Are Palestinian teens committing ‘suicide by soldier’?

In today’s political climate, says Professor Ariel Merari, stabbing Israelis could be an acceptable method for troubled youth to kill themselves

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

A 16-year-old Palestinian girl arrives at the Jerusalem District Court on December 11, 2015, where she is indicted on two counts of attempted murder for a November 23 stabbing attack in the capital. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A 16-year-old Palestinian girl arrives at the Jerusalem District Court on December 11, 2015, where she is indicted on two counts of attempted murder for a November 23 stabbing attack in the capital. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

What is motivating the terrorists in Israel’s current wave of knife, car-ramming and shooting attacks? What goes through the head of, say, a young Palestinian who enters a supermarket and plunges his knife into the neck of a woman he’s never met?

According to sources within the Israel Defense Forces, aside from the ostensible ideological motive, many of these attacks are a form of “suicide by cop,” or “suicide by soldier.”

“Most of the people have personal problems with their families or they themselves are unbalanced,” a senior IDF officer in the Central Command told The Times of Israel.

Referring to the terrorist who killed two Jews and a Palestinian near the Jewish settlement of Alon Shvut, including 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz, the officer suggested, “He may have owed people money.”

“They all have their personal reasons,” the officer continued. “You have 12- and 13-year-old girls, a 14-year-old boy. There was also that old woman in Hebron who tried to ram her car. Or that woman from Silwan, 40 years old, with four kids, from a wealthy home.”

Ariel Merari, a professor emeritus of psychology at Tel Aviv University, has interviewed and studied would-be Palestinian suicide bombers in previous waves of attacks. He said that while he has not directly interviewed any of the latest attackers, what the IDF officer said is consistent with his findings from a decade and two decades ago, as described in his 2010 book, “Driven to Death: Psychological and Social Aspects of Suicide Terrorism.

Psychologist of terror Ariel Merari (YouTube)
Psychologist of terror Ariel Merari (YouTube)

“I did not investigate the current wave of stabbers, and therefore I can only speculate as to what is motivating them,” he said.

“The first question that has to be asked about the current wave is not why there are so many attackers, but why there are so few. There are many opinion polls of the Palestinian population, very good ones. And there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian population hates Israel. The vast majority are happy when there are terror attacks against Israel. But when it comes down to it, very few are willing to carry out these attacks themselves.”

Merari said that what distinguishes the attackers in the current wave of terror is not hatred of Israel, because this is broadly shared throughout the Palestinian population.

“So it’s more appropriate to ask, of those who did carry out attacks, why them and not others? What makes them different?”

Merari said that among the suicide bombers of the Second Intifada, he found using psychological tests that 40 percent were suicidal, meaning they wanted to die for personal reasons. Twenty percent had actually tried but failed to kill themselves before becoming a suicide bomber.

In the present wave of attacks, almost half of the approximately 180 attackers have been shot dead, and those who embark on new attacks are doubtless aware of these odds.

“It’s not complete suicide, because complete suicide is when a person kills themselves — in this case someone kills them. But they’re bringing it on; it’s pretty similar to what in the United States is called suicide by police.”

No single motivator

In his studies, when Merari asked failed suicide bombers what had motivated them, almost all talked about the “humiliation of the Israeli occupation.”

Beyond that, Merari believes there are multiple motives that come together to spur someone to embark on an attack.

“It’s not that there is one cause and that’s it — like incitement. Incitement certainly plays an important role. Even a person who really wants to die for personal reasons could do it several different ways.”

But the fact that Islam forbids suicide is key, said Merari. “If someone commits suicide, his family become outcasts. If he really wants to die, in the current political climate, it is very convenient to do it this way, to commit suicide by police. Because then the entire society will say, ‘How wonderful, he is a shahid, he is a hero. They will not say he committed a religiously forbidden act.’”

Merari said that in his studies of suicide bombers from the Second Intifada and before, he found that most tended to be marginal, unpopular, easily led youngsters who saw themselves as failures.

“They weren’t highly ideological; instead they tended to be people who thought they had disappointed their parents. This act [of killing] allowed them to achieve social prominence.”

He recalled an incident from the post-Oslo terror wave of the 1990s.

“There was a young man from Gaza, 15 years old. He came to class and told his friends. ‘I am planning to become a shahid, a martyr. I ask that after I die, no one sit at my desk, and that you put flowers on my table every day.’ This young man was looking for some kind of significance.”

Merari dismissed the notion that there was a line a terrorist could cross that would mean his society would no longer adulate him as a martyr, even if he killed another Muslim, or a child.

“Even Israelis make excuses if someone kills a bystander in the midst of a terror attack, like the Eritrean migrant, and Israeli society has a forgiving attitude, unfortunately. In terms of killing noncombatants or children, there are a lot of excuses. ‘The kids will grow and go to the army so they have to be killed young.’ Another excuse is ‘if they are children and didn’t sin they will go to paradise, so I am doing them a favor.’ They also say, ‘The Jews kill our children so we can kill theirs.’”

Still image from footage showing a knife-wielding terrorist (circled) stabbing Israelis as they wait at a bus stop on Jerusalem Boulevard in Ra'anana on October 12, 2015. (screen capture)
Still image from footage showing a knife-wielding terrorist (circled) stabbing Israelis as they wait at a bus stop on Jerusalem Boulevard in Ra’anana on October 12, 2015. (screen capture)

He also said none of his interviewees expressed regret for their actions.

“I did not encounter any instances of remorse. I am sure there are Palestinians who are opposed to terror attacks. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was opposed to suicide attacks, even when [his predecessor Yasser] Arafat was alive. But among those we interviewed there was not a single person who expressed remorse.

Asked about the current wave of terror, Merari said the political climate needs to change. “The Palestinian public needs hope. We offer them nothing that gives them hope for independence. They are under occupation.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed reporting.

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