The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance

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Overview

In the Making of a Human Bomb, Nasser Abufarha, a Palestinian anthropologist, explains the cultural logic underlying Palestinian martyrdom operations (suicide attacks) launched against Israel during the Al-Aqsa Intifada (2000-2006). In so doing he sheds much-needed light on how Palestinians have experienced and perceived the broader conflict. During the Intifada many of the martyrdom operations against Israeli targets were initiated in the West Bank town of Jenin and surrounding villages. Abufarha was born and raised in Jenin, and his personal connections to the area enabled him to conduct ethnographic research there during the Intifada, while he was studying at a university in the United States.

Abufarha draws on the life histories of martyrs, interviews he conducted with their families and members of the groups that sponsored their operations, and examinations of Palestinian literature, art, performance, new stories, and political commentaries. He also assesses data-about the bombers, targets, and fatalities caused-from more than two hundred martyrdom operations carried out by Palestinian groups between 2001 and 2004. Some involved the used of explosive belts or the detonation of cars; others, armed attacks against Israeli targets (military and civilian) undertaken with the intent of fighting until death. In addition, Abufarha scrutinized suicide attacks executed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad between 1994 and 2000. In his analysis of Palestinian political violence. Abufarha takes into account Palestinians' everyday lives, the disillusionment created by the Oslo peace process, and reactions to specific forms of Israeli state violence. The Making of a Human Bomb illuminates thePalestinians' perspective on the conflict with Israel and provides a model for ethnographers seeking to make sense of political violence.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

The Making of a Human Bomb by Nasser Abufarha is required reading, for it links the 21st century’s leading sociological perspective (culture) with the new century’s quintessential form of political violence (suicide bombers, or SBs).” - Albert J. Bergesen, American Journal of Sociology

“With this book, [Abufarha] has made several incisive contributions, and not only towards understanding the suicide bombers of the Intifada. Yet non-Palestinian scholars invested in research and reading about Palestine should read Abufarha’s book not only for his insightful analysis but also for the value of his reportage of the ‘on the ground’ perspectives of Palestinians in the northern West Bank. On both accounts, and various mixtures thereof, this is an important book I highly recommend.” - Les W. Field, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Abufarha can hardly be blamed for this apparent disconnect between his strongest material and his analytical conclusions. It results from writing perhaps the most difficult kind of ethnography imaginable, one whose physical subject has vanished and been replaced by competing ideologies. Abufarha deserves credit for rising to this challenge and writing an insightful, passionately researched, and consistently provocative if analytically uneven book. He has broken new ground; may others join him in tilling it.” - Diana Allan, American Ethnologist

“[Abufarha’s] research is extensive and his thesis powerful. . . .” - Steven E. Levingston, Washington Post “Short Stack” blog

“[T]he best book I've come across on explaining the source of conflict. . . . The author does a very good job of presenting a complex situation and making it understandable. It's a powerful book. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in the core reasons behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, understanding the Palestinian use of suicide attacks on civilians, and/or understanding some factors which drive the acceptance and use of suicide bombs in any culture.” - Debbie White, Different Time, Different Place blog

The Making of a Human Bomb by Nasser Abufarha is required reading, for it links the 21st century’s leading sociological perspective (culture) with the new century’s quintessential form of political violence (suicide bombers, or SBs).” - Albert J. Bergesen, American Journal of Sociology

The Making of a Human Bomb is a powerful book. Reflecting on suicide bombings, Nasser Abufarha explains more: the collective state of mind of the Palestinian population since the Oslo process broke down in 2000. His book will be quite useful for anyone seeking to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as perceived from the Palestinian side.”—John Quigley, author of The Case for Palestine: An International Law Perspective

Albert J. Bergesen

The Making of a Human Bomb by Nasser Abufarha is required reading, for it links the 21st century’s leading sociological perspective (culture) with the new century’s quintessential form of political violence (suicide bombers, or SBs).”
Steven E. Levingston

“[Abufarha’s] research is extensive and his thesis powerful. . . .”
Debbie White

“[T]he best book I've come across on explaining the source of conflict. . . . The author does a very good job of presenting a complex situation and making it understandable. It's a powerful book. I'd highly recommend it to anyone interested in the core reasons behind the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, understanding the Palestinian use of suicide attacks on civilians, and/or understanding some factors which drive the acceptance and use of suicide bombs in any culture.”
Diana Allan

“Abufarha can hardly be blamed for this apparent disconnect between his strongest material and his analytical conclusions. It results from writing perhaps the most difficult kind of ethnography imaginable, one whose physical subject has vanished and been replaced by competing ideologies. Abufarha deserves credit for rising to this challenge and writing an insightful, passionately researched, and consistently provocative if analytically uneven book. He has broken new ground; may others join him in tilling it.”
Les W. Field

“With this book, [Abufarha] has made several incisive contributions, and not only towards understanding the suicide bombers of the Intifada. Yet non-Palestinian scholars invested in research and reading about Palestine should read Abufarha’s book not only for his insightful analysis but also for the value of his reportage of the ‘on the ground’ perspectives of Palestinians in the northern West Bank. On both accounts, and various mixtures thereof, this is an important book I highly recommend.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344391
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 7/24/2009
  • Series: The Cultures and Practice of Violence Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Nasser Abufarha is the Founder and Chair of the Palestine Fair Trade Association, based in Jenin, Palestine. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Read an Excerpt

The Making of a Human Bomb

AN ETHNOGRAPHY OF PALESTINIAN RESISTANCE
By NASSER ABUFARHA

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4428-5


Chapter One

Introduction

I returned to Palestine on 1 October 2003 to conduct my field research after being away from the region for over four years. It was my first trip to Palestine after the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Intifada. I had for the first time experienced having to cross so many roadblocks and checkpoints. For the first time I experienced traveling in a taxi through gravel and dirt roads in the mountains and the fields, going around checkpoints and roadblocks. It was the first time that I arrived in my village from a major trip through the eastern village side road instead of the main road from the south. Jenin, my local town, and my village Al-Jalama, five kilometers apart, were isolated from each other. I had been on the road all day and arrived at dark. When I first arrived at home, one of my mother's first few comments to me-she is in her late seventies-was shufet chaif akhathu ettariq minna (See how they took the road from us!!). She was referring to the Israeli blockades of movement and confinement of the village: all roads are "officially" blocked with mounds of soil, large concrete blocks, or deep ditches, while Israeli tanks and hummers roam, track, and chase blockade "violators," passers-by who are constantly trying to reopen the road or, by monitoring Israeli army movements, circumvent a roadblock so that they can go about their daily activities of farming, shopping, going to school, going to the doctor, or going to work. My mother's comment was striking to me at the moment. However, little did I know at the time that it would become profound and central to my research on the subject of suicide bombings. As I discovered, suicide bombings create cultural conceptions of accessibility and represent the breaking down of barriers, thus mediating issues of confinement, isolation, and fragmentation on the one hand and freedom and unity on the other.

I conducted my research on political violence in Palestine as carried out by Palestinian groups against Israeli targets. What are known in the West as suicide bombings are referred to by Palestinians as 'amaliyyat istishhadiyya (operations of martyrdom). Even though I examine suicide bombings in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, my research provides a template for analyzing similar forms of violence in other political and ethnic conflicts, be they regional or global. This research seeks to present an understanding of the violence through historical and cultural lenses and demonstrates that violence can only be entirely understood against a backdrop of specific histories and cultures. The analyses that I apply here to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will provide a template that can also be applied in other contexts, but the conclusions may differ.

My research explores three areas with respect to the martyrdom operations in Palestine that scholars on the subject of violence agree to be areas of theoretical importance: the cultural poetics of political violence in Palestine; the nature of state violence (by Israel) and the mimetic violence carried out by resistance groups; and the relevance of globalization, modernity, and the consequent resurgence of traditions in shaping this form of violence (Whitehead 2004). To that end I interviewed members of Palestinian resistance factions who set up suicide-bombing operations and other political activists who give political context to the act of suicide bombing, to get an understanding of the groups' political and military strategies in carrying out martyrdom operations. I talked with families of participants in these operations and looked into the participants' life histories to assess the logic of the suicide, martyrdom, or sacrifice missions. I also reviewed myriad ways of representing martyrdom violence and interviewed a number of cultural performers (song-writers, painters, dancers, etc.), producers of the poetics of resistance who shape the broader Palestinian cultural discourse within which the act of the martyr is given meaning. In addition, my research is situated in an ethnographic representation of Palestinian life that sees the Palestinians' encounter with Israel as the cosmological and ontological basis of the present cultural order in Palestine (see the discussion of methodology later in this chapter).

By examining the Palestinian encounter with Israel and the generative cultural schemes produced by the encounter, the aesthetics of the performance of Palestinian "suicide bombing" missions, their cultural representations, and the poetics that their performance and representations generate, I argue that the practice of sacrificing Palestinian bodies and applying violence against the "enemy" in the same act mediates cultural ideas of uprooting and rootedness, fragmentation and unity, confinement and freedom, domination and independence. These social processes are mediated through the cultural conceptions generated in the poetics of the performance that create unconfined life, unsegmented peoplehood, and unfragmented Palestine in the Palestinian cultural imaginary. This free and united life in the cultural imaginary is created in contrast to Palestinians' ontological conditions of fragmentation, confinement, displacement, and encapsulation. Similarly, these acts represent defiance to the international order and assert agency, self-reliance, control over life, and a long-sought independence against a backdrop of a history of political domination. These aesthetics create polarizations between the ontological conditions of encapsulation, fragmentation, physical confinement, displacement, and political domination and the aspirations of unity, freedom, and independence of Palestinians and their rootedness in Palestine. Through these cultural conceptions the participation in the sacrifice or martyrdom and the application of violence against Israeli publics become intelligible and meaningful acts and generate a process through which a system of motivation arises. The sacrifice creates the naturalized, free, pre-occupation Palestine; the violence against Israeli publics destabilizes the normalcy of the "enemy" in Palestine, challenging its presence and asserting Palestinian rootedness in contested places. Moreover, the participants' taking of their own lives in the performance asserts their independence and self-reliance. Within this discourse of sacrifice and martyrdom performed along mimetic violence, the death of the sacrificer is conceived as a form of life or a better life that makes death in sacrifice not something to be feared but rather an aspired form of living. In this view, death is about living, not dying. To die is to live through the iconic image of the martyr within the cultural poetics of the resistance and through the freedom and unity of Palestinian peoplehood and the land of Palestine that is created in the cultural imaginary.

These positive cultural conceptions associated with the performance of martyrdom in Palestine should not obscure the reality that these acts of martyrdom include acts of indiscriminate terror against Israeli publics in civil spaces. That my research does not focus on these victims is in no way an attempt to hide these aspects of the martyrdom performances or to lessen their cruelty. However, my research is focused on the perpetrators and the ways in which the performance of violence is constructed, motivated, and mediated from the perpetrators' perspective. And in this regard the killing of Israeli civilians in particular and the illegitimacy of these acts of violence in the global political discourse carries some of those potential meanings. I explore these constructions and conceptions in the discussion of the meanings and strategies of martyrdom in the following chapters.

Collective and group violence has long existed in the human experience. However, in the last decade there has been an alarming increase in the use of violence as a medium for cultural assertion and social and political mediation in regional ethnic conflicts such as those in Bosnia and Rwanda. Most recently, there has been a frightening use of "suicide" bombings in Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and even Europe and North America. My research project seeks to understand the making of the human bomb through ethnographic study of their historical, cultural, and political constructions in Palestine. If we seek to understand these violent practices, we must move beyond condemning them and questioning their legitimacy and examine the social and political processes that make them meaningful in their local settings. If we were to limit our discussion of this form of violence to issues of legitimacy, we would not even begin to understand its production, much less be any better equipped to deal with it. And if we continue to think of violence as fueled by the inherent hatred of its perpetrators, we will be blinded to the social processes through which violence is constructed, and the only policy options we will have for dealing with violence will involve applying similar or greater violence, thus validating the acts of the perpetrators and leaving us hostage to cycles of violence and counter-violence. A better understanding of violent practices is a must if we seek to develop more appropriate and effective responses to it. The widespread use of suicide bombings makes clear that this form of violence is becoming more meaningful to more people around the world. And with this increase in popularity, the military response becomes increasingly invalid and ineffective. Pure military responses seem only to have contributed to the intensification of suicide bombing thus far.

The frightening rise in the use of suicide bombings and strategies of martyrdom by different groups with local agendas in Palestine, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, and others with global agendas in the United States, Britain, Spain, Indonesia, and Morocco, has prompted an array of new research that seeks to understand suicide bombings and to investigate and explore responses to them. Several recent academic articles and books on suicide bombing have been published. These works have focused variously on the intensity of suicide bombings and their widespread application in the global context (Atran 2004; Bergen 2002; Gambil 1998; Reuter 2004; Saez 2000; Victor 2003), political motivations (Bloom 2005; Hafez 2003; Pape 2005), and psychological and socioeconomic dimensions (Andoni 1997; Davice 2003; El-Sarraj 2002; Merrari 1990; Reich 1990). Anthropological and sociological contributions include Dorraj on "Martyrdom in the Iranian Political Culture" (1997) and Andriolo's "Murder by Suicide: Episodes from Muslim History" (2002). Even some economists offer explanations, as in "Suicide-Bombings as Inter-generational Investment" (Azam 2005). The emerging field also includes discussions of terrorism and suicide bombings from a philosophical perspective (Margalite 2002; Walzer 2004), as well as contributions by state strategists like Shaul Shay, head of the history department of the Israeli army (The Shahids, 2004, with a foreword by the director of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Ahron Farakash), as well as Khosrokhavar's Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs (2005), sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition, there are contributions by Palestinian academics (Khashan 2003), and works that explore the origins and political goals of suicide bombing, its gender dimensions, its legitimacy, and responses to it.

However, the literature on the subject thus far is still a long way from providing a full understanding of the various manifestations of violence through suicide, its cultural constructions, its motivations, and its role in political and military strategy. My research strives to provide a holistic approach: to gain a solid anthropological understanding of this form of violence so that we can develop effective responses to it. There is a need to move the analyses beyond the actions themselves and their political underpinnings. Without expanding the analysis to social and cultural realms at the level of individuals, groups, local communities, society at large, regional communities, the society of the enemy state and its support, global powers, and international observers, this form of violence cannot be entirely understood. A holistic approach, after Ferguson (2003), requires a lot of work to accomplish but is necessary if we are to do justice to the subject and provide comprehensive analyses that can afford us the tools to develop effective responses.

My research demonstrates that the political dimensions of these forms of violence cannot be separated from a broader cultural dynamic that underlies the motivation of groups and individual participants. Even the most careful political analyses of these forms of violence will fall short, precisely because martyrdom is mediated through cultural forms and local experiences. It is rather the cultural schemes as they are transformed across time-as well as the cultural representations of the performance of violence that illuminate the oppositions, analogies, and homologies integrated into the performance-that constitute a critical field of analysis. What are the political impact and cultural significance of engaging in violence through self-sacrifice and martyrdom? How are the acts of sacrifice and martyrdom constructed and culturally conceived? These are important questions in analyzing and understanding these forms of violence.

My background growing up in Palestine not only gives me a deep understanding and appreciation of the historical and cultural backdrop of this form of violence in the Palestinian context but also provides me with a level of comfort necessary to discuss sensitive issues with social and political actors. My research is first and foremost a project of providing an anthropological understanding of martyrdom and the violence of suicide bombings in Palestine by Palestinian groups and individuals. My position as a Palestinian ethnographer provides me with access to inside information for anthropological analysis. Second, growing up with the same experiences as the subjects of my research enables me to appreciate the cultural conceptions, histories, and ontological conditions to which my subjects refer when they articulate their thoughts. This position also gives me an insider lens with which to deconstruct the semiotics and poetics of the cultural representations associated with this particular form of violence.

On the other hand, being a Palestinian ethnographer, researching this highly sensitive topic, has presented challenges during my fieldwork and research. Some of these challenges are related to the fieldwork itself, others to the presentation of the research outcomes. Throughout this project I found myself walking a fine line between being viewed by my research subjects as a security threat or in one way or another as potentially undermining the resistance, and being considered as legitimizing what is characterized as a terrorist act in the West. My research recognizes the fact that these acts of violence are already legitimate and culturally appropriate forms of resistance in Palestine. The idea behind my anthropological research into violence is neither to condone it, nor legitimize it, nor condemn it. My research is aimed at understanding violence from the perpetrator's perspective, to illuminate the social processes through which the violence became legitimate from the perpetrator's perspective and thus, potentially, to open doors and possibilities for an alternative mediation of the social processes that are now being mediated through acts of violence.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from The Making of a Human Bomb by NASSER ABUFARHA Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

Chapter 2 Histories and Historicities in Palestine 26

Chapter 3 State Expansion and the Violence of "Peace Making" in Palestine 64

Chapter 4 The Carrier 99

Chapter 5 Dying to Live 136

Chapter 6 The Strategies and Politics of Martyrdom in Palestine 189

Chapter 7 Conclusion 224

Appendix 243

Notes 245

Bibliography 259

Index 269

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