of Desperation: Answering Thomas Friedman
By M. Shahid Alam
ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth
for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or
your parents and kinsfolk. Qur'aan (4: 135)
love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.
the ratio of fatalities between Palestinians and Israelis has narrowed
during the past few months, the media mills in the United States
that have demonized Palestinians for the past 50 years have been
going into higher gear.
of the honored captains of this industry, the honorable Mr. Thomas
Friedman, has now struck a high note in this campaign with his "Suicidal
Lies," in New York Times of March 31, 2002. His objective is
to raise the alarm for Americans. The Palestinians "are testing
a whole new form of warfare, using suicide bombers," and if
this "new strategy of liberation" is allowed to succeed
presumably in forcing the Israelis to end their occupation of West
Bank and Gaza the consequences will be cataclysmic for United States,
and indeed, for all civilization. The imperative for United States
is clear. In order to save Civilization, it must fight Israel's
war as if it were a war for its own survival.
indictment of Palestinians is built cleverly, but it is the kind
of cleverness that substitutes for facts and logic. Mr. Friedman
opens his indictment by wiping the slate of history clean of the
daily, unremitting struggle that Palestinians men, women and children
have waged over the years against Israeli terror, massacres, executions,
expropriations, deportations, house demolitions, sieges, curfews,
and myriad new forms of intimidation and humiliation. This long,
hard, constant, unflagging and valiant struggle over more than 50
years is equated with the acts of 'suicide' bombers. In the words
of Braveheart, this is history written by those who have hanged
completing this demolition job accomplished with a wave of his hand
Mr. Friedman proceeds to build his penitentiary for the Palestinians.
His immediate objective is to prove that the Palestinians "have
adopted suicide bombing as a strategic choice, not out of desperation."
There are several steps in the argument that Mr. Friedman employs
to arrive at this devastating conclusion. I have to admit that this
charge ought be devastating if it can be proved.
Friedman does not deny that the Israeli occupation has caused "desperation"
(the quotes are not mine) amongst Palestinians; what he rejects
is that there is a necessary link between their desperation and
'suicide' bombing. First, "there are a lot of people in the
world who are desperate, yet they have not gone around strapping
dynamite to themselves." Surely, Mr. Friedman must have heard
of Samson, Guy Fawkes, the Kamikaze pilots, the Hizbullah and the
Tamil Tigers: since almost everyone else has. The Palestinians can
scarcely be credited with inventing this "new form of warfare."
there is another way of posing the question that would shift the
onus to the Israelis. A quick glance at the recent history of settler
colonialism reveals that there have been many episodes, both long
and short, of occupation and resistance to occupation, but it is
not too often that the oppressed have employed 'suicide' bombing
against their occupiers. Is it mere happenstance, then, that every
time the Israelis occupy another people whether it is Southern Lebanon,
Gaza and West Bank they have had to face 'suicide' bombers? Might
the fault lie in the occupiers, and not the occupied?
Friedman presses on with his indictment. President Clinton "offered
the Palestinians a peace plan that would have ended their "desperate"
occupation, and Mr. Arafat walked away." We are back to the
canard about the 'generous' peace plan, so perversely rejected by
the Palestinian leadership. In return for municipal control over
a few Bantustans, dominated by armed settler encampments, the Palestinians
were asked to forego their sovereignty, their right of return, the
right to defend themselves, control over their borders, and rights
to their own water resources. A 'generous' peace plan it was indeedgenerous
to the Israelis. Is it surprising that the Palestinians are castigated
ad infinitum for rejecting this plan?
Palestinians must account for another sin of omission. They had
the option of engaging in nonviolent resistance? la Ghandhi that
would have won them an independent Palestine 30 years ago. But,
instead, they chose the path of violent resistance. Oops! I mean,
'suicide' bombing. Mr. Friedman writes as if Israeli occupation
had somehow earned the right to expect Gandhian nonviolence from
its victims as if this was part of the divine package which gave
them exclusive rights to historic Palestine.
presumption so brazen demands a response. One must ask if the Zionists
too had chosen this Gandhian alternative to appropriating historic
Palestine: if at any time their dreams embraced the Palestinians
as associates, equal partners, in return for sanctuary in their
country. Instead, all that the Zionist visionaries saw was "a
people (themselves) without a land, and a land (Palestine) without
a people." The Palestinians did not exist: and if they did,
they would be "spirited across the borders" with some
was a dream of settler colonialism: quite commonplace amongst Europeans
in the nineteenth century. But since the Zionists did not have their
own gun boats, they would contract out the job to Britain, the arch
imperialist power in those times. In 1917, even before it had acquired
Palestine in the Balfour Declaration Britain generously offered
create a Jewish state in Palestine. A year later, when the British
had occupied Palestine, the European Jews established their first
settlements in Israel, their heads full of dreams of messianic colonialism.
It is these dreams, resurrecting archaic and arcane prophecies,
that would eventually create a new colonial settler state in 1948
when, in other parts of the world, such states were being dismantled.
are the mechanics of Mr. Friedman's argument. He does not reject
some "desperation" amongst Palestinians, but this is not
why they engage in 'suicide' bombings. They do this out of a perversity,
"because they actually want to win their independence in blood
and fire," and this has led them to adopt "suicide bombing
as a strategic choice." Mr. Friedman forgets I admit, it is
hard to feel the enemy's pain that while the first 'suicide' bombings
against Israeli occupation began in 1993, the Palestinians have
been going through "blood and fire" since at least the
this means is that Palestinians are now engaged in a most dangerous
innovation in the strategy of liberation. "A big test is taking
place of whether suicide terrorism can succeed as a strategy for
liberation." It is truly extraordinary that Mr. Friedman, writing
on the oped page of the New York Times, can assume that his readers
have never heard of the Kamikaze, the Tamil Tigers, or the Hizbullah.
There you have an index of the power of NYT.
would appear that the deployment of 'suicide' bombers was a strategic
choice made by Japan when the odds against them appeared to be mounting.
It was a choice they implemented massively, mobilizing tens of thousands
to launch 'suicide' missions using airplanes, torpedoes, mines and
small boats. They were also quite effective. Warner and Warner,
in The Sacred Warriors, show that the Allies lost 65 naval and merchant
ships to these 'suicide' missions, and 370 more were damaged. By
comparison, the recent 'suicide' bombings are minor league distractions.
At least until February 2000, the Palestinians were not the biggest
players even in this minor league. Hamas claimed only 22 'suicide'
missions compared to 168 strikes by Tamil separatists.
why does Mr. Friedman raise this alarm about Palestinians "testing"
"a whole new form of warfare," "a new strategy of
liberation?" Faced with a second intifada against their deepening
control over the West Bank and Gaza, an intifada that was slowly
replacing stone-throwing children with guerilla warfare the Israelis
made a strategic choice. On February 6, 2001, they let loose Ariel
Sharon, convicted by his own courts of personal responsibility for
the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, to crush the new intifada. But
the Palestinian resolve, tested for 33 years under the occupation
of the world's most efficient military machine, refuses to capitulate
before yet another round of warfare. The people who should have
been "spirited across the borders" by beads and baubles
have shown yet again that their spirits will not be cowed: that
they will rise to match and neutralize the power of Israeli military.
Friedman admits this. The Palestinian resistance he calls it 'suicide'
bombing"is working." That is what alarms him. He thinks
that Israel now "needs to deliver a military blow that clearly
shows that terror will not pay." In other words, he wants United
States to give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinian
resistance. This might mean more Palestinian deaths, more house
demolitions, more incarcerations, and may be even deportations on
some significant scale. Everything that is necessary to crush the
resistance. Yes, the Europeans will make noises and there will be
some noise in the Arab streets. But with solid American backing,
none of this should matter. At least, that is Mr. Friedman's fantasy.
have been placing 'suicide' in 'suicide' bombings within quotes.
This requires an explanation. The Oxford English dictionary defines
a suicide as "one who dies by his own hand." This definition
is clearly inadequate. In the absence of a motive, we cannot distinguish
between (i) a person who takes his life because he wants to die
and (ii) a person who takes his life because this will save her
soul or her honor, her family, her friends, her community, or her
country. The first suggests suicide; the latter is ordinarily regarded
as a martyr. Judge for yourself then whether the Palestinians are
suicides or martyrs.
the Jewish tradition considers suicide reprehensible, it admits
exceptions. According to the Talmud Kaplan and Schwartz, A Psychology
of Hope" suicide can be permissible and even preferred"
when the alternative is forced apostasy or torture that is beyond
endurance. Imaginably, the Palestinians who choose to 'sacrifice'
their lives might argue that the pain and indignity of life under
Israeli occupation exceeded their capacity for endurance.
your imagination again. Consider a different history of Germany
and Europe one without the Second World War, without the Final Solution,
without Auschwitz all because a lone Jewish 'suicide' bomber in
1938 had penetrated the inner chambers of Nazi leadership and blown
them to smithereens while also killing herself. Would this 'suicide'
bomber and her likes also be regarded as a threat to all civilization?
What would Mr. Friedman say about her?
Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University,
Boston. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was
published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Shahid Alam