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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Smarter Bomb’
Question of the Day
THE SMARTER BOMB: WOMEN AND CHILDREN AS SUICIDE BOMBERS
By Anat Berko
Rowman & Littlefield, $42, 212 pages
On Nov. 20, toward the conclusion of the Hamas-Israel war, an Israeli Arab reportedly placed a bomb under a seat in a bus in Tel Aviv that was detonated by a remote-control cellphone. His West Bank cell had set off the bomb after he had gotten off the bus and escaped to his Arab village. Twenty-eight Israeli passengers and passers-by were injured in the explosion. The bomber, it turns out, was part of a Palestinian terrorist cell that was rounded up quickly and arrested by the Israeli security service. Officials later learned the bomber was a West Bank Palestinian who had gained Israeli citizenship by marrying an Israeli Arab woman and that he and the other members of the cell hailed from the same West Bank town.
What would motivate a married Palestinian man to carry out a terrorist attack against Israel? Who were the cell's recruiters, organizers and dispatchers? And, most important, what is the nature of Palestinian society that would encourage its citizens to conduct terrorist attacks against a much more powerful Israeli state when such operations exploit those who are in many ways the weakest members of society? Children of Palestinian leaders, for example, are never asked to carry out such attacks.
These questions are addressed in Anat Berko's highly insightful "The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers." Although Ms. Berko's book focuses on the motivations of Palestinian suicide bombers, especially women and children -- unlike the Tel Aviv bomber, who was an adult male who escaped from the scene of his attack -- all of these operatives are recruited and dispatched on their missions by similar types of male organizers.
The author, whom I've known for several years, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army and an academic criminologist. She has spent many years interviewing Palestinian security prisoners at their Israeli jails, including the operatives (whose suicide missions failed) and their dispatchers. Fluent in Arabic and Arab culture, she was able to speak intimately with the prisoners and gain their trust. Their identities are disguised to elicit the most candid observations and to protect them. This will frustrate those who would like to follow up on their case histories, but readers nevertheless will benefit from the wealth of personal, cultural and operational details revealed by such firsthand field work.
This book extends the examination of Palestinian suicide terrorism, which was the subject of Ms. Berko's earlier book, "The Path to Paradise." In this book she focuses on Palestinian women and children, two groups that are especially exploited in patriarchal Palestinian society.
Female Palestinian terrorists, in particular, are simultaneously important and unimportant in their society. As the author writes, a Palestinian woman's "social duties and expectations are narrow and well defined. Her first duty is to marry and bear children. A woman who carries out a suicide bombing attack is perceived as having sinned, especially in a society in which the individual is unimportant as compared with the collective." Such women are considered "sinful" because a "woman who deals with terrorism is already perceived as being in the company of men," thereby "having violated the codes of behavior and modesty expected by the traditional Muslim society."
In another distinction between male and female operatives, the author adds that such "women do not participate in terrorism following a career in terrorism, or criminal activities but usually carry out just one attack." In following this pattern, they differ from their male counterparts, who tend to be recidivists who "are often in and out of jail [for such activities] but will end up serving many life sentences."
As a result of their traditional role in Palestinian society, the author points out, the women's involvement in terrorism ultimately leads to a tragic ending because the expectation "that their status will be upgraded or that their pasts will be overlooked because of involvement in terrorism is a figment of their imagination. The sense of power and freedom they had when they were recruited and the artificial 'respect' they thought they had gained evaporated along with the feeling that they were unique."
The same fate awaits Palestinian children who are dispatched on terrorist operations, such as "Hassan" (not his real name), a 10th-grader who was instructed by older terrorist operatives to recruit two of his schoolmates, one of whom was his cousin, as suicide bombers. Hassan, the author thinks, was selected because he had come from a dysfunctional family and had been indoctrinated in the Palestinian educational system to "hate Israel" and desire "martyrdom." While the older terrorist operatives convince such children that their lives will improve if they carry out terrorist acts, many of them end up in Israeli jails as security prisoners, with no hope for better lives even once they are released from prison.
In the book's conclusion, the author discusses the impact of modernization on the role of women in the largely traditional Palestinian society. It is perceived as dangerous because the older generation feels it is losing control over women, who increasingly are being exposed to other ways of life through satellite television, the Internet and cellphones.
For the light it sheds on Palestinian society and how its most vulnerable are exploited, "The Smarter Bomb" is highly recommended. A peaceful accommodation between Palestinians and Israelis will not move forward as long as large swaths of Palestinian society are manipulated and directed toward violence.
• Joshua Sinai, a Washington-based specialist in counterterrorism studies, is the author of "Active Shooter: A Handbook on Prevention" (ASIS International).
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