Palestinians recoiling from suicide bombs

Even some militants distance themselves from last weekend's attack.

When news spread that a suicide bomber killed five Israelis in a Tel Aviv nightclub last weekend, members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade sought refuge.

Fearing reprisal from Israel, the Palestinian militants huddled inside a grungy dorm room near what used to be Yasser Arafat's bunker. But they weren't there to cheer the attack. Instead, they frowned on the blast that shattered the Israeli-Palestinian truce declared last month.

"We are not with this operation. The timing is wrong,'' said an Aqsa member wearing black-and-white Fila sneakers who called himself Abu Yazan. "We are now talking about a period of [truce]. The rules state that we do not attack.''

The comment was a rare jab at a suicide bomber - especially coming from a fellow militant - and it reflects a growing consensus among Palestinians that the attack had damaged the standing of newly elected President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the livelihoods of Palestinians.

Indeed, after years of celebrating suicide attackers as heroes, Palestinians are souring on suicide-bombings like the one last weekend, which emboldens many of them to question

whether strikes at Israel will hasten their goal of establishing an independent state. It's a shift many link to the election of Mr. Abbas - a vocal critic of the militarization of the Palestinian uprising - as well as the emerging détente with Israel.

Amid Israeli outrage and international affront in the wake of the attack, Abbas called the perpetrators mukharebin,' Arabic for saboteurs, and a term which observers said has never before been applied to suicide bombers.

At a Palestinian conference in London Tuesday hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Abbas said that all Palestinians condemned the Tel Aviv attack. And he pledged to improve the Palestinian Authority's security services, a step deemed critical to reining in militants.

Israeli officials aren't convinced. "We were disappointed there was no mention of the need to dismantle terror organizations," an aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told reporters.

Even Islamic Jihad tried to avoid claiming responsibility before a bomber's farewell video emerged to establish a link.

Just as telling was the reaction in Deir el Ghusun, the West Bank hometown of Abdallah Badran. The young bomber's portrait was not included in the "martyrdom'' posters which have become a standard memorial format. And instead of a traditional bittersweet celebration, the bomber's family greeted the news with remorse, according to an account in the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayyam.

"The miserable, somber atmosphere in this house ... expressed truthfully the situation of 'suicide bombers' during this particular stage in the lives of the Palestinians,' '' wrote Hasan El Batal in an opinion piece in Al Ayyam. "This suicide attack has stripped suicidal attacks from the honorary ranks of 'martyrdom'.... It is a sad death and a sadder grief.''

Questions about the effectiveness of this kind of attack have grown in the past few years, observers say.

In 2002, a group of Palestinian intellectuals ran ads in local newspapers condemning suicide attacks. And a December 2004 survey taken by the Palestinian Center for Polling and Survey Research found that support for attacks inside Israel dropped to 49 percent from 54 percent in 2003.

Riad Malki, the head of Panorama, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization promoting democratization, says the indicators of the change have not always been clear, but Abbas's January election as the successor of Yasser Arafat helped crystallize that shift in opinion.

"Abbas has made it clear that these attacks are not conducive for realizing Palestinian rights,'' he says. "People feel that after so many years of intifada, there's an opening for peace. The moment that people start connecting these attacks to their national interests, and their livelihoods, that is an indication that the shift is genuine.''

To be sure, few militants are disavowing suicide attacks completely. Ghazi Hamad, the editor of the Hamas weekly, Al Risala, explained that while the militant organization was committed to maintaining calm, it disagreed with Abbas's characterization of the bomber as a saboteur.

"No one will agree with him about this,'' he said. "The resistance cannot be stopped totally.''

Hani Masri, a Palestinian political analyst, says that withdrawal of support for bombings among Islamic militants is a tactical change rather than a deep-rooted belief. He cautions that the Palestinian uprising will not rid itself of the suicide culture until the Islamic militants disavow it also. "It can't be completed without Hamas and Islamic Jihad," he says.

To Israeli ears, the criticism coming from the Palestinian mainstream falls short. "The Palestinians have got to change their formula that the terrorist attack is wrong because it contradicts the Palestinian national interest,'' says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "The reason for condemning a terrorist attack is because you don't go and kill civilians.''

And yet, on the streets of central Ramallah, unusually open criticism of the Tel Aviv bombing could be heard. Subheil Thannous, a jewelry retailer, says Palestinians are ready to make a break with the past. "People want to forget about these attacks. Enough,'' he says. "Now we want to change.''

Back in the fugitives' dorm room, the Aqsa fighters said they would respect the public sentiment and hold their fire. But they also warned of another escalation of the public uprising - a third Intifada.

That ambivalence may explain Abu Yazan's sentiment toward the Tel Aviv suicide bomber. It was OK, he concluded, to condemn him as a saboteur, but "in God's eyes, he is a martyr."

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