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Gaza, Hamas and the Suicide Bomber: Why Then and Not Now?

Commentary, 15 January 2009
Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
Hamas has repeatedly stated that it has an army of 20,000 men that are willing to defeat their ‘Zionist enemy’ regardless of the cost, echoing the rhetoric of the second intifada (2000-2005). However, there is a crucial difference between the Hamas of the second intifada and the Hamas we see in Gaza today.

In contrast to the second intifada of 2000-2005, Hamas have not used suicide bombers against Israel during the hostilities in Gaza. This cannot be attributed to operational considerations alone: the strength of Hamas' underlying base of popular support is a key factor in this situation.

By Daniel Jeffrey, Assistant Researcher, Middle East & North Africa Programme

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

Since the opening of hostilities between Hamas and Israel at the end of 2008, Hamas has repeatedly stated that it has an army of 20,000 men willing to take up arms and defeat their ‘Zionist enemy’ regardless of the cost. This rhetoric echoes that of the second intifada (2000-2005), during which Hamas increased its influence, legitimacy and power (a significant factor in their 2006 election victory). Even though today’s rhetoric may be similar, and their constant use of Qassam rockets ruthlessly familiar, there seems to be a crucial difference between the Hamas of the second intifada and the Hamas we see in Gaza today.

The difference is that during the second intifada Hamas undertook a particularly effective and deadly campaign of suicide bombing, whereas this tactic appears to be absent in the current Gaza conflict. The emphasis on the suicide bomber during the second intifada was clear: Hamas believed it was their ‘winning card, which turned [their] weakness and feebleness into strength and created parity never before witnessed’ in the asymmetrical fight against Israel.[i] Indeed, the suicide campaign scarred the psyche of Israeli society so deeply that they came to associate Hamas with suicide bombings and terror.[ii]

On the eve of the Israeli campaign, Hamas’s foreign policy adviser Dr Ahmed Yousef stated that the impending Israeli attacks would result in the renewed use of suicide attacks.[iii] Given the effectiveness of the second intifada’s suicide campaign and the warning issued by Hamas’s own advisors, why is this tactic not being employed now? This question is all the more pertinent given that Hamas is fighting for survival in a theatre that plays to its strengths and tactical abilities, namely urban guerrilla warfare.

Hamas’s Operational Differences between Gaza and the Second Intifada

One explanation for the lack of suicide bombings is that it is Israel who is operating in Hamas’s territory rather than vice-versa. The security wall has served one of its primary objectives in preventing suicide attacks in Israel. However, given that the ‘Zionist enemy’ has come to Hamas and there is still a lack of suicide attacks, one must assess the motivation and use of such a tactic.

During the second intifada, Hamas targeted predominantly civilian and non-critical targets. It was a classic terror campaign, seeking to instil fear in the Israeli populace rather than to gain conventional military and strategic advantages. If Hamas’s rhetoric of creating ‘parity never before witnessed’ was a true reflection of their intentions and capabilities, then one would expect this tactic to be used in Gaza given the chasm between the two sides’ hardware and operational capabilities.

Another operational explanation as to the lack of a suicide strategy is that during the second intifada campaign, Hamas’ method of delivery was unsophisticated; it relied on greater numbers of bombers delivering low to medium impacts. This is quite unlike groups such as Al-Qa’ida, the Tamil Tigers and to a certain extent Hezbollah, who employ sophisticated delivery techniques and advanced explosives which reduce the amount of manpower forfeited for a given return of destruction. This also allows such groups to engage with ‘hard targets’ such as military vehicles and installations.

The lack of such attacks on the IDF in Gaza demonstrates that Hamas has been unable to gain access to the equipment needed to engage such targets using a suicide campaign and has instead relied on conventional light and medium weaponry. The implication is that either Israel has been effective in preventing the flow of the necessary materiel into Gaza, or that Hamas has not evolvedits techniques and tactics as is usually the case with groups such as the Tamil Tigers and Chechen rebels.

Given the nature and ideological motivation of Hamas, these operational explanations are not enough to explain the absence of suicide bombers. Indeed, there is a need to consider a more fundamental ‘grassroots’ explanation for the present lack of suicide bombers.

Hamas and the Erosion of Public Support

For any suicide campaign in an area with the demographics and conditions of Israel and Palestine to be successful, it has been shown that there needs to be an underlying basis of popular support.[iv] This can be the result of perceived oppression and/or disproportionate, indiscriminate reprisals by the state (Israel) against the pariah (Hamas). These ‘oppressive reprisals’ are then transformed into propaganda by sub-national groups such as Hamas who then espouse revenge in terms of religious duty. This propaganda, coupled with the material and social benefits Hamas provided the Palestinian people during the 1990s, makes for a powerful mechanism from which to compel ordinary citizens to make, and respond positively to, the ultimate sacrifice for the ‘greater good’.

It is this shrouding of ‘martyrdom’ and self-sacrifice in religious terms that justify a) the use of a human bomb and b) the targeting of innocent civilians. This explains why suicide bombings directed at Israeli civilians and non-combatant targets were a regular occurrence during the second intifada. Not only did they fit into Hamas’s tactical strategy of causing as much death and chaos as possible – the Palestinian audience also saw the targets as legitimate ones, embodying the ‘disproportionate oppression’ to which they were subjected.

Does Hamas have this basis of underlying popular support? Its alleged 20,000 hard-line members may be ready undertake such an ‘altruistic’ mission, but as of yet it does not have the requisite support of the civilian populace in Gaza for such a campaign to be successful. Whilst reports suggesting that civilians living in Gaza perceive Hamas as bringing the ongoing humanitarian crisis, suffering and Israeli invasion upon themselves, these claims cannot be wholly substantiated due to the embargo placed on journalists by Israel.[v]

However, what can be drawn from the lack of suicide tactics is that the support within Gaza that Hamas may enjoy is not the same as that witnessed explicitly during the second intifada. Whether or not this represents a realignment of support in terms of what the people of Gaza want of Hamas, be it a party that undertakes an armed resistance or one that engages within the political process as a legitimate actor, remains to be seen. It is only likely to be known once the dust has settled over Gaza. But support is conditional and has not completely eroded.

Indeed, unless Israel can be seen to be attempting, at the very least, to bring an end to the conflict, the people of Gaza may become more aligned with Hamas. Israel’s refusal to heed calls by the UN to agree on a ceasefire package whilst providing a meagre three-hour window for humanitarian aid delivery into Gaza, in addition to the shelling and bombing of UN schools and civilian buildings still containing civilians, is likely to lead to similar legitimate grievances being vented in a manner that escalated into the first and second intifadas.

During the second intifada Hamas broadened its support base and took the offensive: this is certainly not the case in Gaza. Indeed, it is now a fight for survival. If Hamas had the support that they claim then suicide bombing would be employed as a means of galvanising their support and solidifying their position. However, for the time being, the silence of the suicide bomber is deafening in terms of demonstrating the grassroots support that has been intrinsic in Hamas’s rise to power since its inception.

The views expressed above are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Notes

  1. Azet Al-Rushuq, ‘Waqf al-‘amaliyat al-istishhadiya matlub israeli-amriki ‘ajil’ [Cessation of the Martyrdom Operations is an Urgent Israeli-American Demand], al-Hayat (London), 22 May 2002.
  2. NGO Monitor’s Review of Medecins du Monde Report on the Psychological Impact of Suicide Bombings on Israelis 2003, http://www.ngo-monitor.org/editions/v1n11/v1n11-1.htm
  3. Israel Vows War on Hamas, 30 December 2008 available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7803711.stm
  4. For a detailed theoretical perspective see M M Hafez, ‘Rationality, Culture and Structure in the Making of Suicide Bombers: A Preliminary Theoretical Synthesis and Illustrative Case Study’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (London: Routledge, 2006); M Bloom, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), R A Pape, ‘Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’, (New York: Random House, 2006).
  5. Tobias Buck, ‘Hamas Faces a Share of the Blame and its Sternest Test to Date’, Financial Times, 6 January 2009; ArkansasOnline, ‘Hamas Needed a War to Bolster Popular Support’, 14 January 2009.

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