Evergreen State College’s Steve Niva: Israel to Blame for Suicide Bombings

Steve Niva, who teaches Middle East Studies at Evergreen State College, frequently lectures and writes on the Arab-Israeli conflict and is currently writing a book on the subject. His columns have appeared in mainstream media such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times, as well as pro-Palestinian sites like Electronic Intifada and Counterpunch. Relying on distortions and misinformation, he rationalizes suicide bombings and demonizes Israel.

Niva repeatedly advocates the idea that Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are not to blame for the suicide bombings they plan and carry out. He instead postulates that Israel is at fault for the Palestinian attacks which have killed about 500 Israelis in the past four years. (See, for example, Counterpunch, Aug. 27, 2003.)

This erroneous notion is based on Niva’s failure to recognize suicide bombings as a method of terrorism chosen by groups that reject Israel’s existence. He claims that these attacks directly follow from Israeli measures, and even suggests that they are caused by Israel’s targeted killings of Palestinian terrorist leaders.

Niva goes even further, alleging that Sharon might actually want his countrymen to be killed in attacks. His argument climaxes with the speculation that Sharon, fearing calm, tries hardest to provoke attacks against Israelis when the terrorist organizations are striving for a cease-fire.

Suicide Bombings’ ‘Cause’

“Any observer with elementary skills in cause and effect,” Niva stated, “could see [the Jan. 5, 2003 Tel Aviv] suicide bombing atrocity coming” after Israeli soldiers killed several Palestinian terrorist leaders two weeks earlier. This, he says, is because

the vast majority of the nearly 100 Palestinian suicide bombings since they began in 1994 have followed an almost predictable sequence: Israeli attacks that cause major Palestinian civilian casualties or Israeli assassinations of important militant leaders are the most common trigger leading to suicide bombing cycles. (Counterpunch, Jan. 9, 2003)

Judging by Niva’s resumé, he should know that causality is considered practically impossible to prove in the social sciences. (See, for example, G.E.M. Anscombe’s Causality and Determination, Cambridge University Press, 1971). This is especially true when the observations are part of a correlational study, as are Niva’s.

Contrary to Niva’s arguments, it is clear targeted killings do not cause suicide bombings. Niva erroneously claimed that the first Palestinian suicide bombing was after Israeli extremist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers in February 1994. In fact, the first suicide bombing occurred almost a year before Goldstein’s rampage. On April 16, 1993, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed one and injured nine. In an even earlier example of suicidal terrorism, a Palestinian grabbed the steering wheel of Israeli bus 405 and sent it tumbling into a ravine, killing 14 (and somehow managing to survive). These attacks occurred well before any of the so-called Israeli “provocations” listed by Niva in his essays.

On the other hand, the suicide bombings that Niva said would occur shortly after Hamas leaders Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi were killed did not materialize, further discrediting his hypothesis.

Not only is there no proven causal relationship between targeted killings and suicide bombings, but, as Niva himself conceded in a rare moment of veracity, there isn’t even a correlation. “It should be noted,” he admitted, “that the majority of the over 100 suicide bombings in the past three years cannot be directly correlated with Israel’s . . . extra-judicial assassinations” (Counterpunch, Aug. 27, 2003).

The very reference to “cause and effect” distracts from the fact that the leaders of Hamas et al are individuals who make decisions. What, then, influences suicide bombings? One answer can be found in the words of Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif, who explained in a March 8, 2004 interview:

Whenever we decrease the number of “martyrdom operations,” we find those who criticize us consider it a “retreat,” despite the efforts exerted by the mujaheddin. The decrease in the number of operations is due to our efforts to secure the most precise hit, with the least number of losses [of Palestinian attackers].

When asked how the Hamas military wing formulates its strategy in confronting Israel, Deif responded:

[We] are well aware of what the political leaders are stating and we are inspired by their stances and we act according to them as we are the sons of the same movement. A large number of the military leaders of Hamas have been taught and raised among all [the] movement’s [political] leaders [sic] (Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2004).

The stance of Hamas’ “political leaders” to which Deif referred is clearly laid out in the Hamas Charter, which states:

Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes. . . .
Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it . . . .
There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad . . . .

In other words, Hamas chooses its military strategy in accordance with the politics of the movement, which calls for the destruction of Israel through violence and martyrdom.

Double Standards and Errors

While Niva treats suicide bombings as a reflexive reaction to Israel’s actions, he denies that Israeli measures are a response to Palestinian violence. Speaking about IDF operations in Gaza during the first months of 2003, he remarked: “Few independent observers accept that Israel’s assaults on Palestinian civilian centers . . . correlate as responses to suicide bombs” (Counterpunch, March 17, 2003). He supported this claim by saying that the Gaza operations “began nearly a month after” the Jan. 5, 2003 suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, and that “the only other suicide bomb this year came on March 5, well after the Israeli campaign in Gaza was underway.”

This comment highlights Niva’s double standard. While he suggests that a one month lapse proves Israel’s Gaza operations were not related to the Jan. 5 suicide bombings, he had no problem suggesting a relationship between the Feb. 25, 1994 Baruch Goldstein attack and the suicide bombing that occurred over a month later, on April 4. He also cited a link between Israel’s killing of Palestinian terrorist Yehiya Ayyash on Jan. 5, 1996 and the suicide bombs that followed, even though the next suicide bomb came on Feb. 25, well over a month after Ayyash’s death.

Niva also omits information inconsistent with his agenda. He erred in saying that “the only other suicide bomb” during that period “came on March 5.” On Feb. 9, Palestinian terrorists killed themselves while blowing up their vehicle at an IDF military position near Gush Katif.

Bombings in Sharon’s Interest?

Niva claims that Sharon kills terrorist leaders only to “deliberately provoke” a suicide bombing. The “assassinations . . . appear designed to provoke a violent Palestinian response . . . to serve Sharon’s strategic interests,” he says, adding:

Sharon appears willing to sacrifice Israeli lives in order to justify his relentless efforts to colonize Palestinian lands with Israeli settlements and destroy Palestinian society so that they will submit to the crumbs cast their way. Suicide bombings have become a crucial pretext for enabling the brute force and violence needed to achieve these objectives. (Counterpunch, March 24, 2004)

This libelous suggestion is discredited by even a cursory review of Israeli actions to thwart terrorism. One such measure, the fence around the Gaza Strip, almost entirely prevented suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel. Roadblocks and checkpoints, as well as the arrest and targeted killing of Palestinian would-be bombers, also protect Israelis from terrorism. And, according to Israeli officials, the number of attacks from the northern West Bank has decreased by 90 percent since the northern section of the West Bank security barrier was built. Such measures belie Niva’s absurd accusation that Sharon wants suicide bombings, and reaffirms the obvious: The Israeli government seeks to prevent suicide bombings, not “provoke” them.

‘Cease Fires’ Invented

Niva’s deceptions are most evident when looking at his allegation that “whenever there was a cease-fire . . . or other kinds of political threats, Sharon has often ordered the assassination of high-level militants.” In support of this argument, Niva made the following claims during a March 23, 2004 interview with Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now:

“July 31, 2001, . . . during the two-month cease-fire by Hamas, Sharon ordered the killing of Sheik Jamal Mansour . . ..”

Though Yasir Arafat, under international pressure following the June 1, 2001 suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco, called for a cease-fire, Hamas did not comply. A June 5 Associated Press article, entitled “Hamas spiritual leader says group is not bound by cease-fire,” reported that Hamas leader Yassin denied the cease-fire applied to his organization. Underscoring the point, Hamas took credit for a June 22 bombing that killed two Israelis. Later, on July 1, a Hamas member planted a bomb which was discovered by the IDF. On July 9, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing.

• “November 23, 2001 – two month cease-fire by Hamas after 9-11 – [Sharon] ordered the assassination of Mahmoud Abu Hanood, a high-level Hamas militant . . ..”

Once again, despite international pressure and Arafat’s public calls for a cease-fire, Hamas vowed to continue targeting Israelis. On Sept. 19, 2001, the Associated Press reported: “The militant Palestinian group Hamas said [today] it was not bound by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s call for a cease fire . . . .” Yassin was quoted saying Hamas would “keep fighting . . . by all means.” Indeed, Hamas claimed responsibility for a Sept. 26 bomb attack that wounded three and an Oct. 2 Gaza Strip attack which killed an 18-year-old Israeli woman and her boyfriend. And on Oct. 11, a Hamas member blew himself up while planting a bomb.

• “There was a cease-fire and, again, several assassinations culminating in the high-level assassination of [Hamas leader] Ismail Abu Shanab . . ..”

Israel killed Abu Shanab on Aug. 21, 2003. Two days earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated on an Israeli bus, killing 23 people. Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the bombing. A week earlier, on Aug. 12, two Palestinian suicide bombers killed two Israelis—one in a Rosh Ha’ayin supermarket and anther at a Ariel gas station. And on Aug. 9, a Qassam rocket was fired from the Gaza Strip toward the Israeli town of Sderot. *

“When the ‘Road Map’ had kicked in, and there was an attempt to set in place a cease-fire with Hamas, Sharon ordered the [failed June 10, 2003] assassination of [Hamas leader] Abdul Aziz Rantisi . . ..”

Niva neglected to mention that the attempted cease-fire was rejected by Rantisi and Hamas. On June 4, Rantisi told Reuters, Hamas “will never be ready to lay down arms until the liberation of the last centimeter of the land of Palestine.” Underscoring their rejection of the cease-fire, on June 8 Hamas claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four Israelis.

The Real Issues

Niva is preoccupied–to the point of misconstruing facts–with shifting responsibility for suicide bombings from the groups who conduct them to the victims of the attacks. His tortured “cause and effect” formula, in which he insists that Israeli counterterror measures are the cause of Palestinian terror attacks, fails to take into account the agenda of the Palestinian terrorist organizations: the destruction of the whole of Israel.

* An earlier version of this article misstated the date Abu Shanab was killed.

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