SUICIDE BOMBERS CHANGE MIDEAST'S MILITARY BALANCE
By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 18, 2002; Page A01
JERUSALEM, Aug. 17 -- In the last year, the suicide bomber has become the most potent military weapon in the Palestinian uprising against Israel, creating a new battlefield that has left one of the world's best trained and equipped armies struggling to adequately defend its people.
Deaths in Israel from suicide bombings have more than doubled in the past year. The surge has occurred despite aggressive Israeli operations that have immobilized everyday life for most of the 2 million Palestinians in the West Bank, fenced in another 1.2 million in the Gaza Strip, killed hundreds of people accused of anti-Israeli attacks -- along with a number of bystanders -- and detained thousands more.
The suicide bomber has become the Palestinian version of a smart weapon, Israeli military officers said. Moreover, it is cheap, unpredictable and abundant. It is relatively easy to hide, transport and store, and therefore difficult to detect and defend against despite the Israeli military's high-tech prowess and long experience.
"We don't have F-16s, Apache helicopters and missiles," said Abdelaziz Rantisi, a spokesman for the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, which has claimed responsibility for more suicide bombings against Israelis than any other Palestinian group. "They are attacking us with weapons against which we can't defend ourselves. And now we have a weapon they can't defend themselves against. . . . We believe this weapon creates a kind of balance, because this weapon is like an F-16."
Unlike any other weapon in the Palestinian's low-tech arsenal -- assault rifles, hand grenades, mortars and a few homemade rockets -- the suicide bomber has an extended reach, enabling Palestinian terrorists to strike deep into the heart of Israel. This has been a major frustration for Israeli military leaders, who have a tradition of taking the battle to enemy territory.
"You have a combatant with [20 to 30 pounds] of TNT. Add a human brain and you get a 'smart bomb,' " said Lt. Col. Olivier Rafowicz, an Israeli military spokesman. "It's a new kind of battlefield."
Since January, 198 people have been killed in suicide attacks in Israel, more than twice the 84 deaths recorded in suicide bombings during all of 2001. In the last 12 months, suicide bombings accounted for about 40 percent of all deaths from attacks by Palestinians, according to databases maintained by the Israeli government, think tanks and human rights groups.
As measured by the casualty count, the suicide bombings, as Rantisi suggested, have tended to level the battlefield despite Israel's overwhelming military advantage in conventional terms.
In the six years of the first intifada, as Palestinians refer to their 1987-93 uprising against Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, 1,162 Palestinians died, compared to 174 Israelis. That is about 6.7 Palestinians to every Israeli death. And in the first six months of this uprising, which began in September 2000, the ratio was roughly the same: 5.1 Palestinians died to every Israeli.
But after suicide bombers began regular attacks in March 2001, the statistics swung dramatically. In the last six months, 298 Palestinians and 177 Israelis have died, a ratio of 1.7 Palestinian deaths to every Israeli death.
In the past 23 months of clashes, 1,400 to 1,705 Palestinians and between 563 and 610 Israelis have been killed, according to tallies from human rights organizations, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and the Israeli government. Although the counts vary, they all indicate that bombings and other Palestinian attacks against civilians -- and Israeli efforts to combat them -- have fueled the worst cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the Israeli state was born in 1948.
'A New War'
The Israeli military arsenal includes 3,800 tanks and nearly 2,000 combat aircraft. Many of the warplanes and helicopter gunships have been used in attacks on Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Armored personnel carriers and troops stand guard at intersections all around the occupied territory, and Israel's lumbering Merkava tanks frequently crash into Palestinian towns.
But all that firepower -- so redoubtable against Arab armies in past wars -- has been largely ineffective against the suicide bombers, who sometimes disguise themselves as Orthodox Jews or Israeli soldiers and slip onto commuter buses, saunter through pedestrian malls or walk into restaurants and cafes.
"The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] has become . . . tanks chasing after terrorists," said Martin Van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University and frequent critic of the Israeli armed forces.
"This is a new war," said Rafowicz, the Israeli military spokesman. "The battlefield is not open hills. It's cities and villages. The dilemmas are terrible from the top level to the platoon level. And we're not going to face it with a standing army's static warfare."
The Israeli military has tried to adapt, searching for innovative methods to combat a threat that has terrorized a nation.
The military began last year by intensifying its controls of traffic from Gaza and the West Bank into Israel, and between Palestinian towns and villages within the occupied territories. When the suicide bombings increased in number and intensity last March, tanks and bulldozers, backed by air power, smashed into major Palestinian cities on the West Bank, destroying offices of the Palestinian Authority as well as neighborhoods believed to harbor militants and shops suspected of producing explosives and other weapons. The Israeli government also withheld more than $600 million in tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority.
The suicide bombings continued nevertheless. Two months ago, Israeli tanks and troops returned in force, reoccupying seven of the eight major Palestinian cities on the West Bank and imposing stringent curfews, paralyzing life for most Palestinians, cutting them off from their jobs and strangling the economy.
The Israeli government also has begun construction of a fence designed to enclose the West Bank, similar to the containment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and is conducting targeted killings of Palestinians accused of organizing or carrying out attacks on Israelis.
The Israeli military crackdown has not been without success. Military officials said about 200 men and women on their way to carrying out suicide bombings have been captured in the past year. Even so, since the reoccupation two months ago, 15 people have been killed in three suicide bombings in Israel.
"If you foil 90 percent of the attacks, you still have 10 percent left," said Ami Pedahzur of the University of Haifa's National Security Studies Center. "The chance for that odd suicide terrorist to succeed is high."
In recent weeks, the Israeli military has shifted tactics again, now trying to attack the aura that has helped induce Palestinians to become suicide bombers. Using bulldozers and helicopter-fired missiles, troops are destroying the houses that belong to families of accused militants. Two dozen homes have been demolished so far.
The Israeli government has ordered some relatives banished from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip, an edict the families are fighting in the courts. The government also has threatened to strip the citizenship of Israeli Arabs accused of ties to terrorist attacks and is trying to cut off the flow of money from the Iraqi government and Saudi Arabian organizations to the families of suicide bombers.
"What we're doing with the families adds a new dimension" to the fight, said a senior Israeli military official. "We're in a battle over the consciousness of the would-be suicide bomber."
The Israeli military, officials said, is engaged in a war of attrition, hoping to turn Palestinian public opinion against the bombings by maintaining military pressure on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Ultimately, they say, the goal is to turn opinion against Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader whom they blame for the violence.
"We want to make it more costly for the leadership itself to continue these attacks," said the senior military official. "This war can last several years if they don't take steps to bring it to an end."
Although suicide bombers as military weapons are hardly new, their role, profile and techniques in the Palestinian uprising have evolved as the struggle continues, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials and analysts.
The bombers of recent months no longer fit the fairly predictable profile of even a year ago, in which the vast majority were between 17 and 22 years old, single, male and driven by radical Islamic views. At that time, most were recruited by militant leaders, then kept in isolation for several weeks of mental and technical preparation.
Now, suicide bombers come from a wider cross section of Palestinian society, motivated more by nationalist than religious causes, and they tend to blend in with Israel's large Arab population. Some are older men. A few have been married. Three have been women.
"The profile is different. The motivation is different. This phenomenon is a new overall approach," said Yoni Fighel, a retired colonel who is a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Hertzliyya.
Today, militant groups are receiving more volunteers than they have equipment and missions to outfit, Palestinians say. Even Israeli officials acknowledge that Israeli and Palestinian policies have combined to make suicide bombing a growth industry.
"In the beginning, every one was handmade," a senior Israeli military official said. "Today it's a production line."
Salah Shehada, a founder of the military wing of Hamas, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, described his group's suicide missions in a rare interview posted on an Islamic Web site one month before he was killed on July 23. The Israeli military dropped a one-ton bomb on a house in Gaza City where he was visiting his wife and daughter, killing them and 13 other people.
"We cannot provide everyone with a martyrdom [suicide] operation because the targets are limited and the enemy positions we want to reach are highly fortified," he said in the interview.
Some of that increased interest was spurred by competition among Palestinian organizations, which found that suicide bombings brought them prestige and popularity among the people.
The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which identifies itself as the military wing of Arafat's Fatah movement, was formed specifically to counter the growing popular support of Hamas and its suicide operations, analysts said. In the last year, al-Aqsa has established the largest number of militant cells in the West Bank and has claimed credit for more than twice as many bombings as Hamas, according to Israeli military officials and analysts.
"Al-Aqsa went into this thing because of competition," said Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian psychiatrist and leading civil rights activist in Gaza City. "They were thrown into the competition of suicide bombing in Israel because they want the support of the public and they felt the public support swinging towards Hamas, so they had to do the same thing."
But Hamas in particular has improved its operations over the past year, according to Israeli military analysts. Its missions usually are planned and executed by small groups of individuals, each with his own expertise: the leader, whose job is to keep the group mentally prepared; an explosives expert who designs the bombs; and a transportation expert, whose job has become crucial with the roadblocks, curfews and closures imposed by Israeli troops.
With assistance from the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement called Hezbollah, Hamas produces the most lethal bombs, the senior Israeli military official said, explaining: "They know how to make them more concentrated, what kind of screw to use, how to pack more explosives into less space."
For the deadliest suicide attack yet, the March 27 bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya that killed 29 people attending a Passover Seder, Hamas called in a Hezbollah expert for advice in building an extra-potent bomb, according to Israeli military authorities. Military officials say the same type of bomb was used in the Aug. 4 suicide bombing of a passenger bus north of Haifa that turned the bus into a twisted black metal carcass, killing nine people.
While the bombs produced by al-Aqsa and a third group, Islamic Jihad, are "a little less lethal," the senior military official said, Hamas has been sharing its expertise with other organizations. The groups also have begun using more stable materials, which have resulted in fewer accidental and premature explosions, he said.
"We have surveillance groups whose role is to monitor Israeli and settler patrols and the movement of the enemy on the border," the late Hamas leader Shehada said in his interview, describing Hamas techniques. "We utilize every breach we find in the enemy's security fence. Afterward, we define the target and the nature of the assault on it, whether it is a settlement, a military post, a military vehicle or anything else.
"The target is filmed," he continued. "And then [the video] is shown to a committee appointed by the general staff of military operations."
After the target is approved, Shehada said, the training of the suicide bomber begins. "Then the operation is ready to go, after a group of experts approves the plan and determines the factors for its success or failure," he said.
An operation can cost from $3,500 to $50,000, Shehada said. Even so, experts acknowledge, compared with trying to break Israel's tough arms embargo and importing M-16 rifles at $5,000 apiece or AK-47s at $2,000 each, the suicide bomber is a cheap weapon.
"Palestinians know they don't have a war chest to respond to Israeli aggression, and they found only their bodies to protect them," said Ahmed Helles, Fatah general secretary in the Gaza Strip. "The phenomenon of the bombers is the phenomenon of the poor man."
Despite Israel's efforts to strip the prestige from suicide bombing, some Palestinians say the bombers enjoy status as people "sacrificing courageously for all of us and putting their faith in God," said Sarraj, the Gaza psychiatrist.
"People are looking for heroes," Sarraj added. "And suicide bombers give that image of a hero when all the heroes, including Yasser Arafat, have been destroyed."