: "This particular brand of terrorism, the suicide bomber, is truly born out of desperation. Many, many people criticise, many, many people say it is just another form of terrorism, but I can understand and I am a fairly emotional person, and I am a mother and a grandmother. I think if I had to live in that situation, and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself. And that is a terrible thing to say."

No doubt it is indeed a terrible thing to say. But it is also stating the obvious about a terrible conflict which has pushed people to extremes. Clearly she is not advocating terrorism. The perception of her as a terrorist sympathiser owes more to the knee-jerk reaction in the media and in her own party that to what she actually said, which was not sympathy but understanding. Amidst the furore she clarified this by saying: "I’m trying very hard to understand what makes them do that and what desperation makes them behave in that way."

Far from overstepping the mark, Ms Tonge raised a long overdue debate. You cannot issue blanket condemnations of suicide bombing without a comprehensive awareness of the context in which it occurs. Contrary to what some observers may sweepingly assert about some inherent flaw deep in the Palestinian national character, this phenomenon arises not out of a political vacuum but out of very specific historical circumstances.

These circumstances, which have largely been ignored by Tonge’s critics, are the illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory and the ensuring human rights abuses of the occupying power. This is no ordinary situation: it is a brutal 37-year asphyxiation of Palestinian society. The ulterior aim –” couched in the slippery language of ‘security’ –” is manifestly to crush the Palestinians into surrender.

Those who reject serious discussion of the suicide bombing phenomenon often fail to comprehend the nature of the conflict itself. Put crudely, one people say, "We must live on this land because it has always belonged to us", while another says, "We must live on this land because we have always belonged to it." This does not preclude the possibility of compromise. But Palestinians living under occupation experience a shattering alienation from their selves, constantly struggling to reconcile their deep sense of belonging to the land with their brutal severance from it. In short, the land is an inextricable part of their selves. It follows logically that separating them from their land will have catastrophic repercussions. This is why the most famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, has spoken of the loss of his land as no different to the loss of limbs. In the same way, the annihilation of the suicide bomber’s self is the prelude to the bloody annihilation of his body.

Palestinians are living in exile wherever they are, whether in the Holy Land or in the diaspora, divorced from their own true identity. This creates a very volatile existential problem, one which advocates of ‘transfer’ such as the historian Benny Morris appear incapable of comprehending. Suicide bombing has been interpreted as a desperate attempt to restore this identity. In this context it is worth remembering the words of the great Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin: "Humanity’s alienation from itself has reached a point which drives it to look upon its own self-destruction as an act of aesthetic beauty in itself, and one of the first order…"

The despair of lacking coherent selfhood is terrible enough, but more often than not this is compounded by the murder of close relatives and friends. A large proportion of suicide bombers have had a member of their immediate family killed by Israeli forces. This is the reason most often adduced for the attacks, but in fact it is merely the spark that lights the fuse. The destruction of identity is the underlying cause. When your self has been destroyed psychologically, it is not so great a step to destroy it physically. It comes down to a choice between what is perceived as a meaningless life and a meaningful death. It is true that we have reached a dark day when we see people taking a perverse pride in obliterating their own lives and those of others, but this is all the more reason why the root problem must be both acknowledged and addressed. That senior politicians in this country have trouble enough with even the first of these is cause for considerable concern. Is not the first step in eliminating something to accept the fact that it exists? Understanding the problem is an integral part of finding a solution, and this is true of the occupation just as it is of suicide bombing.

Most British politicians cannot fully appreciate the extent of Palestinian despair until they have seen it face to face. Those who have, such as Jewish MP Oona King, have been horrified by the experience and spoken out against it, but they have been lonely and isolated voices in the British debate. Charles Kennedy epitomized the majority viewpoint by forestalling serious discussion of what drives suicide bombers over the edge. The recent reaction of Isreal’s ambassador to Sweden Zvi Mazel to the work of Isreali-born artist Dror Feiler, entitled Snow White and the Madness of Truth, neatly summed up the (non-)debate: instead of trying to arrive at a rational interpretation of what he saw before him, he flew into a rage and tried to dismantle it. The artwork in question provoked such an angry response precisely because it was a brave attempt to come to terms with suicide bombing rather than deny it outright. The ambassador was truly a representative of his government in his stubborn refusal to consider why the artwork existed at all, or why such extreme actions as suicide bombing really occur.

Suicide bombers –” whatever the deplorable cruelty of their actions –” are victims of an unending psychological trauma, suffering exile in their own homeland. Brutality, humiliation, confinement and death are part of everyday life. Add to that the well-known provocation of the occupying forces and is it any surprise the result is explosive? Palestinians are human beings; all human beings have limits. In such a situation, they are confronted starkly with Camus’ existential dilemma: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

This is how it can appear in such extreme conditions: the daily burden of life entails loss, exile, fear, confusion, sterility, vulnerability, meaninglessness, despair. Death, however, begins to take on a different significance than that to which we are accustomed. It can come to signify safety, release, freedom, purity, meaning; and at a religious level, even salvation and union with God. This is where wider cultural issues like Islamic extremism can add fuel to an already raging political fire, raising the narrative to a new level.

However, in dealing with the grave moral issues of the Middle East conflict, we cannot merely focus on the reactions of the more disillusioned elements of Palestinian society. We must first consider the occupying army. To what extent can we establish a moral difference between the actions of the Israel Defence Forces in Palestine and the suicide bombers? As the Arab world’s foremost poet, Adonis, points out: "Terrorism is an ‘individual’ phenomenon in the sense that it is behaviourally impossible that a whole population or a whole country can be a ‘terrorist’ one. Hence it is impossible that an ‘armed force’ which occupies a country or a people in order to eliminate ‘terrorism’ can be anything other than a force of oppression and tyranny itself." In other words, it is illogical and self-defeating to have a war on terrorism, whether in the Middle East or the world at large. You cannot prevent suicide bombing by military or ‘security’ measures alone.

Between the two evils of occupation and suicide bombing –” both of which can be understood but not justified –” a political solution must be found. This must respect as equals all those for whom the Holy Land can be morally and legally considered as their home. In order to do that we need politicians who are brave enough to tackle the reality of the conflict, and Jenny Tonge’s words were an effort in that direction.