Effectiveness of Palestinian Terrorism Tactics in Promoting National Identity

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 13
Words: 3573
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Study level: PhD


The issue of terrorism seized the global attention in the year 2001 when terrorist brought down the World Trade Centre in the city of New York. The two towers represented the U.S. enormous economic and military power. The attacks were well planned, synchronized and effected. The attack itself achieved an emblematic stature as an offense against the world superpower (Gordon, 2007, p. 53). However, the subject of terrorism was already known to the rest of the world even before the attack (Hoffman, 1998, p. 5; Rubenstein, 1987, p. 7).

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The current studies on terrorism have often stumbled between the ideological extremes that are instinctive in the blurred concepts of terror. According to these studies, terrorism is either conceptualized broadly or narrowly to be analytically valuable or intricately to be used systematically. The conceptualizations are usually driven by political motives. This is due to the fact that the researchers normally try to rationalize different application of violence. In addition, the word terrorist is always wrongly used to refer to political opponents or adversaries, especially in communist states (Laqueur, 1999, p. 22; US Institute of Peace, 2002, p. 5; Marshall, 2002, p. 5).

Hoffman (1998, p. 6) defines terrorism as a deliberate use of fear through aggression or intimidation to pursue a political objective. He tries to distinguish terrorism from scandalous and outrageous violence by emphasizing on the humane and logical motivation of terrorism. Nonetheless, all the acts of terrorism seemed to be criminal acts that are carried out by means of unorthodox application of violence or coercion (US Institute of Peace, 2002, p. 3).

There are two major types of terrorism. These are domestic terrorism and global terrorism. The essay will center on the Palestinian terrorist tactics and how they have been used to promote national identity. The essay will explore the relationship between terrorism and identity, Palestinian terrorism tactics and how effective they are. This will be achieved through the exploration of different theories and concepts and key arguments between theorists and different theoretical positions.

Terrorism and identity

A wide range of literatures has suggested that different levels of identity inspire acts of terrorism (Moghaddam, 2005, p. 161; Meloy, 2004, p. 138; Schwartz, 2005, p. 293). Identity denotes a multifarious conceptual construct which entails elements derived from three echelons namely: cultural identity, societal identity and individual identity. Cultural identity corresponds to certain customary values individuals inculcate tduring lifetime as code of conduct. These values are internalized perceptions originating from numerous causes, for instance, participating in national, tribal and religious matters, as well as exposure to different types of media (Moghaddam, 2005, p. 162; Schwartz, 2005, p. 294).

Societal identity denotes factional affiliation and the feeling associated with involvement in the groups operations. In addition, this level of identity reflects the principles and beliefs associated with the opposing factions. Even though cultural identity’s values are conceptual and may possibly be fuzzy, the commitment to these factions is more likely to be deep and precise. Last but not least, personal identity represents individual aspirations, values and viewpoints with respect to one’s surroundings and/or the world at large (Meloy, 2004, p. 139; Schwartz, 2005, p. 295).

Cultural identity theory

One of the principal preconditions for terrorism is collectivism, giving more preference to a faction over individuality. Apparently, individuals who value themselves more than the society or culture are highly unlikely to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Therefore, it is not by accident that most of the suicide bombers are strongly collectivists or originate from countries that promote the ideology of collectivism (Post, 2005, p. 616).

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Societies that are dominated by collectivism social identity outweigh individual identity. As a result, those who belong to these societies would always strive to defend societal goals rather than individual goals. However, terrorism is an extreme application of collectivism. Schwartz, (2005, p. 295) describes terrorism as a Marxist way of thinking, where the interests of individuals committing acts of terror are fused with those of the factions they represent.

For the above reasons, terrorism distinguishes two categories of people: those who are advancing terrorist ideology and those whom the acts of terror are directed. This perceived dichotomy may be based on a number of criteria, for example, religion, ethnicity, racism and culture among others. The dichotomy goes beyond the sheer expressive distinction to include thorough analytical elements as well. In this case, the group’s principles are seen as ethical, correct, superior and stronger. On the contrary, the ideology of the opposing group is viewed as unethical, incorrect, inferior and weak. Therefore, the high level of cognitive dichotomization increases the level of narrow-mindedness in the society (Post, 2005, p. 617).

One of the most powerful cultural contributors of cognitive dichotomization is religious fundamentalism (Korostelina, 2008, p. 26). Religious fundamentalism divides the world into believers and non-believers. Such viewpoints offer an intellectual basis for attempts to change, subdue or get rid of nonbelievers. Religious dichotomization provides an excuse for attacking rival groups. In the present day, religious dichotomization is mainly witnessed in the Arab world, even though such conflicts are also witnessed among other religions (Post, 2005, p. 618).

Cognitive dichotomy is also evident in tribal-based violence. Tribal-based violence are similar to religious-based violence in that the differences between factions are based on conflicting cultural viewpoints. Examples of ethnic-based conflicts include Tamil versus Singhalese, Kikuyu versus Luo, and English versus Irish among others (Post, 2005, p. 618). Similar to religion, aspects of culture that are linked to a particular ethnic group offers a scheme of values which dictates intra-factional and inter-factional relations. Some cultural values promote tolerance and are against acts of terror. However, when these values are strongly based on collectivist principles, dichotomous way of thinking, desperation and lack of reverence for others, the prerequisite for terrorism may present (Schwartz, 2005, p. 296).

Cultural identity can also facilitate terrorism through family ties. In this case, the system of fidelity runs in an opposite direction, starting from the top level to the family unit. Such arrangements are aimed at ensuring that people defend family honor and retaliate for any atrocity committed against the family (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p.9). Intra-cultural violence is interpreted as normative, whereas those directed against the outsiders meet the conditions for terrorism. Even though cultural identity represents collectivist values, religious fundamentalism, divisive way of thinking and focus on family obligations is a recipe for terrorism (Woolf & Hulsizer, 2005, p.103).

Social identity theory

Social identity theory holds some significant inferences for the study of terrorism (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 7; Ashford & Mael, 1989, p. 20). The facets of social identity, for instance, identifying with a particular faction or hostility towards rival factions are learned through a series of interpersonal relations. The social identity facets are indoctrinated through school programs and religious discourses/activities among others. In addition, factional rivalry may occupy central place in the mass media (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p.8). Even though the distinction between two rival factions is a function of cultural identity, it is at the level of social identity where it can affect the lives of people in the society. This is because interaction between members from both sides of the divide is restricted (Ashford & Mael, 1989, p. 21).

Social identity theory holds that a faction may feel threatened when a rival invades its physical or psychological boundary. As a matter of fact, terrorism thrives in factions and societies that draw sharp difference between them and where associates are dehumanized. Dehumanization is normally realized when the values of the rival factions are contrasted sharply or deemed to be mediocre. As a result, such factions push their members to channel their frustrations and resentment on their rivals.

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For instance, a number of repressive Middle Eastern regimes have always used Western powers as an excuse for their people’s suffering to depress general upheaval. Even in countries which are allied with the Western powers, there are undercurrents that provoke hostility towards the West (Woolf & Hulsizer, 2005, p. 104; Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 9).

Threats are the core aspect in comprehending the relationship between different factions. The threats are not necessarily physical threats. As a matter of fact, cultural threats tend to be more significant than physical threat (Esler & Strindberg, 2001, p. 4). Therefore, the most important aspect here is the nature of the threat and how it is understood and inferred. This is the reason why it is imperative to appreciate the actual or probable view point of terrorists and to study their responses in a given situation (Arena & Arrigo, 2005, p. 486).

The conflict between Palestine and Israel includes numerous types of threats such as political threats, physical threats and ideological threats (Arena & Arrigo, 2005, p. 486). However, in the conflict between the Muslim world and the West the threats are principally ideological and based on identity. For instance, the militant factions view globalization as a threat to their culture. Images of poorly dressed women, explicit music, and deliberate disregard for centers of power are common in the West. However, they are highly prohibited in the Muslim world. For the above reasons, many fundamentalist groups have risen in the pretense of protecting Islam and ethically obliged to get rid of Western influence (Esler & Strindberg, 2001, p. 6).

Individual identity theory

Individual identity denotes a person’s self-description, especially with regard to those objectives, values and principles that they approve of due to religion, political affiliation, responsibilities, tribal affiliation and individual interests (Moghaddam, 2005, p. 163). There are numerous conceptual and experiential studies on the development of an individual sense of identity. The identity hierarchy model introduced in the mid 60s views identity development in two dimensions. The two dimensions are commitment and exploration. The model posits two probable outcomes that are pertinent to the realization of terrorist identity. These are totalitarian foreclosure and meaningless diffusion (Marcia, 1966, p. 552).

Foreclosure implies being loyal without giving considerations to other alternatives, while diffusion entail noncommittal and engagement in modest or non logical exploration. Persons categorized under foreclosure are generally less mature religiously and therefore are highly likely to construe their beliefs plainly than characteristically. These individuals view autocrats and fundamentalists as a threat due to their narrow-mindedness and destructive principles. On the other hand, purposelessly diffused individuals are more susceptible to the traps of terrorism ideology.

Palestinian Militant tactics

Terrorism is an age old phenomenon in Israel. This has been perpetrated by Palestinian terror groups who seek to drive out people they consider to have invaded their ancestral land. Quite a range of tactic has been used before but was confined to hostage taking, use of car bombs and other forms of violence that could achieve the desired outcome. The rise of suicide bombing as the main form of terrorism against Israel has made provision of security by Israeli forces a difficult task (Israel, 2002, p. 23).

From the beginning of the new millennium till 2003, at least 293 Israelis were killed. In addition, 1950 were wounded by the suicide bombers in at least 63 attacks (Pape, 2005, P. 3). This shows that suicide bombing has been the most effective terror tactic. The success is attributed to its ability to access difficult targets. Suicide bombing is also affordable since it simply involves taking one’s life in the process (Pape, 2005, P. 4). Palestinian terror groups also prefer the tactic because they are weaker to the Israeli military in terms of resources and weapons. Therefore, use of civilian weapon enables them to achieve high levels of psychological and physical damage to rival factions whom in reality they cannot harm in conventional war (Ganor, 2000, p. 2)

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Suicide bombers have been praised by Palestinians who view them as liberators and true defenders of a just cause. On the other hand, the Israelis view them as heartless murderers (Moghadam, 2003, p. 66). The terror groups have also taken advantage of the society that has been made to belive that suicide bombing is the only means for redemption. It also comes with a promise of wholesome pleasures in the afterlife (Berko, 2002, p. 5).

Hamas Ideological Tactics

At the onset of the uprising, Hamas started by calling for mass demonstrations, strikes and refusing to purchase a number of Israeli products. They even called for prayers for those who lost their lives during the uprising. Hamas provided a helping hand to the martyred families. As a result, this gradually promoted the life of martyrdom and to a greater extent suicide bombing (Moghadam, 2003, p. 69). Use of suicides bombings by Hamas is not because of religious reasons but because of the fact that it resonates well with the Palestinians in times of desperation. It also has strategic and economic gains to the Hamas. The political motivation behind the practice of suicide bombings by Hamas can be traced back to 1972 (Shiqaqi, 2002, p.12).

Hamas uses suicide bombing to legitimize the view that Israel is oppressive and hell bent on stifling expression of Palestinians as a people. Israel’s response in many occasions has gone to affirm this belief (Bloom, 2004, p. 45). Personal motivations to becoming suicide bomber varies. Palestinians normally join the unending list of suicide bombers due to a number of reasons: first, ideological reasons; second, desire to avenge the death of dear ones; and to elevate their social status. In some cases, individuals who are swayed to become suicide bombers are those experiencing unending hardships in life or those with family feuds. They convince themselves that it is the only way to end their difficulties (Bloom, 2005, p. 46).

Execution of suicide bombing

The process begins when a motivated individual contacts organizations that are involved in suicide bombing. After the recruitment process, the candidate is isolated and withdrawn from the loved ones and relatives. This is to ensure that the contact remains unknown. The isolation is meant to ensure that the recruit easily succumb to organization’s pressure to follow through with the mission (El Sarraj, 2002, p. 72).

Preparation for suicide mission is rigorous and takes several weeks. However, it may also take a very a short time. The candidates are reminded on a regular basis the reasons for their recruitment. Representatives of the organization ensure that they reach a point of no return. On mission day, a recruit is picked up and taken to a hideout where he is videotaped reciting farewell. This is then delivered to the family (El Sarraj, 2002, p. 72).

The candidate is then given the necessary equipments for the suicide mission. In some instances, the explosive belts are placed on the body of the candidate and then escorted to the designated site. This is undertaken by a member of the organization familiar with the area. The candidate focuses solely on the mission and avoids distractions to ensure that the mission pulls through without hitches. The candidates who faile in their mission or caught are always deeply disappointed. Some may become disillusioned or depressed. They regret the missed opportunity of carrying out their mission and the rewards that come in the afterlife (El Sarraj, 2002, p. 73).

Effectiveness of the terrorist tactics in promoting national identity

The controversial discussion regarding the sociopolitical and cultural setting that produces terrorist candidates, the role of religion and culture and the readiness of the candidates to die have dominated major security conferences (Sageman, 2008, p. 4). The principle tactic used by the Palestinian terrorist against Israel is suicide bombing. As an exceptional and an excessive form of terrorism, suicide bombing has aroused fascination among the general public, especially in Palestine where it is being executed for a political, ideological and religious cause (Berko & Erez, 2005, p. 603).

According to the Islamic religion, Muslims who take part in jihad or holy war will be greatly rewarded in heaven for sacrificing their own life and for defending the religion. In other words, death in the service of God is regarded as holy rather than in the depths of despair (Berko, 2002, p. 12; Strenski, 2003, p. 4). Even though there is still a heated debate on whether Islam condone Jihad, in Palestine both secular and religious insurgents bring into play Islamic passages and symbols to inspire individuals and to defend their terrorist attacks (Israel, 2002, p. 24).

The Palestine terrorists go through a social process that entails socialization and is based on certain tenets and patterns of behavior. The prospect of joining a class of suicide bombers is also socially determined. Studies have shown that there are three principal requirements in order to qualify as a suicide bomber namely: aggrevation, access to terrorist organizations and originating from a society that exalts suicide bombers as idols and believes that suicide bombing is a gracious fway of fighting opponents (Merari, 2004, p. 16).

The most recent studies of the contemporary terrorists from the Muslim world have established that most suicide bombers are of the right mind, live in a good environment and a number of them are well educated (Strenski, 2003, p. 20). Hafez (2006, p. 166) explains why Palestine as a whole embrace suicide violence. At a personal level, Palestine militants make use of religious books, rituals and communal ceremonies to portray acts of terrorism as opportunities for unequaled valor, devotion to Islam, and personal deliverance.

According to Merari (2004, p. 18), Palestinian insurgents have always used “martyrdom operations” to wage war against Israel. Initially, most Palestinians did not support suicide bombing. However, since the eruption of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, the vast majority of Palestinians started to support “martyrdom operations”. Suicide bombing gained the highest support in 2003 from the Palestinians when nearly 80 percent of the citizens approved its use. Up till now, suicide bombing enjoys majority support as a means of reprisal.

Palestinian factions, both secular and religious, argue that suicide bombing is the most effective means of attack compared to other strategic alternatives. Their leaders have always emphasized that they stood little chance of success if they took Israeli forces head on. They add that Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are well equipped and better trained and can withstand material losses given the amount of resources at their disposal. On the other hand, Palestinian militants lack state of the art military equipments and have lost so many lives while trying to engage Israeli military (Hafez, 2006, p. 174).

For the above reasons, Palestine factions have resorted to use of civilian weapons to terrorize Israelis, abate their economy and get rid of them from the supposed grabbed territories, for instance, Gaza strip (Hafez, 2006, p. 174). Azet Al-Rushuq, an affiliate of the Hamas militant faction, during an interview with Al-Jazeera stressed that suicide bombing is the only weapon they could use to succeed over Israelis. Al-Rushuq adds that Palestinian militants have transformed the once so weak and feeble weapon into a strong weapon that can match the Zionist enemy. Therefore, suicide bombers have enhanced the capacity of the Palestine militants in responding, deterring and inflicting harm on Israel (Hafez, 2006, p. 175).

Al-Rushuq’s statements were seconded by Muhammad Nazza, a member of the Hamas Political Bureau (HPB) during a similar interview with the same media channel. Nazzal argued that during face to face military contest Israel would only lose one soldier at the expense of twelve Palestinians.

On the contrary, the battle between Israel and Palestine in the late 40s saw nine Israeli deaths for every Palestine civilian weapon. In a nutshell, use of civilian weapons gives Palestine strategic parity since they do not have sophisticated military weapons enjoyed by Israelis (Hafez, 2006, p. 175). Thus, “martyrdom operations” has created a balance between Palestine and Israel. The accurateness of Nazzal’s appraisal of the strategic parity may be debated, but the claim that civilian weaponry has narrowed the ratio between Israeli and Palestinian deaths is a fact.


Terrorism is a very intricate and touchy subject. It is an intricate subject because it brings together numerous diverse elements of human experience, for instance, politics, history, military policy and beliefs. It is a touchy subject because it provokes strong feelings from both victims and terrorists. In actual fact, terrorism arouses feelings any time it is debated. Numerous studies have linked terrorism to the three levels of identity, that is, cultural identity, social identity and individual identity.

The key predictive aspects of terrorism identified at the cultural identity level include: recognition of the cultural value of collectivism, dichotomous way of thinking, religious fundamentalism and devotion to familism. On the other hand, the principal predictive elements of terrorism identified at the social identity level include: inculcation of factional values, belief in looming threat from rival factions, alienation from established institutions alleged to be under control of the rival faction and presence of institutions to support the terrorist agenda. Last but not least, the key predictive aspects of terrorism identified at the personal identity level include: presence of totalitarian foreclosure and meaningless diffusion and the establishment of an individual sense of identity based on factional social identity.

All the above elements have been exploited by Palestinian militant groups to wage war against their perceived enemy. The principle tactic used by the Palestinian terrorist against Israel is suicide bombing. As an exceptional and an excessive form of terrorism, suicide bombing has aroused fascination among the general public, especially in Palestine where it is executed for national and religious cause. Proponents of suicide bombing argue that it is the only way to create balance between the opposing forces.


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