January 14, 2004 - Colonel Yoel Strik, Commander of Israel's Northern Gaza Division, was on the phone talking to a TV correspondent from Israel's Channel 2. He was saying that the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel is a dangerous place. Every few months one can count on a major terrorist attack.
A loud blast terminated the interview.
Reem Salah Riashi reached the Erez checkpoint at about 9:30 in the morning. Telling the guard on the Palestinian side that she was sick, she went through without a problem. Then she made her way to the Israeli side, limping as she walked.
As she passed through the sophisticated metal detector, an alarm went off. She told the guard she had metal pins in her leg from a recent operation, and she lifted her dress just enough to reveal a bandage. The guard asked her to pass through the detector a second time, and again the alarm sounded.
Riashi became hysterical. Lying on the floor crying, she begged the guard to let her through. The other women on the line waiting to pass through the checkpoint also asked the guard to allow her. After consulting his superior the guard let Riashi pass. A female security guard came to conduct a physical examination. As she turned her back for just a moment to look for examination gloves, Riashi crossed into the terminal and set off her explosive belt.
The blast killed four Israelis and wounded nine others, including a Palestinian woman. The building was in ruins, with blood and parts of bodies covering the floor. Due to the major breach in security the industrial zone was shut down, sending home 4,000 Palestinian workers.
"Palestinian terrorists are not only committed to striking Israelis at every opportunity, they are also bent on destroying their own economy," said an official in the Prime Minister's office.
In her death Riashi found her place in history as the first female suicide bomber from Hamas. Can her death be explained as a heroic act of desperation from someone who had no other option in a fight against oppression?
The bitter irony is that had the Palestinians not resorted to terrorism, they would already have achieved a state. People in the West, projecting Western psychology and social values onto a situation where they do not apply, can often see no other explanation but desperation for such destructiveness. But we do not need to rely on projections of our own values. The bomber's own statements are very revealing.
Following the custom of suicide bombers, Riashi prepared a video to be released after her death. The tape shows Riashi with a rifle in her hand and a smile on her face, saying she had dreamed since she was 13 years old of becoming a martyr and dying for her people:
"It was always my wish to turn my body into deadly shrapnel against the Zionists and to knock on the doors of heaven with the skulls of Zionists."
"God gave me the ability to be a mother of two children who I love so, but my wish to meet God in paradise is greater, so I decided to be a martyr for the sake of my people. I am convinced God will help and take care of my children."
Riashi also expressed the hope that her "organs would be scattered in the air and her soul would reach paradise."
Riashi's three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter no longer have a mother. Some people saw Riashi's husband, who apparently had no awareness of what his wife was about to do, crying outside the family home.
What could possibly inspire such hatred, to the point not only of killing so many people but also of inflicting so much grief on her own family? Riashi's voice is not simply a voice of desperation. It contains too much zeal. This is the voice of a sacred calling. God hates Jews so much that he will reward her in heaven for killing them, even if her family remains bereft. The conviction that God wills this is so strong and so deep that it overcomes self-preservation and even concern for the welfare of one's children.
Riashi said she felt this way since she was 13 years old. She was 22 when she died. This means her murderous mission dates to 1995. In 1995 the Oslo process was showing signs of promise. It was the year of Oslo II, the "interim agreement," a detailed plan for the achievement of full Palestinian autonomy. In 1994 Palestinian self-rule had already been established in Gaza. Politically, things were changing for the better.
But what had not changed was the level of Palestinian anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement. Since its birth the Palestinian Authority has been sponsoring intense anti-Jewish hatred in its newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, and Friday sermons. A generation of Palestinians has been raised with the belief that Jews are the incarnation of evil and that killing them is pleasing to God. It would not matter what steps Israel might take for peace. Jews are the devil, God hates them, so if you love God, then kill the Jews.
What one learns as a child stays for life. It is always a part of the self, even if one tries with all one's might to rid it from one's system. Success is possible, but not without a deep commitment to ruthless self-examination, and even then scars will still remain. Tragically this commitment is conspicuously absent in Arab society. A whole generation has been poisoned, and may now be incapable of making peace. Progress in the peace process made no difference to Riashi, and will likely make little difference to the many who will follow her in the belief that killing Jews is the surest way to heaven.
This is not a war against occupation, as desirable as it would be for Israel's presence in the territories to come to a peaceful conclusion. This is not a war against settlements. The pervasive rhetoric of hatred proves this war is for something much deeper. It is a war against Israel, and it is a war against the Jews.
The Palestinians have in fact done everything possible to prevent a peaceful solution to the conflict. They escalate terrorism especially before Israeli elections, ensuring the defeat of candidates like Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, and Amram Mitzna, who would have been most likely to offer them concessions. They refused even to discuss a very reasonable offer for peace and a state of their own, responding instead with violence that has escalated into a war. And they are prosecuting this war not just to evict Israel from the territories but to destroy the entire country. Their campaign of murder has demolished Israel's tourist industry. It has demoralized Israeli society. It has left Israel without any options: whether Israel negotiates, retaliates, or does nothing, its citizens are killed.
The Palestinians are sending ominous signals. The Palestinian Authority has refused to condemn this suicide bombing, thus encouraging more of the same. Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin proclaimed holy war to be an obligation for women as well as for men. This holy war has shown itself to consist of indiscriminate killing, the more noncombatants the better. It is a complete and intentional violation of principles that are basic to Western morality. It is a radical assertion that the other side has a better, more powerful set of values, and is determined to eradicate what it perceives to be any conceivable trace of Western influence in the heart of the Muslim world. No wonder the Palestinians have done everything they could to make sure there will never be two peacefully coexisting states, one Arab and one Jewish, anywhere in the Middle East.
Many victims of this war against the Jews are Palestinian. The Palestinians who were prevented from getting to their jobs because of this bombing are victims. So are the families of the suicide bombers, especially the families who would never have agreed to such a thing, who wonder why it is they and not their leaders who must sacrifice their children. Not all Palestinians have been overcome by this insanity. Reem Al-Dahdou, 30, one of Riashi's neighbors and the mother of five, expressed her own outrage at Riashi's act: "What she did was wrong, wrong, wrong. Anyone who sacrifices her son can also sacrifice herself. But as a woman, I can do what she did to help our people without killing myself. I can raise them and teach them to love their country instead of blowing myself up." But another mourner, Abu Marwan, 39, disagreed, saying he would not object if his own wife did the same as Riashi.
If we speak of "insanity" at all, it must be clear that we are not making a psychological diagnosis. This "insanity" is not mental illness but an unquestioning enslavement to intense passion. It is a social pathology that goes beyond conventional psychology. It goes to the power of an evil idea that can infect an entire society and lead it to self-destruction by making its hatred something noble. It is totally beyond the reach of reason, which those who would negotiate with it need to understand. No viable nation can be built on a foundation of such corrosive irrationality. A society based on the glorification of hatred and death becomes a black hole that expands in power as it destroys its surroundings. If Israel is devoured the pathology will not suddenly stop. It will find other targets through which it can perpetuate itself.
The failure to understand this has resulted in many abortive attempts to find peace. The glorification of death cannot be appeased. It cannot be reasoned with. It cannot even be negotiated with. Negotiating with the glorification of hatred and death will result only in the peace of Khudaibiya, a peace intended to be broken. The Arabs themselves have said this many times, but we refuse to listen.
The way to fight the glorification of hatred and death is not to try to pacify it, therapeutize it, or negotiate with it. The way to fight it is to expose it.
The glorification of hatred and death must be identified as the real enemy. It is being nurtured in Palestinian society as in no other. Israel is paying a price for not having insisted the Palestinians live up to their Oslo and Roadmap obligations and end the incitement. Now it is out of control.
This deep hatred is the biggest obstacle to peace. It will resist any possible peace agreement on any terms. Therefore even those nations sympathetic to the Palestinians must insist that this hatred be rooted out of their society. As long as this hatred is supported and encouraged, there will never be peace. If it can be identified and exposed, then this exposure will deprive it of the popular sympathy on which it thrives. It may even - over the course of time - prepare the way for genuine negotiation.
Of course Israel has made its share of mistakes, and its policies are not without fault. But Israel's bad moves do not reach the heart of the problem. Even if Israel were to make every possible concession, dismantle every settlement and remove every soldier from the territories tomorrow, the problem would not go away, because Israel would still exist. The Jews would be no less the carriers of evil according to Palestinian mythology, and the sacred task of chasing them from the land would continue and probably accelerate (using the "Right of Return" as its most prominent excuse). The war against Israel began way before Israel's presence in the territories, and will continue until both sides finally destroy each other, unless the irrational hatred that fuels Arab rejectionism is exposed and disowned by the world.
This is why the infamous checkpoints, so condemned by the Palestinians' supporters, are not the problem. The Riashi incident proves these checkpoints are needed. Without them she might have inflicted far greater damage on an Israeli population center. As Col. Yoav Mordechai, head of the District Coordinating Office at the Erez crossing, stated: "The soldiers, with their bodies, prevented a female suicide bomber from blowing up in the center of the country. They were the first filter." He also said that "It is our moral obligation to differentiate between the civilian population and the terrorists" - a most basic value that the Palestinian terrorists violate intentionally, as a key part of their strategy.
The first great war against the Jews was a catastrophe for the entire world. So will this one be, if not seen for what it is.
Update, January 19, 2004: New details have emerged since this was written. It now appears that Riashi's husband, himself a Hamas activist, was complicit in the act, helping her prepare for it and driving her to the site. The motive: Riashi dishonored her family by having an extramarital affair. According to strict Islamic tradition, the punishment would have to be death. Since her life already was lost, she became convinced that by dying in the glory of suicide-murder she could atone for the deep shame she had brought to her family.
That Riashi was the mother of two toddlers did not matter at all. "She had the choice of being murdered or turning herself into a suicide bomber, so she chose the latter," said terrorism expert and retired colonel Moshe Elad on Israeli state radio.
In the past Hamas had been reluctant to use women as suicide bombers, but it is changing its policy. Some Hamas leaders now approve of using women, especially when a woman's "sacrifice" can "atone for the stain" she has brought upon her family through sexual immorality.
Can we imagine that a society that so demeans the lives of its own women will respect the lives of non-Muslims? Can we imagine that the values of Western morality, which we so often take for granted, could even make sense in such an environment?
And what is the end of a culture that values hatred of the other more than self-preservation, and that condones mass murder as atonement for adultery?
Dan, Uri. "Terror Was Her Penance." New York Post, January 19, 2004.
Dudkevitch, Margot. "Suicide Attack at Erez Crossing Kills Four." Jerusalem Post, January 14, 2004.
Fox News Staff. "Homicide Bomber-Mom Kills Four at Gaza Border." Fox News, January 14, 2004.
Harel, Amos. "Four Killed as Hamas Woman Blows Herself Up at Erez Checkpoint." Haaretz, January 14, 2004.
Harel, Amos. "Hamas: Women Who Shame Family Can Be Bombers." Haaretz, January 19, 2004.
Jaber, Hala and Uzi Mahnaimi. "Husband Took Wife to Suicide Bombing," Times of London, January 18, 2004.
Myre, Greg. "Suicide Bombing at Gaza Crossing Kills at Least 4 Israelis." New York Times, January 14, 2004.
Regular, Arnon. "Hamas Leader: Jihad is an Imperative for Women Too." Haaretz, January 14, 2004.
Peace with Realism