Suicide Bombing -- the Palestinian Perspective

Nasser Abufarha has plunged into a dark corner of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: suicide bombers.

His book, "The Making of a Human Bomb - An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance," is scheduled for release next month by Duke University Press. Abufarha, a Palestinian who has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, makes the case that an appreciation of Palestinian history and culture is crucial to understand the attacks. His purpose is not to judge the suicide bombers. Instead, he seeks insight into the forces that drive and sustain martyrdom 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," he writes. He adds that the use of human bombs in other areas such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Chechnya highlights the need to understand the impulse on a broad scale. "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."

Though his research is extensive and his thesis powerful, his book is not likely to sit well with some observers of the Middle East. Abufarha has roiled sensitivities in the past. He was reported to have praised the activities of Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Asked for a comment, Abufarha said in an email: "I do not praise violence. To the contrary, I am engaged in research and other forms of political participation towards presenting alternatives to violence." He added, however: "I do not condemn the Palestinian resistance." He said people tend to be obsessed with the violence of the Palestinian groups, overlooking their efforts at political and cultural resistance. "I see that violence may be the ultimate but rarely the only form of engagement for these groups."

In his new book, Abufarha focuses on the issue of suicide bombing from the Palestinian perspective. He briefly acknowledges the impact of the attacks on Israelis. "The performance of martyrdom in Palestine should not obscure the reality that these acts of martyrdom include acts of indiscriminate terror," he writes. "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."

Abufarha's aim is to look at the creation of human bombs through an anthropological lens. He concludes that martyrdom underscores the Palestinian aspiration for freedom and an end to rootlessness. "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," he writes.

"The Making of Human Bomb" might have a chance for wider readership if it weren't cluttered with academic verbiage like this: "As Hinton (2004) points out, the 'poetics' of violence is conceived of through what Turner (1964) calls symbolic polarization between ideological and sensory meanings." Such language will keep his book from grabbing the attention it seeks.

By Steven E. Levingston |  August 12, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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