JERUSALEM—Dozens of would-be suicide bombers expecting to be in the company of Allah and dark-eyed virgins after detonating their explosive belts have found themselves in recent years sitting instead opposite a kindly, middle-aged Israeli woman speaking perfect Arabic and taking notes.
Anat Berko, 55, a criminologist who has written a book on Palestinian suicide bombers, found that their primary motivations, particularly among young males, range between glory on earth and the anticipation of endless sex in paradise.
"The terrorists do not think that death is the end," she said in a recent interview with the Times of Israel. "They fully believe they will enter paradise where they will meet 72 virgins, drink until they’re intoxicated and have lots of sex. All the would-be martyrs I’ve spoken to described paradise in similar terms." Their vision included endless food and rivers that ran with honey or alcohol.
Women bombers have somewhat more modest expectations, such as being able to marry for love. "In paradise," said one woman, who had tried but not succeeded to self-detonate, "I will be like a queen and sit in my kingdom and marry anyone I want to." Giggling, she added: "I want someone who is handsome and that Allah will receive me."
Apart from sex with white-skinned virgins, male bombers also are assured they will be received by Allah and the Prophet Mohammed when they ascend to heaven.
Berko, who was born in Iraq, came to Israel with her family as a child. She served in the Israeli army for 25 years, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel. She went on to receive a doctorate in criminology and administer a prison. Among the non-suicide bombers she interviewed when they were in prison was one of the founders of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who talked with her for five hours.
She entered politics last March when she won a Knesset seat on the Likud ticket.
Berko’s analysis of jihadi martyrdom is supported by the behavior of Palestinian attackers in the current round of violence, many of them teenagers, who almost every day lunge with knives at Israeli civilians, as well as policemen and soldiers in public places where it is almost inevitable that they will be shot dead within seconds.
The Israeli media reported last week that a 16-year-old Palestinian at a roadblock, prevented by a glass wall from getting at soldiers on the other side, began stabbing at the glass with a knife, as if inviting a bullet from the soldiers who had turned to see him and thus win martyrdom.
Palestinian culture, said Berko, imposes "a tremendous amount of social pressure, prohibitions and shame" on young people. "In paradise, they can experience all the things that are forbidden in real life." Poverty was not a motivating factor for would-be martyrs, she said, but violence at home was.
A 23-year-old woman who had tried to stab an Israeli soldier told Berko that an older brother regularly raped her. When she told her uncle, he hit her, and the police refused to help. The "normalization" of violence among Palestinians, she said, has been reinforced by the praise heaped on martyrs that they encounter on children’s television and the orgy of violence that they see the Islamic State indulging in. "When a kid watches videos and doesn’t shrink from seeing blood or watching a person dying, you understand the effect."
Adding to an often problematic home environment, she said, is the "insane" incitement on Palestinian television as well as in the mosques and schools. "They hate the West but they are dying to live like in the West, in both senses of the word ‘dying.’"