Suicide Terrorism: Function of Occupation or Ideology?

Robert Pape has an artice over at Foriegn Policy which argues that suicide terrorism is primarly a function military occupation and not extremist ideology. He writes:

New research provides strong evidence that suicide terrorism such as that of 9/11 is particularly sensitive to foreign military occupation, and not Islamic fundamentalism or any ideology independent of this crucial circumstance. Although this pattern began to emerge in the 1980s and 1990s, a wealth of new data presents a powerful picture. More than 95 percent of all suicide attacks are in response to foreign occupation, according to extensive research that we conducted at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism, where we examined every one of the over 2,200 suicide attacks across the world from 1980 to the present day. As the United States has occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, which have a combined population of about 60 million, total suicide attacks worldwide have risen dramatically — from about 300 from 1980 to 2003, to 1,800 from 2004 to 2009. Further, over 90 percent of suicide attacks worldwide are now anti-American. The vast majority of suicide terrorists hail from the local region threatened by foreign troops, which is why 90 percent of suicide attackers in Afghanistan are Afghans.

I find the information in this article refreshing and interesting, but there is one paragraph that particularly irked me and warranted serious qualifaction. It reads:

“Israelis have their own narrative about terrorism, which holds that Arab fanatics seek to destroy the Jewish state because of what it is, not what it does. But since Israel withdrew its army from Lebanon in May 2000, there has not been a single Lebanese suicide attack. Similarly, since Israel withdrew from Gaza and large parts of the West Bank, Palestinian suicide attacks are down over 90 percent.”

The truth is that Israelis have had two dominant competing narratives about terrorism. One sees terroism as a consquence of a religio-fanatical, endogenous and incorrigible hatred of the Jewish state. The other sees it as a consequence of the unjust and brutal reality of the occupation (dispositional vs situational explanation of behavior). The former narrative holds that the antidote to terrorism is to control, dominate and eradicate those who terrorize us. While the latter maintains that the solution can only come from an end to the occupation – land-for-peace principle – and a creation of a stable and viable Palestinian state. Throughout the years, each narrative has had unequal influence, at times intermixed, on the collective psyche of the state. These days in Israel, and this Pape got right, the main narrative is that terrorism is a function of Arab-Muslim fanaticism (even though current Israeli leaders are talking the langauge of peace). But the reason for the supremacy of this hard narrative is what throws a wrench into Pape’s thesis.

The general Israeli perspective today is that both withdrawals lead to a decrease in security for Israel and its neighbors. Israeli withdrawl from Lebanon lead to the 2006 war with Hezbollah (leaving 1,300 people dead [mostly Lebanese] and thousands displaced), and the 2005 disengagment from Gaza lead to the 2009 Gaza war (with over 1300 Palestinian dead and Gaza’s infrastructure [and Israel’s international standing] in ruin). Both wars (again, from the Israeli perspective) were precipitated by military operations against Israeli soldiers (inside of Israel) and by thousands of missiles indiscriminately launched at Israeli population centers in the North and the South (e.g. from the Gaza disengagment to the Gaza war over 6,000 rockets were launched inside the South of Israel proper.)

True, these are not suicide attacks, but the change in terror tactics (which Pape doesn’t even mention) is not due to an attenuation of the occupation (such percise reciprocity doesn’t happen on the ground). In the case of Hezbollah, suicide operations was not their weapon of choice against Israel to begin with (except between the years of 1982-1985), so to say that withdrawl in 2000 ended suicide attacks is misleading the reader. In the case of the Palestinians, the reduction of suicide attacks have much more to do with security measures such as the wall/fence (since construction of the fence began, the number of attacks has declined by more than 90%) and targeted operations to arrest or kill militant leaders. Moreover, we have to remember that the West Bank (where most Palestinians live) is stil under occupation and Gaza under blockade – how exactly does that square with Pape’s thesis?

Finally, change of terror tactics, from suicide operations to thousands of missiles launched at Israeli cities, does nothing to convince Israelis that Palestinians Arabs are not fanatics who seek to destroy the Jewish state for what it is. It’s for this reason that the situational terrorist narrative (as opposed to the dispositional one) has lost currency in Israeli society these days.

All this is not to say that the occuaption is not evil, or that it has no influence on Palestinian militancy, or that it must not go. It clearly is, clearly does and clearly must. Rather, it’s to say that serious scholars like Pape, should be more circumspect in generalizing their analysis and conclusions.


3 responses to “Suicide Terrorism: Function of Occupation or Ideology?

  1. Pingback: Suicide Terrorism versus Rockets | Nova

  2. Thanks for the insightful article. It was very refreshing compared to the usual discourse on this matter in the Israeli street. And though I concur with your point about Pape committing a fallacy of necessity, I think something important is missing out of the picture. namely that the statement “The general Israeli perspective today is that both withdrawals lead to a decrease in security for Israel and its neighbors”, fails to take into consideration a few things:
    1. while Israel withdrew military force from Gaza, it did continue to have a stranglehold on gaza, and the situation in Gaza for the average joe (ahem.. Ahemed) has gotten worse.
    2. The situation in the west bank, albeit much better than Gaza, is no picknick with Israel controlling water resources and the even expanding settlements, to name but two of the main issues.

    so technically, the “situational explanation of behaviour” argument, although it fell into disrepute by most Israeli’s , still holds water. Personally, I don’t think that any of the two explanation on their own paint a complete picture. Both things play a role, i’d say they work in synergy. “bad” conditions -> “bad” behaviour -> worse conditions -> worse behaviour … ad nauseam.

    what irks me most, is the Israeli tendency to see only the part of the picture that is comfortable to look at. i currently live in Israel, my peeve might’ve been opposite if i lived in the west bank. i urge anyone that wants to gain a better understanding of the situation, to go to the west bank and talk to people there, and go to Israel and talk to people there. My experience has been that it is surprising how much the average person on each of the streets basically think the same about the other side. Namely: “we want peace, but they don’t”.

    anyway thanks for the interesting articles, i used to think that the smurfs were an anarcho-syndicalist commune… i stand corrected.

  3. Hi Ruben,

    Thanks for the kind words and insightful feedback.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s