Chapter 1



Where did the practice of using 'human bombs' originate? Over the past thirty years, how has suicide bombing been used, and by whom? When did civilians become the strategic targets of the bombers? What are some current views on suicidal behavior? This chapter takes a brief look at these questions.


Before 1983, there were few suicide bombings. The Koran, according to some authorities, forbids the taking of one's own life, and this prohibition was generally observed. However, when the United States stationed marines in Beirut, the leaders of the Islamic resistance movement Hizbollah resorted to using suicide bombing as a weapon. After religious authorities in Iran gave it their blessing, a wave of suicide bombings began with attacks which killed about 60 US embassy workers in April 1983. In October 1983, a water delivery truck laden with plastic explosives was rammed into the US Marine barracks in Beirut. Two hundred and forty-one service personnel were killed. The Americans later withdrew from Lebanon. 

A recent book traces the origins of suicide bombing to a rebellious Imam and his 72 companions who were slaughtered in Karbala, Iraq by the Caliph's troops almost 1200 years ago. In the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini rounded up children by the tens of thousands and sent them in human waves "racing across minefields with the keys of Paradise tied around their necks" (Reuters 2004). This example had seismic effects, starting with Hizbollah's quest to market martyrdom in Lebanon. "Hizbollah is depicted as the necessary link between Karbala and subsequent suicide bombings, including those perpetrated by the Palestinians. It was Hizbollah that developed a generalized Arabic language for martyrdom, distinguishing between those who sacrifice their lives in operations and those who simply die at the hand of the enemy" (Argo 2004). 

Another early employer of suicide bombing was Islamic Jihad, whose military wing dates from 1992, "when the martyrs of Mahmud al-Khanaja established an organized military agency to replace the different unorganized individual groups" (Human Rights Watch 2002). In January 1995, a suicide attack killed 20 Israeli soldiers at the Beit Lyd junction near Netanya on the Mediterranean coast north of Tel Aviv. In 2000, the year Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Hizbollah carried out 51 suicide attacks (Avishai 2003). During this period, it was military and security personnel who were targeted, not civilians. Suicide bombing as a strategic weapon to achieve political objectives grew in inverse ratio to its condemnation. 


Suicide bombings have been used around the world to advance political goals, such as by the Tamil 
separatist group in Sri Lanka commonly known as 'Tamil Tigers', who carried out suicide bombings in the 1980s and 1990s aimed at military and civilian targets, including Sri Lankan government officials and politicians (Human Rights Watch 2002). 

Throughout the twentieth century, the taboo on targeting and killing civilians was eroding. In World War I, only 5% of casualties were civilians. In World War II, the figure went up to 50%, and in the Vietnam War it was 90% (Avishai 2003). During the nineties, suicide bombing and suicide attacks were employed as a strategy of choice against civilian targets in Chechnya and Russia, as in the Moscow theatre siege. This strategy reached a peak with the targeting of the Twin Towers in New York in the 9/11 attack in 2001. 

Within recent years, suicide bombers have attacked civilian targets in Spain, England, India, Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, suicide bombings and suicide attacks have become almost daily tragedies. The escalation of suicide bombing, from the eighties until the present time, has left a massive trail of slaughtered and wounded civilians in many places around the world. In Israel, the motivation behind suicide attacks appears to be to use unconventional means to achieve maximum casualties and to create a balance of fear that would offset the perceived Israeli conventional military advantage. 


On 6 April 1994, eight people were killed in a Hamas car bomb attack on a bus in the center of the northern town of Afula. Seven days later, five people were killed in another Hamas suicide bombing attack in the central bus station of the northern coastal town of Hadera. Twenty-one Israelis and a Dutch national were killed in a suicide bombing attack on a bus in Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv, on 19 October 1994. 

In January 1995, two consecutive bombs exploded at the Beit Lyd junction near Netanya, killing 18 soldiers and one civilian. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. On 9 April 1995, seven Israelis and one American were killed in an Islamic Jihad attack when a bus was hit by an explosives-laden car near Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip. On 24 July 1995, six civilians were killed in a suicide attack on a bus in Ramat Gan. 

On 21 August 1995, a suicide bombing killed three Israelis and one American on a public bus in Jerusalem. On 25 February 1996, a Hamas suicide bombing near the central bus station in Jerusalem killed 16 civilians and 9 soldiers, and wounded 100 people. Also in February, a civilian was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber at a hitchhiking post near the port of Ashkelon.

On 3 March 1996, another suicide bus bomber in Jerusalem killed 16 civilians and 3 soldiers. In Tel Aviv on 4 March 1996, a suicide bomber detonated a 20-kilogram bomb in the Dizengoff shopping mall, killing 12 civilians and one soldier. The next target was a Tel Aviv cafe on 21 March 1997, where a suicide bomber killed three people and wounded 48. 

The appetite for killing and wounding civilians continued to grow. On 30 July 1997, a double suicide bombing in the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem killed 16 people and wounded 178. Only five weeks later, there were three suicide bombings on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, in which five people died and 181 were wounded. On 29 October 1998, a soldier died when a terrorist drove an explosives-laded car into an Israeli army jeep escorting a bus with 40 elementary schoolchildren aboard in the Gaza Strip. 

Hamas and Islamic Jihad had carried out suicide bombings against Israeli targets in the mid-1990s as part of their opposition to the Oslo Accords and to the Palestinian Authority (PA). At that time the PA had clamped down, arresting some 1,200 leaders and activists, and the bombings ceased. Some of those detained were held for long periods without charge or trial. However, the PA reportedly freed those who remained in detention soon after the beginning of the Second Intifada in September 2000. 

Between September 1993 and the outbreak of the clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in late September 2000, Palestinian groups carried out fourteen suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, mostly in 1996-97, killing more than 120 and wounding over 550 (Human Rights Watch, 2002). 

In 1999 and 2000 there were no suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians. Looking back, that period seems to have been an era of lost opportunities and increasing complexities, with the ill-fated Camp David talks, the assassination of Rabin, the global millennium euphoria, the papal visit to Israel, and then the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. On 26 October 2000, an Islamic law student rammed his bicycle into an IDF outpost near Gush Katif, blowing himself up and lightly wounding a soldier. The era of the 'human bombs' rapidly gathered momentum. 


On 1 January 2001, a Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up at a crowded bus station in the coastal town of Netanya, wounding at least 20 civilians. Islamic Jihad resumed suicide attacks against civilians shortly afterwards. Between May 2001 and July 2002, Islamic Jihad carried out at least 10 suicide bombing attacks that targeted civilians, or in circumstances where it was impossible to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets. At least 28 civilians were killed in those attacks and around 326 wounded. 

On 27 January 2002, a female Fatah bomber in Jerusalem's Jaffa Road carried out a suicide bombing which killed one civilian and wounded over 150. Another group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) carried out a suicide bombing on 7 March 2002, in a hotel lobby on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Ariel, in which 15 people were wounded. These groups, together with Islamic Jihad, continued to attack civilians repeatedly (information from Palestinian intelligence documents made public by the IDF in 2002). 

Ramdan Shalah, Islamic Jihad's founding member, stated in May 2002, "We have already made many offers to reconsider our policy of targeting Israeli civilians inside Israel proper in exchange for Israel reversing its policy of killing Palestinians" (Hamadi 2002). But, in a speech in Tehran a few weeks later, he reaffirmed the groups were "to continue the campaign of suicide bombing".

In 2002, Human Rights Watch quoted the Head of General Intelligence Services of the Palestinian Authority in Tulkarm as saying that they (referring to a group of armed militants) may have been responsible for such "quantitative and successful activities'. This was an allusion to the suicide shooting attack at a Bar Mitzvah celebration in Hadera on 17 January 2002, in which six civilians were killed and thirty wounded. (Two survivors are interviewed in this report.) 

Between 1 January 2001 and 31 August 2002, there were forty-eight suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians carried out by armed Palestinian groups. Thirty-eight of those were carried out in Israel, including West Jerusalem, and ten were carried out in the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem (Human Rights Watch 2002). The 'quantitative and successful' activities of the bombers continued to take an increasing toll on Israeli civilians, the primary targets of their lethal activities. (Chapter Two profiles the pattern of suicide bombings and attacks in Israel from September 2000 to February 2005.) 


The death toll among civilians caught up in conflict worldwide has been steadily escalating. "The Twentieth Century (was) one of the most violent periods in human history. An estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict, and well over half of them were civilians" (WHO 2002). 

In the mid nineties, it was observed that "Records of death and injury are poor in many parts of the world and record-keeping is often disrupted in times of conflict... Moreover, there are many reasons why parties to a conflict may try to hide or manipulate evidence of the death and destruction they have caused. Besides the many thousands killed each year in violent conflicts, there are huge numbers who are injured as a result, including some who are permanently disabled. Data on conflict-related disabilities are scarce...more than 30 years of armed conflict in Ethiopia, for instance, led to some one million deaths, around half of them civilians.. .in Cambodia, 36,000 people that is one person in every 236 of the population have lost a limb after accidentally detonating a landmine" (Stover et al. 1994). 

"The trend has been toward a greater proportion of injuries from powerful explosive devices such as artillery shells and mines...New approaches are needed to minimize trauma to civilians...Trauma is the most important public health risk in wartime. Most preventive efforts have addressed the political (aspects) of armed conflicts and the secondary effects of war (food, water, shelter, sanitation and vector control). Little or no efforts have been addressed toward the direct prevention and control of war trauma" (Aboutanos & Baker 1998). 

There is a significant difference between intentionally aiming to target and kill unarmed civilians and unintentionally killing unarmed civilians as a side effect of conventional warfare. In the latter case, such killings are sometimes described as 'collateral damage'. The tsunami-like waves of suicide bombings against Israeli civilians have attracted little international condemnation, which might have effectively reduced the use of this lethal weapon against civilian targets. On the contrary, there appears to be a fascination with bombers and suicidal patterns of behavior. 


A report by the World Health Organization pointed out that in much of the world suicide is stigmatized  condemned for religious or cultural reasons and in some countries suicidal behavior is a criminal offence punishable by law. "Suicide is therefore a secretive act surrounded by taboo, and may be unrecognized, misclassified or deliberately hidden in official records of death"(WH0 2002). 

However, unlike regular suicidal behavior, there is a complete reversal with suicide bombing. The latter is not stigmatized but idolized, with 'martyrs' not condemned, but praised and advocated. Suicide bombing is not a secretive act surrounded by taboo, but violently projected through global media outlets. The adulation of the suicide bombers, especially in the Moslem world, enhances suicide bombing as a strategic choice of weapon to achieve political and related objectives. 


In October 2002, Human Rights Watch compiled a 160-page report called "Erased in a Minute: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians." The report was based on field research carried out during two investigative missions to Israel, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in May and June 2002. During these visits, interviews were carried out with members of armed groups, victims of suicide bombings, perpetrators, PA officials, current and former PA security officers, Israeli and Palestinian analysts and security experts, diplomats and other foreign officials, and Palestinian activists and militants. It was the first in-depth investigation of suicide bombing by an international organization. 

Up to that time more than 415 Israeli and other civilians had been killed and more than two thousand injured as a result of attacks between 30 September 2000 and 21 August, 2002. The majority of those deaths and injuries were caused by suicide bombings. "Typically, the bombers, who surrendered their own lives in the process, sought to set off their explosions in places where civilians gathered, including restaurants and places of entertainment 'soft' targets where they could expect to cause the largest number of casualties. 

Typically too, the bomber packed the explosives with nails and pieces of metal for extra deadly effect" (HRW 2002). The year 2002 saw a peak in civilian deaths and casualties. Despite the Human Rights Watch report's findings, the suicide attacks against Israeli civilians continued as a strategic choice. The main targets for suicide bombings were Israeli cities within the "Green Line" (100), the Gaza Strip (26)( Jews lived in Gaza in ancient times and in more recent times until 2005.), and the West Bank (21)( historic name for the West Bank is 'Judea and Samaria', heartland of biblical Israel.) 

There were 30 suicide bombings in greater Jerusalem, 19 in the coastal Sharon area, 17 in Tel Aviv, 10 in the Wadi Ara area north of the coastal town of Hadera, and ten in other parts of the country, North as well as South (Center for Special Studies, January 2006). The majority of the victims were Israeli civilians (425 of the total 525), with 27 foreign nationals (mostly foreign workers). A large number of the victims belonged to the weaker sections of the population infants, children and the elderly. 

A profile of the suicide bombings in Israel during the years 2000 -2006 is included in the next chapter.

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