Looking Beyond Operation Protective Edge

Hamas terror and Islamist sacrifice.

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Prof. Louis René Beres,

Louis René Beres
Louis René Beres

Special to Arutz Sheva:

Recently, Mohammed Deif, leader of Hamas’ military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, summed up his organization’s underlying objective: “Our soldiers yearn for death, the way the Zionist soldiers yearn for life.” Although this succinct summary was more than a bit misleading - after all, Arab terrorists “yearn for death” only because they associate “martyrdom” with personal immortality – a suffocating ambiance of death is still their preferred geostrategic context. Always, for necrophilous Hamas terrorists, nothing is better than to be surrounded by rotting human corpses.

Many years back, the Palestinian terror movement displayed considerably  more ideological nuance; using the language of political science, it was openly "multi-polar." Then, with far more constituent centers of regional power, a common or unifying Palestinian ideology was not even necessary. In those "early days" of terror, going all the way back to 1948, and the Fedayeen, all that mattered was a conspicuously shared Arab loathing for "The Jews."

In the Islamic Middle East, such contempt has never been in short supply.

In some ways, for Palestinian terrorists, those early days represented a sort of Dickensian "best of times." Under a much more broadly welcoming insurgent canopy, Palestinian "diversity" was able to emerge and reign triumphant. Indeed, even certain atheistic and Marxist elements were generally allowed to make collaborative cause with Islamists, a phenomenon that would be unheard of today. Moreover, in deference to fundamental emphases on operational collaboration, no particular ideology was encouraged or allowed to become a singularly dominant or hegemonic orientation.

In short, regarding core policy matters of the Palestinian terror movement, convenience and mutuality of interest defined both the guiding standard, and the unifying watchword.

This apparent largesse was evident even inside Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the umbrella terror group first formed in 1964. Significantly, that was three years prior to the Six Day War, hence, three years before there were any so-called "Israel Occupied Territories."

What was the PLO seeking to "liberate," during those three particular years? This is not a difficult question.

The answer was (and remains) all of Israel, all of the micro-state that is still identified on both Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas maps, as "Occupied Palestine." But, today, despite an enduringly bitter "bipolar" schism between the two principal surviving Palestinian factions, there are compellingly new requirements for permission to join in the holy exterminatory battle against Jewish Israel. More precisely, today, all prospective Arab "liberators" must first accept and meet a qualifying litmus test of Islamic purity.

Now, only Jihadists, only those who are properly in Ribat (religious conflict, fighting for "Islamic land"), are invited to participate in the divinely-mandated “armed struggle." The overall Arab fight, it follows, has changed from being a preeminently secular and tactical conflict, to one that may wittingly ignore all of the more ordinary and usual strategic imperatives. This all-consuming "struggle," routinely expressed as terror, is founded upon certain overriding commitments to "sacred violence."  At its heart, it offers a present-day expression ofreligious sacrifice.

The relevant "anthropology" is unambiguous and straightforward. For the Palestinian terror movement against Israel, violence and the sacred remain deeply interpenetrating and thoroughly inseparable. Religious sacrifice is now what Palestinian insurgency is ultimately all about.

Looking even more deeply, Palestinian terrorism, in the fashion of all religious sacrifice, is intended to protect the Gaza community from its own violence. By carefully choosing victims outside itself, the terror-sacrificers are thereby able to erect a suitably protective cordon sanitaire, to effectively prevent outside "contagion," and to expectedly restore harmony in their prospectively implosive community.

In the Islamic Middle East, religion instructs Palestinians on precisely what must be done to stave off intra-communal harms. Here, the main lesson is focused on the surrogate victim, obviously the "Israeli," the "Zionist," or simply the "Jew." Sacrificed by a thoroughly primal religious dogma that merely masquerades as politics, it is inevitably this proxy victim of terrorism, and this unfortunate scapegoat alone, who can presumably rescue the terrorists from themselves.

Vital foundational links between religious sacrifice and violent insurgency have had a long and potentially instructive history. To acknowledge and gain useful insight from this pertinent chronology, we may look back to ancient Greece, specifically, to Plutarch. Ideas of Arab-Islamic religious sacrifice are ferociously adversarial, but they are not unprecedented.

The first century biographer's "Sayings of Spartan Mothers", names the proper female parent as one who had deliberately reared her sons for civic sacrifice. Such a venerated Greek mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died "in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors." On the other hand, those "unworthy" Spartan sons who had failed to live up to this enviably bold standard of sacrifice, were promptly singled out for both unqualified reprimand, and community-wide humiliation.

One woman, we may learn from Plutarch, whose son had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, killed him brutally, with a tile. Culturally, it seems, this was the only fitting punishment for his incontestable cowardice.

Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing to Plutarch, described another citizen-mother’s tale as follows: "A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle.  A Helot (slave) arrives trembling; she asks him for the news. `Your five sons were killed.'  `Base slave, did I ask you that?' The slave responds: `We won the victory.'  The mother runs to the temple, and gives enthusiastic thanks to the gods."  

Why relate these seemingly irrelevant tales from ancient Greece? The answer is simple. There are serious lessons here for Israel. Even now, it is impossible to deny that the deepest roots of Jihadist terror originate from cultures that display similar views of sacrifice.

In these largely adversarial and mostly Arab cultures, the key purpose of sacrifice always extends beyond any presumed expectations of civic necessity. This rationale goes directly to the very heart of individual human fear; that is, to the palpable and mesmerizing locus of existential dread.

Here, today, in the Arab Middle East, looking beyond Operation Protective Edge, terrorism, as sacrificial practice, becomes a sacred expression of religious obligation. In these largely faith-based cultures, sacrifice derives, in part, from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death. Above all, and this key point can't be stressed too often, by adopting such practice, the Jihadist terrorist expects, often desperately, to overcome his own terrifying mortality.

Even Palestinian-American terrorist, U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, actively sought the death sentence for his murder spree at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. As he explained in open court, "If I die by lethal injection, I would still be a martyr."

What could be clearer? What earthly promise could possibly be more gratifying than a pledged conferral of immortality? What promise could possibly be easier to understand, even for secularly-educated physicians and professors.

Although still widely unrecognized in both Israel and the United States, there can never be any greater power in world politics, than the power to overcome death.

To be sure, as Mohammed Deif just announced, the Jihadist terrorist “yearns for death,” but this is a mock heroism. In fact, more than anything else, it is an expression of utterly primal cowardice.  

At his (or her) existential core, the Hamas fighter is not interested in land or justice. This murderer kills himself or herself, always together with assorted innocent others, to ensure a personal life that will never end. The so-called “death” that he or she expects to suffer in consequence of this “suicide,” is nothing more than a momentary inconvenience. It is, in essence, a vaguely minor distraction.

Truth may emerge through paradox. This we must always bear in mind, Hamas and other Palestinian "martyrs" kill themselves in "suicides" in order not to die.

Although seemingly irrational, by definition, the Shahid can still calculate rationally that an intended suicide will be "cost-effective. This martyr is embarked on what is taken to be a divinely-guided trajectory. Commendably, therefore, he has chosen a gloriously fiery path to life everlasting. On every conceivable dimension, it is a genuinely perfect path.

In Islam, “martyrdom” has always been closely associated with Jihad. Unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such sacrificial killing can be found in the Koran (9:111), and, more explicitly, in the canonical hadith. "Do not consider those who are slain in the cause of Allah as dead," instructs the Koran, "for they are living by their Lord."

For Hamas, in particular, there are certain obligatory aspects of sacrificial terror that must never be overlooked. This two-sided nature of terror/sacrifice - the sacrifice of "the Jew," and the reciprocal sacrifice of "the Martyr" - is conveniently codified in the Charter of Hamas:  "The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise....`I swear by that (sic.) who holds in His Hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.'"

For the Hamas terrorist, it is by killing Jews, and subsequently being killed by Jews, that a true freedom from death can be earned. Much earlier, Yasser Arafat's own personally-appointed clergy, preaching on the Temple Mount (August 11, 2000), had reaffirmed a basic religious precept: "Palestinians spearhead Allah's war against the Jews. The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews...."

"The dead shall not rise until the Palestinians shall kill all the Jews." Think about this! Can there be any more potent understanding of the "Middle East Peace Process?"

The survival implications of this doctrinal fusion of religion and violence warrant further study in Washington, Jerusalem, and Tel-Aviv. Convinced that Shahada (“Death for Allah”) violence against the Israel will lead directly to martyrdom, the Islamist terrorist can never be effectively deterred by more ordinary threats of armed reprisal and retaliation. Never.

Such threats could even become an incentive to the commission of additional and greatly accelerated anti-Israel terrorism.

When falling outside the usual boundaries of “rationality,” Jihadist terrorism should compel Israeli planners to seek different and more purposeful measures of dissuasion. To keep Israel safe, the country’s leaders should begin to look more seriously beyond mainstream military and political solutions to terrorism. At a minimum, Israel should oppose any U.S. or U.N. supported plan to carve a fully-sovereign Palestinian state from its own still-living body.

For Israel, there is no "Two-State Solution." The Arab world recognizes only one state in this area, and the only true solution for Israel is a manifestly final one.

Such an insidious plan was hastened on 29 November 2012, in the UN General Assembly. On that day, the Palestinian Authority's formal status before the world body was upgraded to Nonmember Observer State, an upgrade that allows them to bring complaints against Israelis before the International Criminal Court (ICC), and that sets the path for full Arab sovereignty.

Although they will strenuously deny it, the Jihadists’ terror of death leads them to commit a particularly murderous form of “suicide.”  Because dying in the act of killing “infidels," “apostates," and "unbelievers" is expected to buy them freedom from the penalty of death,  these terrorists aim to conquer their own dreaded mortality by “killing themselves.” For them, it makes perfect sense.

Israel, for very many different reasons, still imagines for itself, a life everlasting. But unlike these sacrifice-centered Arab and Iranian enemies, Israel does not see itself as achieving immortality, either individually, or collectively, via the willful mass killing of  "others."  Here, the bold contrast with its regional Islamic enemies is revealing and also determinative.

Israel and its terrorist enemies maintain decidedly different orientations to "peace." This asymmetry puts the Jewish State at a disadvantage in any "peace process." While Israel’s Islamist enemies dutifully manifest their "positive" expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intended and doctrinal slaughter of “heathen,” Israel’s own leaders flatly reject their foes' faith-based and annihilatory decisional calculus.

Israel confronts a real and still-expanding mega-threat of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism.  Faced with opponents who are not only willing to die, but who might actively and ecstatically seek their own "deaths," Jerusalem should quickly understand the critical operational limits of ordinary warfare, national homeland defense, and strategic deterrence.

The current danger to Israel lies at two discrete, but nonetheless interrelated, levels. First, it exists at the level of the individual Jihadist enemy, who chooses “martyrdom” through a deliberate path of terrorism. Second, it exists at the level of certain states, which may ultimately decide to represent, in macrocosm, certain individual human “self-sacrificers."

Someday, quite plausibly, these states may choose collective "self-sacrifice" through initiation of chemical, biological, or nuclear war.  Such a conflict might not be fought for traditional military purposes, but instead for the "liquidation” of “infidels.” Any such choice would represent the unholiest of marriages between aggressive war and genocide, two clearly codified mega-crimes under international law. The defining Jihadist playbook in any such conflict would not be the classical military theories of Sun-Tzu or Clausewitz, but instead, the presumptively gratuitous and intrinsically gainful destructions of de Sade.

The root problem to be understood here is Jihadist death fear, and also the consequent compulsion to sacrifice certain despised "others." This compulsion, in turn, stems from the widespread and doctrinal belief that killing unbelievers, and being killed by unbelievers, is, unambiguously, the best path to immortality. Terrorist unwillingness to accept personal death leads them to killing others, in order to escape this death.

This is the utterly key point for further disciplined study. For Hamas, it makes perfect sense.

For many of Israel’s terrorist enemies, both individuals and states, killing Jews, not just Israelis, offers an optimal immunization against personal death. Understood in expressly psychological categories, the death fear of the enemy "ego" is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. Generically, this complex idea was already captured by Ernest Becker's vivid paraphrase of Elias Canetti: "Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good."

The Jihadist enemies of Israel commit to the killing of Jews, and other “infidels,” with an undisguised religious conviction, and with a limitless "purity" of heart. Perversely sanctified killers, to be sure, these relentless enemies will gleefully generate an incessant search for “profane” victims. Though mired in blood, this terrorizing search will probably remain tranquil and self-assured, born of the unchallengeable presumption that its determined perpetrators are neither infamous nor shameful, but sacrificial.

Palestinian terrorism is vastly more dangerous today, than it was during Israel's early years.
For good reason, the military wing of Fatah, allegedly the more secular and moderate exponent of  Palestinian terror, is called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. In the precise fashion of more explicitly sacrificial elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Fatah’s “Brigade” is oriented toward much more than “armed struggle.” It is dedicated to religious sacrifice, an all-consuming commitment that ultimately promises its followers not just military victory over “Zionist occupiers,” but also immunity from death.

Palestinian terrorism is vastly more dangerous today, than it was during Israel's early years. Yes, there were Fedayeen ("self-sacrificers") even then, but their dominant motives were more pointedly nationalistic, and, much less "Islamic."

For Israel, there is likely little point to deterring would-be Palestinian suicide bombers with systematic threats of lethal reprisal. Instead, to effectively dissuade this sort of suicide-bomber, Israel must somehow learn to confront the prospective murderers with a palpable anticipation of authentic suicide. Here, the Arab terrorist could calculate that his fervently sought-after explosion of Jewish bodies will bring not an ecstatic entry into paradise, but rather an irreversible slide into the eternal darkness, into oblivion, into death.

There are also some corollary notions for Israel to understand and exploit. These ideas have to do with the more carnal or lascivious side of Palestinian terrorism. Notwithstanding his smugly open identification with allegedly "higher" ideals and motivations, and with more usual political objectives, the young Palestinian male who seeks the celebrated martyrdom of a Shahid fighter is generally at a loss for identifying alternative ecstasies of "maleness." This means that his death as a martyr can be expected to bring not only freedom from personal death, but also the only still-remaining opportunities for sexual satisfaction.

What is Israel to do? For the Palestinian terrorist today, violence and the sacred remain thoroughly intertwined, and mutually-reinforcing.  Israel, therefore, must increasingly think in terms of desacrilizing this relentless adversary, and of convincing him that ritual murders of "Jews" will lead not to paradise and limitless pleasures, but to unbearable "terrors of the grave."

Can such a desacrilization ever be accomplished through ordinary politics and a still-delusionary "peace process?" To be persuasive, it would have to originate among the influential Islamic clerics themselves. But how could these venerable mentors of Islamic Holy Warriors ever be motivated to move in such an alien direction?

Should Israel continue to target Palestinian terrorist leaders, a strategy of selective killing that may preclude the need for wider wars? Although the benefits of getting rid of terrorist masterminds without mounting a full-scale war are temptingly meaningful and more-or-less self-evident, it is also true that the Palestinian terror threat now confronting Israel increasingly resembles the mythic Hydra. This was, we may recall, a monster of many heads, one which was impossible to kill because each time one head was successfully struck by Hercules, two new ones arose in its place.

For Israel, this is not merely a tactical problem. It is also a complex problem of law and morality.

What is the overall correct strategy for Israel? To begin, Israel's strategic and intelligence communities will need to identify new and promising ways of deterring non-rational (Jihadist) adversaries. Simultaneously, especially as Palestinian statehood is currently being validated by steadily-calculated increments of recognition in the U.N. General Assembly, these planners will need to avoid the potentially lethal fallacy of accepting a Palestinian state because it has ostensibly agreed to "demilitarization."

While Prime Minister Netanyahu has prominently inserted this condition of negotiating Palestinian statehood as tangible evidence of Israeli foresight and prudence, it can never have its intended effect. Jurisprudentially, the reason is clear and incontestable. Every state maintains an "inherent" and irreducible right of self-defense. This "peremptory" or (in formal law) jus cogens prerogative cannot be challenged or taken away,  even if the new state itself should explicitly agree to firm limitations on this right.

By ignoring core roots of Palestinian terrorism, peace programs will only detour the Jewish State with their contrived "Two-State Solution." Should Prime Minister Netanyahu yield to assorted pressures, and, following Operation Protective Edge, still agree to follow this determinably fatal cartography, he will have overlooked or at least underestimated the doctrinal origins of Israel's most recalcitrant enemies. Should he choose, instead, to reject the Road Map's twisting highways to nowhere, the Prime Minister will then have understood that Israel's current struggles with Palestinian terrorism are not about land, "settlements," or "self-determination."

They are about "God."

Louis René Beres, educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), publishes widely on world politics, terrorism, and international law. Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including The Management of World Power (1972); Transforming World Politics: The National Roots of World Peace (1974); Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979); Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980); Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (1986); and Israeli Security and Nuclear Weapons (Geneva, Switzerland, 1990). His most recent articles have appeared in such publications as The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs;  Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Jerusalem Post; US News & World Report; andThe Atlantic.