Yahya Sinwar in Gaza, October 28th 2019
Yahya Sinwar in Gaza, October 28th 2019Reuters

“The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the Sacrifice, of other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying….” Otto Rank, Will Therapy and Reality (1945)

A core question dawns: If Hamas leaders identify “martyrdom” with continuous violence against Israel, why do they keep themselves distant from tangible Palestinian terror? If they truly believe in religion-based promises of power over death, why do they prefer to live (sometimes in five-star hotels or private villas) outside the arena of “immortalizing” conflict? How should one correctly identify a Hamas leader’s call for “necessary sacrifices” when the human subjects of his harsh decree do not include himself?

It’s not a difficult question. Yahya Sinwar’s recent demand for Palestinian Arab sacrifices reveals a Hamas leadership that regards Palestinian Arab suffering as “necessary.” While Sinwar and assorted terrorist “faithful” cower in calculably safe places, the willful “sacrifice” of lesser Palestinian Arabs is taken without challenge as cumulatively gainful. In essence, Sinwar’s call represents a cry of incomparable cowardice. Moreover, because it is utterly primal, this shameless call can never be controlled by reason, law or diplomacy.

What then? Suitably informed explanations are finally in order.

Generally, perhaps even more than the usually overriding need to avoid personal death, individual human beings feel driven to belong. This more-or-less desperate need can be expressed harmlessly, as in sports hysteria or rock concerts, or perniciously, as in terror violence. In the refractory case of Palestinian Arab terrorism, pertinent motivations are not authentically political (e.g., sovereignty, “self-determination” or statehood), but are certain more deeply underlying inducements of personal death avoidance (“martyrdom”) and personal meaning.

For Hamas and other jihadists, meaning is inextricably linked to belonging. In ancient times, the philosopher Aristotle had already understood that "man is a social animal." Typically, the classical Greek thinker recognized, even a "normal" individual can feel empty and insignificant apart from recognizable membership in the “mass.” Today, that palpable mass is often the faith-based terror group.

Details aside, whatever the conspicuous urgings of a particular political moment, it is a craving for being (death avoidance) and belonging that threatens catastrophic downfalls of individual responsibility and correlative triumphs of collective criminality. In Gaza and other mass-directed jihadist parts of the Middle East, unless millions can finally learn how to temper human cravings of being and belonging, all efforts to control terror-violence (even if well-intentioned) will fail.

To fully understand what is actually at work in Gaza and elsewhere, science-based terrorism analysts must first learn to look behind the news. Ultimately, these "molecular" looks should comprehensively explain jihadist fusions of susceptible individuals into murderous terror gangs. In the jihadist Middle East, terrorism could not take place in the absence of such increasingly insidious collective identifications.

Earlier, variously relevant core concepts were understood and explained by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Whenever individuals crowd together and form a mass, both had clarified, the exterminatory dynamics of a mob could be released. More precisely, such perplexing dynamics can lower each single person's moral and intellectual level to a point where anything, even the anonymous mass killings of “sacred” terror-violence, could be encouraged.

As expressed so clearly by Hamas and related jihadist criminals (terrorism is always a codified crime under international law), religious faith has been placed in the service of insurgent violence. Publicly and conceptually, Hamas terror against Israel is justified by effectively unchallengeable evocations of “divine will.” Ironically, the net result of any such “perfidious” evocations (in law, the crime of human shields is known formally as “perfidy”), must be to drown out any residual hints of sacredness. Doctrinally, for Hamas and kindred criminals, once empathy and compassion are extended outside the terrorizing mass, they should go unrewarded or (in the unique case of “The Jews”) be actively punished.

Truth is always exculpatory. In the name of allegedly divine commandments, Hamas terror-criminality offers the wider world neither salvation nor holiness, but only am omnivorous "groupthink." Reciprocally, the dissembling rhythms of this annihilating ethos make it futile for Israel or the United States to advance even the sincerest efforts at coexistence.

This force-multiplying dilemma can never be solved by national political leaders or well-spoken pundits. In the final analysis, authentic solution will require the concentrated intellectual attention of uncommonly gifted thinkers. But such persons are rare and well-hidden, often even from themselves.

In the deepest sense, Hamas terror-violence is the result of cumulative individual failures to draw meaning “from within.” In Gaza and other Palestinian Arab areas, “redemption” requires “the faithful” to present tangible proof of willingness to sacrifice themselves, their families and their intended Jewish victims. Apropos of this three-part sacrifice, there are no conceivable limits to leadership prescribed harms. On October 7, 2023, Hamas crimes included the rape and sexual mutilation of males as well as females, infants as well as adults.

It’s time for a summation:

1.When it is correctly understood as a form of religious sacrifice, Hamas terrorism offers to confer the greatest imaginable form of power – the power of “martyrdom” or power over death.

2.At that stage of understanding, it is not just belief or belonging, but immortality that is being offered to prospective jihadist murderers.

3.In this connection, lest anyone forget, the death the Palestinian Arab sacrificer expects to endure is nothing more than a transient inconvenience on his or her path to life everlasting.

4.In essence, the Palestinian Arab “martyr” or shahid “kills himself” or herself in order not to die.

It’s time for Israel to more fully acknowledge the deeper causes of Palestinian Arab terror. For the most part, Hamas killers are not genuinely interested in statehood, but in pretended heroism, belonging and a faith-based assurance of immortality. Nonetheless, at least for the immediate future, Israel will need to continue with its organized military response to jihadist terror-crimes, especially while Hamas leaders remain determined to sacrifice manipulated Palestinian Arab populations along with targeted Israeli civilians. Any such determination would necessarily be based on a dual-level and mutually-reinforcing sacrifice, a sacrifice of the “faithful” Palestinian Arab and the “faith-defiling Jew.”

For Yahya Sinwar and his faithful, the true enemy of the “holy warrior” is not the Israeli. but “The Jew.”

For Sinwar et al., the true goal is not Palestinian sovereignty or self-determination, but an ecstatic opportunity to look over a field of accumulating corpses (both sacrificed Jews and sacrificing Arabs), smile lasciviously into the rising sun and declare life “sacred.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971). He is the author of many books and articles dealing with war, terrorism and counter-terrorism, including Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, 1979) and Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (The University of Chicago Press, 1980). His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016 (2nd ed. 2018). Professor Beres has examined WMD terrorism for fifty years, earlier, in consultation with the Nuclear Control Institute, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Defense Nuclear Agency (DoD) and the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center/U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. His articles have appeared in many schoarly publications. Chair of Project Daniel (Israel, PM Sharon, 2003-2004), Dr. Beres' work is known to American and Israeli intelligence communities. He was born in Zürich at the close of World War II.