The defense establishment has counted 28 suicide bombings and attempted suicide attacks inside Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada last September. What began as a drizzle at the start of the last decade and quickly turned into a flood as the Oslo peace process trundled on before all but disappearing, has now returned in even greater force in recent months.
There is almost no parallel to this huge number of suicide bombers in the rest of the world. Other wars have, of course, seen similar phenomena, such as the Japanese Kamikazi fighter pilots in World War Two, or the Iranian children who marched into fields filled with land mines in their war against Iraq; but there has never been such a wave of terror as this.
The Arab world too is well aware of this. In a speech broadcast on Hezbollah's television station, Al-Manar, Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah marveled at the readiness of the Palestinians to be sacrificed. "We," said the man whose organization invented the model, "sent out only 10 suicide bombers during 17 years of the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon. Look what they [the Palestinians] have achieved in 10 months. At this rate, Jerusalem will soon be liberated."
The recent tidal wave of suicide bombers demands further and deeper examination. This time round, the defense establishment has a very important source of information: a number of suicide bombers, including Islamic Jihad activists, who were sent to Beit She'an, Afula and Haifa, but apprehended before they could carry out their missions.
The results, however, are not so clear cut. The "profile of a suicide bomber" from recent attacks is not that different from the profile put together in the winter of 1996. Some are older and better educated than their predecessors, but the young would-be suicide bombers recently arrested bring down the average. The age range is currently between 17-years-old (the attempted attack in Afula) and 28 (the Islamic Jihad man who blew himself up in the Wall Street cafe in Kiryat Motzkin). The average age of the suicide bomber is currently 21.
The bombers come from practically all over the territories, but those attacks carried out inside Israel were by bombers from the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, 10 suicide bombers have been killed in attacks against Israeli soldiers or close to the border fence after failing to cross over into Israel. Seven have come from Jenin and the surrounding areas (it's not called "the martyrs' capital" for nothing), five from Nablus and two from Qalqilyah.
None have been dispatched so far from Bethlehem or Hebron. Military Intelligence believes that this is because the army killed top Hamas man, Iyad Battat, operating in the Hebron area, in December 1999 and the organization has since failed to replace him.
Nine of the bombers have been students, six of whom were members of Islamic organizations at their universities and colleges. Some, especially the students from Qalqilyah and Nablus, knew each other. The bomber who carried out the brutal attack on Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium and the bomber at Neveh Yamin near Kfar Sava were even roommates.
Most, if not all, the men are single. The only exception is 30-year-old father of three Ali Joulani from East Jerusalem who was shot dead some two weeks ago near the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv after opening fire on a group of soldiers. Military Intelligence classifies Joulani as a "suicide attacker" since "he knew he wasn't going to get away alive."
In contrast to suicide bombers, the profile of "attackers" has undergone some changes during this conflict. Following February's attack in Azur when a 35-year-old Palestinian Egged bus driver mowed down pedestrians, killing seven soldiers and a woman, the Shin Bet security service realized that the old security check rules needed to be changed: Older Palestinians with families and steady jobs in Israel are also capable of carry out large-scale attacks.
But to be a suicide bomber apparently requires different preparation, both logistically and mentally. The Palestinian bus driver went of his own accord to carry out the Azur attack, while suicide bombers have many instructors and aides who help them prepare over a period of weeks. There has, however, been a serious drop in the amount of time it takes to prepare for such an attack, because of the great pressure to go out and attack immediately. Suicide bombers usually don't change their minds.
The main reason for becoming a suicide bomber is said to be a desire to become both a national and religious sacrifice. It is the ultimate way to give your soul for your country. Surprisingly, revenge is not often a motive - though some suicide bombers have had family members killed by Israel, personal experience with the Israeli occupation tends to offer a better explanation.
Besides being folklore, the promise of 72 virgins waiting in heaven also offers the bomber considerable motivation.
Some have been told that their pieces will emerge once in heaven, while others have been promised a place next to Yiyah Ayash - also known as "the Engineer" - who sent the first suicide bomber on his way in 1993.