When I traveled through the West Bank and Gaza conducting research interviews with Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other terrorist leaders, operatives, and in the case of dead suicide bombers—their families, for my book Talking to Terrorists I was often more frightened of the Israelis than of the Palestinians. In fact I stopped going across for research interviews after a trip to Israel where my laptop was taken from me and not returned for days and I received a particularly grim warning from a member of the Israeli police force. He told me that despite my being married to an American Ambassador and my own work consulting on counter-terrorism in behalf of NATO, the U.S. Department of Defense and the UK Home Office and that I had been invited by the Israeli National Defense University to present my research on terrorism in Israel, I was under suspicion by the Mossad. He said the Mossad was worried because I routinely came and went in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and in Brussels where I was living at the time and spoke with all the terror groups. They feared that somehow I could become sympathetic and carry messages or money to aid terrorist groups—something I would have never done. I was studying them and trying to understand their motivations and what had put them on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.
I did however, as the Mossad feared, feel sympathy for Palestinians when I walked and lived among them for research forays into the West Bank and Gaza. Dressed like a Palestinian I was often hauled off of mini-buses at Israeli gunpoint, held for hours at checkpoints, and threatened in multiple ways by soldiers. I also was held for hours at the Ben Gurion airport and the Mossad physically threatened one of my students on one of my research trips. I think they were afraid to directly say to me what they said to him.
The police officer that threatened me on my last trip in, told me that I would be arrested, held in interrogation for a minimum of two weeks and that my family would have no idea where I was and that I would come out a changed person—psychologically traumatized. I knew how the Palestinians described interrogation so I had no doubt he was right about that. He told me I had to stop crossing over for my research interviews. When I said I was committing no crime researching how terrorists think he searched for ways to make his threats hurt more. He asked how it would affect my husband’s career as a U.S. Ambassador if I were arrested by the Israelis—I told him it wouldn’t. He told me that the collaborators would plant money or messages in my luggage or on my person. I said, “Let them.” And then he went for the jugular and asked who would care for our children while I was under interrogation and no one knew where I was—my husband was then serving the U.S. State Department in Iraq and not at home to care for them.
After uttering a few expletives I went back to my hotel and called my husband who without hesitation told me “Go to Ramallah tomorrow as planned. Let them arrest you. You haven’t committed any crime. Continue your research.” But I didn’t want to go missing when he was in Iraq. I didn’t feel that was fair to my children who were mostly grown at the time but who would likely not handle that well. And I remembered Rachel Corey—an activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer she had tried to block. I didn’t want to share her fate.
And I had already sat with Zakaria Zuebedi, a sender of suicide bombers, in his hideout interviewing him, knowing full well he was on an Israeli hit list. During our time together he received a phone call. “Hello?” “Hello?” he had repeated four or five times into his phone while I thought, Oh geez, they are triangulating his position and running voice recognition—we’re going to get the missile!
I didn’t want to be the cat facing its ninth life.
But that’s all about me. What I can say having interviewed and even stayed overnight in the homes of Palestinian terrorists when they offered me a place to stay due to the checkpoints hampering our free travel—is that Palestinian militants and even the normal population will do anything for their children. If one child is unjustly killed it activates hundreds to volunteer to do and sacrifice anything to express their outrage, grief, sorrow, anger and to enact revenge for injustice.
The four children killed on the beach today thus for me send out a dire warning of worse to come. Nearly all of Palestinian terrorism is driven by trauma and revenge and it is a cycle that keeps repeating itself endlessly. Until Palestinians feel some hope for their future and security, and certainly while their children are being killed in significant numbers they will keep up the fight—even to their last self destructive breath. And while we can blame their leadership for much of it, we also must understand the psychology of overwhelming traumatic loss and pain—it drives even normal people to become ruthless killers.
While I certainly believe every country has the right to defend it’s boundaries and there should be an end to the Palestinian missiles firing upon Israel, I’m sure engaging in any activities that mistakenly takes the lives of Palestinian children—by accident or otherwise—is only going to make things much, much worse. I hope the Israelis can find a way to broker a cease-fire or even offer a long unilateral one to see if things can calm down in the meantime. Continued hostilities as we are witnessing today are unlikely to achieve anyone’s security. And it’s likely only Israel that can put a stop to it by taking the higher road and calling a cease-fire, at least for the time being.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. She traveled extensively through the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada.