In declaring his own war on terrorism last week, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a surprising claim. He said that Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, "is responsible for everything that is happening here," a reference to the onslaught of four suicide operations that had just left 26 Israelis dead and some 200 wounded.
To which one might reasonably ask: Why blame Arafat?
No one blames President Bush for the catastrophe on Sept. 11 or other politicians for the terrorism that occurs on their watch. Why should it be different with Arafat? Isn't Sharon unfair?
Let's look at the evidence.
Every inquiry into Palestinian suicide attacks, and especially Nasra Hassan's remarkable report in a recent issue of The New Yorker, finds that these do not just happen spontaneously but result from a large and sophisticated infrastructure.
This infrastructure exists for one reason: to make normal men want to die. Because Islamic law prohibits suicide, a suicidal person cannot be recruited to go on a mission. Rather, it is (perversely) necessary to dispatch only those who are not suicidal.
Islamic Jihad, which along with Hamas trains the suicide killers, explains: "We do not take depressed people. If there were a one-in-a-thousand chance that a person was suicidal, we would not allow him to martyr himself. In order to be a martyr bomber, you have to want to live." The same strange logic applies for Hamas, which rejects anyone "who commits suicide because he hates the world."
Convincing healthy individuals to blow themselves up is obviously not easy, but requires ideas and institutions. The process begins with the Palestinian Authority (PA) inculcating two things into its population, starting with the children: a hatred of Jews and a love of death. School curricula, camp activities, TV programming and religious indoctrination all portray Israelis in a Nazi-style way, as sub-human being worthy of killing; and then deprecate the instinct for self-preservation, telling impressionable young people that sacrificing their lives is the most noble of all goals.
The system works: Hassan reports that "hordes of young men" clamor to be sent to their own obliteration. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have established a process of selection based in the mosques, where "a notably zealous youth" ready for martyrdom gets noted by clerics who recommend him for selection.
Those who make the cut enter a protracted, highly supervised, and disciplined regimen of spiritual studies and military-like training. These adepts are taught to see suicide operations as a way to "open the door to Paradise" for themselves and their families. "I love martyrdom" says one such "living martyr."
Just before setting off on an attack, the men engage in exquisitely pious preparations (ablutions, clean clothing, a communal prayer service). Their deaths are celebrated by Hamas or Islamic Jihad by orchestrating a festive funeral celebration ("as if it were a wedding," Hassan observes) and distributing video cassettes with a statement from beyond the grave. The sponsoring organizations then make sure that the family receives both social kudos and financial rewards.
These facts tell us three things: Militant Islamic suicide killers are not born; they are manufactured. Like the four simultaneous suicide hijackings on Sept. 11, the four nearly simultaneous suicide attacks in Israel last week resulted from long-term planning by sophisticated organizations. They cannot operate clandestinely, but require the permission of a ruling authority, either the Taliban or the PA.
All of which leads to the conclusion that Sharon was right to hold Arafat responsible for the onslaught of suicide attacks on Israelis.
This, in turn, has an implication for the war on terrorism. No less than in Afghanistan, the American goal must be to shut down the suicide factory in the Palestinian areas.
And while it would be wonderfully convenient if Yasir Arafat could be delegated this task, the chances of his doing this are about as likely as the Taliban getting rid of Al-Qaeda - in other words, nil. Arafat has been in the business of murdering Israelis for nearly four decades; he does not deserve yet another chance.
Fortunately, unlike other parts of the world where Americans have to fight terrorism on their own, in this case an ally - Israel - is ready and willing to fight terrorism on its own. The time has come to urge it to do just that.