Ever since the current wave of stabbing, shooting and car ramming attacks began two and a half months ago, commentators have expressed perplexity at the seeming pointlessness of it all. Young people, many of them teenagers, set out to stab random Israelis, frequently losing their lives in the process. Are these stabbers lone wolves? Acting out of desperation? Incited by Facebook? What are they hoping to achieve?
Likud MK Anat Berko thinks she knows. Berko, who joined the Knesset this past March after two decades as a criminologist specializing in suicide terrorists, is sui generis. Her politics are aligned with those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but during her years of counterterrorism research she became the closest Israeli confidante of many Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails.
“People have often asked me why terrorists are willing to talk to me,” she wrote in her 2012 book “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.”
“I tell them that if you know how to create the right atmosphere, you can’t get them to stop talking…The security prisoners waited to speak to me the same way they waited for visits from friends and family. I became part of the jail scenery, and they felt they received something from our conversations because they were for research purposes and not interrogations.”
So great were her listening skills that prisoners would talk to her for hours, hug her, cry and even give her their babies to hold.
The Times of Israel caught up with Berko to find out what light she could shed on the profile of the current stabbers and attackers.
First of all, says Berko, unlike suicide bombers, the current attackers “don’t necessarily think they won’t get out alive. They think they might not get out alive. It’s not the same.”
Berko says the attackers are committing these acts for the sake of “glory,” both on social media and in Palestinian society, and like all teenagers, they compete over who can be the biggest hero. The terrorists do not think death is the end, but fully believe they will enter paradise, “where they will meet 72 virgins, drink until they’re intoxicated and have lots of sex.”
Indeed, in the meetings with prisoners described in the book, some go into great detail about what paradise is like.
“All the would-be shaheeds [martyrs] I spoke to described paradise in similar terms,” Berko wrote in the book. “As far as they were concerned, beyond meeting Allah, the prophet Muhammad, and other shaheeds, paradise was a place for the pleasures of the flesh. There were eternal virgins with transparent white skin, and there were no physiological needs. There was food, rivers of honey and alcohol. [One prisoner] added it would be a place where sexually inexperienced adolescents met virgins.”
As for what female attackers can hope to get in paradise, it is often as basic as the right to marry for love. One prisoner, who tried but failed to carry out a suicide bombing, told Berko, “In paradise I will be like a queen and sit in my kingdom and marry anyone I want to. I want someone who is handsome [giggling], and Allah will receive me.”
Berko says many young Palestinians live in communities with a tremendous amount of social pressure, prohibitions and shame. In paradise, they can experience all the things that are forbidden in real life.
“A few years ago I met a 15-year-old boy who had tried to be a suicide bomber. He told me that he is a virgin and had believed his first sexual experience would be in paradise. They hate the West but are dying to live like in the West, in both sense of the word ‘dying.’”
Violence in the family
Many of the terrorists Berko interviewed did not come from poor families, but did suffer from violence at home.
For instance, a woman she interviewed who had tried to stab an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint related: “My brother is twenty-five; he rapes me and doesn’t want me to tell anyone. I’m twenty-three. My father died four years ago. I told my mother and uncle about my brother, and my uncle hit me and said my brother hadn’t raped me. My brother said he hadn’t done anything. I asked them to take me to a doctor. I went to the Palestinian police and a policeman said, ‘I can help you, but your brother is a friend of mine.’ He wanted to have sex with me, and he said, ‘Your brother won’t know.’”
Indeed, says Berko, there is a normalization of violence in Palestinian society, with children’s television praising martyrs while Al-Qaeda and Islamic State have upped the ante for brutality among would-be terrorists.
“When a kid watches videos and doesn’t shrink from seeing blood or watching a person dying, you understand the effect.”
Another reason, Berko believes, this wave of violence is happening now is that “Palestinians see waves of refugees to Europe and they think who will deal with refugees from 70 years ago when there are refugees from a recent war in the Middle East?”
Beyond that, says Berko, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is 80 and Hamas is hoping to seize the power vacuum by opening another front with Israel.
Not lone wolves
“I don’t accept the idea that these are lone wolves. This wave of terror is directed from above. The incitement is insane. It’s on TV, satellite broadcasts, in mosques, on the street and in schools, including East Jerusalem, in schools that we actually pay for. It’s so bad that it’s a surprise that not everyone is a terrorist. If you look at the website of the Palestinian Authority, they speak of all of Palestine, pre-1948, not just pre-1967.”
As for how to stop the current wave of terrorism, Berko says, “We have to think out of the box, not just do regular things but conduct a more sophisticated war that understands the enemy.”
For instance, she says, “we have to make the attack not worthwhile from the point of view of the terrorist and their family, so families start controlling their young people. The family should pay a price. It doesn’t have to be with house demolitions, it can be with other punishments like fines.”