- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinians have begun to sour on suicide bombings after years of honoring the dead attackers as heroes, and some have been emboldened to question whether the deadly blasts will hasten the goal of establishing an independent state.

In the aftermath of a Feb. 18 suicide bombing that killed five persons in Tel Aviv, a chorus of condemnation has been sounded in the bustling shops of downtown Ramallah, the offices of civic leaders and the dens where Palestinian militants take refuge from Israeli troops.

“We are not with this operation. The timing is wrong,” said a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who called himself Abu Yazan and wore black-and-white Fila sneakers.

“We are now talking about a period of [truce]. The rules state that we do not attack,” he said.

It’s a shift many link to the election of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — a vocal critic of the militarization of the Palestinian uprising — as well as an emerging detente with Israel.

Questions about the wisdom of suicide attacks apparently have become more frequent in the past few years.

A December survey taken by the Palestinian Center for Polling and Survey Research found that support for attacks inside Israel dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in 2003.

Riad Malki, the head of Panorama, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization promoting democratization, said the indicators of the change have not always been clear, but Mr. Abbas’ January election as Yasser Arafat’s successor helped crystallize that shift in opinion.

“Abbas has made it clear that these attacks are not conducive for realizing Palestinian rights,” he said.

“People feel that after so many years of intifada, there’s an opening for peace. The moment that people start connecting these attacks to their national interests, and their livelihoods, that is an indication that the shift is genuine,” Mr. Malki said.

To many Israelis, such opinions sound like a change of tactics rather than a change of heart.

“The Palestinians have got to change their formula that the terrorist attack is wrong because it contradicts the Palestinian national interest,” said Shmuel Bar, a Middle East scholar at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

“The reason for condemning a terrorist attack is because you don’t go and kill civilians,” Mr. Bar said.

Mr. Abbas has denounced perpetrators of the latest suicide bombing as “mukharebin,” Arabic for saboteurs and the first time a Palestinian leader has used such a negative term in reference to suicide bombers. Labeling them as terrorists, however, is still taboo in the Palestinian political lexicon.

However, there are signs that the changing public mood is influencing the thinking of militants. Inside the headquarters that served as Mr. Arafat’s bunker, a group of Al Aqsa fighters gathered in a grungy dorm room stinking of stale cigarette tobacco.

The fighters said Mr. Abbas was correct in calling the bombers saboteurs because they had broken a truce.

They warned, however, of the danger of a “third intifada” if Israel continues to pursue Palestinians. But for now, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a major supplier of suicide bombers, is holding its fire.

“People voted for [Abbas] because they wanted peace,” Abu Yazan said. “We will not operate against the will of the people.”

Just as telling was the reaction in Deir el Ghusun, the West Bank hometown of Abdallah Badran, who blew himself up last month.

The young bomber’s portrait was not included in the “martyrdom” posters that have become a standard memorial format.

But it is not clear whether the criticism will translate into a public consensus for a crackdown on terrorists. On the streets of Ramallah, a 45-year-old man who called himself Abu Ahmed said he was both opposed to the bombing and against arresting those responsible.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” Mr. Ahmed said.

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