Thomas Friedman’s Lies

Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk.

Qur’aan (4: 135)

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.

John (15:13)

As the ratio of fatalities between Palestinians and Israelis has narrowed during the past few months, the media mills in the United States that have demonized Palestinians for the past 50 years have been going into higher gear.

One of the honored captains of this industry, the honorable Mr. Thomas Fried-man, has now struck a high note in this campaign with his “Suicidal Lies,” in New York Times of March 31, 2002. His objective is to raise the alarm for Americans. The Palestinians “are testing a whole new form of warfare, using suicide bombers,” and if this “new strategy of liberation” is allowed to suc-ceed-presumably in forcing the Israelis to end their occupation of West Bank and Gaza-the consequences will be cataclysmic for United States, and indeed, for all civilization. The imperative for United States is clear. In order to save Civilization, it must fight Israel’s war as if it were a war for its own survival.

This indictment of Palestinians is built cleverly, but it is the kind of cleverness that substitutes for facts and logic. Mr. Friedman opens his indictment by wiping the slate of history clean of the daily, unremitting struggle that Palestini-ans-men, women and children-have waged over the years against Israeli ter-ror, massacres, executions, expropriations, deportations, house demolitions, sieges, curfews, and myriad new forms of intimidation and humiliation. This long, hard, constant, unflagging and valiant struggle over more than 50 years is equated with the acts of ‘suicide’ bombers. In the words of Braveheart, this is history written by those who have hanged heroes.

After completing this demolition job-accomplished with a wave of his hand-Mr. Friedman proceeds to build his penitentiary for the Palestinians. His immediate objective is to prove that the Palestinians “have adopted suicide bombing as a strategic choice, not out of desperation.” There are several steps in the argument that Mr. Friedman employs to arrive at this devastating conclu-sion. I have to admit that this charge ought be devastating-if it can be proved.

Mr. Friedman does not deny that the Israeli occupation has caused “desperation” (the quotes are not mine) amongst Palestinians; what he rejects is that there is a necessary link between their desperation and ‘suicide’ bombing. First, “there are a lot of people in the world who are desperate, yet they have not gone around strapping dynamite to themselves.” Surely, Mr. Friedman must have heard of Samson, Guy Fawkes, the Kamikaze pilots, the Hizbullah and the Tamil Tigers: since almost everyone else has. The Palestinians can scarcely be credited with inventing this “new form of warfare.”

But there is another way of posing the question that would shift the onus to the Israelis. A quick glance at the recent history of settler colonialism reveals that there have been many episodes, both long and short, of occupation and resis-tance to occupation, but it is not too often that the oppressed have employed ‘suicide’ bombing against their occupiers. Is it mere happenstance, then, that every time the Israelis occupy another people-whether it is Southern Lebanon, Gaza and West Bank-they have had to face ‘suicide’ bombers? Might the fault lie in the occupiers, and not the occupied?

Mr. Friedman presses on with his indictment. President Clinton “offered the Palestinians a peace plan that would have ended their “desperate” occupation, and Mr. Arafat walked away.” We are back to the canard about the ‘generous’ peace plan, so perversely rejected by the Palestinian leadership. In return for municipal control over a few Bantustans, dominated by armed settler encamp-ments, the Palestinians were asked to forego their sovereignty, their right of re-turn, the right to defend themselves, control over their borders, and rights to their own water resources. A ‘generous’ peace plan it was indeed-generous to the Israelis. Is it surprising that the Palestinians are castigated ad infinitum for rejecting this plan?

The Palestinians must account for another sin of omission. They had the option of engaging in nonviolent resistance-à la Ghandhi-that would have won them an independent Palestine 30 years ago. But, instead, they chose the path of violent resistance. Oops! I mean, ‘suicide’ bombing. Mr. Friedman writes as if Israeli occupation had somehow earned the right to expect Gandhian nonviolence from its victims-as if this was part of the divine package which gave them ex-clusive rights to historic Palestine.

A presumption so brazen demands a response. One must ask if the Zionists too had chosen this Gandhian alternative to appropriating historic Palestine: if at any time their dreams embraced the Palestinians as associates, equal partners, in return for sanctuary in their country. Instead, all that the Zionist visionaries saw was “a people (themselves) without a land, and a land (Palestine) without a peo-ple.” The Palestinians did not exist: and if they did, they would be “spirited across the borders” with some small inducement.

This was a dream of settler colonialism: quite commonplace amongst Europeans in the nineteenth century. But since the Zionists did not have their own gun-boats, they would contract out the job to Britain, the arch imperialist power in those times. In 1917, even before it had acquired Palestine-in the Balfour Declaration-Britain generously offered to create a Jewish state in Palestine. A year later, when the British had occupied Palestine, the European Jews estab-lished their first settlements in Israel, their heads full of dreams of messianic colonialism. It is these dreams, resurrecting archaic and arcane prophecies, that would eventually create a new colonial settler state in 1948-when, in other parts of the world, such states were being dismantled.

These are the mechanics of Mr. Friedman’s argument. He does not reject some “desperation” amongst Palestinians, but this is not why they engage in ‘suicide’ bombings. They do this out of a perversity, “because they actually want to win their independence in blood and fire,” and this has led them to adopt “suicide bombing as a strategic choice.” Mr. Friedman forgets-I admit, it is hard to feel the enemy’s pain-that while the first ‘suicide’ bombings against Israeli occu-pation began in 1993, the Palestinians have been going through “blood and fire” since at least the 1930s.

What this means is that Palestinians are now engaged in a most dangerous inno-vation in the strategy of liberation. “A big test is taking place of whether suicide terrorism can succeed as a strategy for liberation.” It is truly extraordinary that Mr. Friedman, writing on the op-ed page of the New York Times, can assume that his readers have never heard of the Kamikaze, the Tamil Tigers, or the Hizbullah. There you have an index of the power of NYT.

It would appear that the deployment of ‘suicide’ bombers was a strategic choice made by Japan when the odds against them appeared to be mounting. It was a choice they implemented massively, mobilizing tens of thousands to launch ‘suicide’ missions using airplanes, torpedoes, mines and small boats. They were also quite effective. Warner and Warner, in The Sacred Warriors, show that the Allies lost 65 naval and merchant ships to these ‘suicide’ missions, and 370 more were damaged. By comparison, the recent ‘suicide’ bombings are minor league distractions. At least until February 2000, the Palestinians were not the biggest players even in this minor league. Hamas claimed only 22 ‘suicide’ mis-sions compared to 168 strikes by Tamil separatists.

So why does Mr. Friedman raise this alarm about Palestinians “testing” “a whole new form of warfare,” “a new strategy of liberation?” Faced with a second intifada against their deepening control over the West Bank and Gaza-an intifada that was slowly replacing stone-throwing children with guerilla war-fare-the Israelis made a strategic choice. On February 6, 2001, they let loose Ariel Sharon, convicted by his own courts of personal responsibility for the Sa-bra and Shatilla massacres, to crush the new intifada. But the Palestinian re-solve, tested for 33 years under the occupation of the world’s most efficient military machine, refuses to capitulate before yet another round of warfare. The people who should have been “spirited across the borders” by beads and baubles have shown yet again that their spirits will not be cowed: that they will rise to match and neutralize the power of Israeli military.

Mr. Friedman admits this. The Palestinian resistance-he calls it ‘suicide’ bombing-“is working.” That is what alarms him. He thinks that Israel now “needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows that terror will not pay.” In other words, he wants United States to give Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinian resistance. This might mean more Palestinian deaths, more house demolitions, more incarcerations, and may be even deportations on some significant scale. Everything that is necessary to crush the resistance. Yes, the Europeans will make noises-and there will be some noise in the Arab streets. But with solid American backing, none of this should matter. At least, that is Mr. Friedman’s fantasy.

I have been placing ‘suicide’ in ‘suicide’ bombings within quotes. This requires an explanation. The Oxford English dictionary defines a suicide as “one who dies by his own hand.” This definition is clearly inadequate. In the absence of a motive, we cannot distinguish between (i) a person who takes his life because he wants to die and (ii) a person who takes his life because this will save her soul-or her honor, her family, her friends, her community, or her country. The first suggests suicide; the latter is ordinarily regarded as a martyr. Judge for yourself then whether the Palestinians are suicides or martyrs.

Although the Jewish tradition considers suicide reprehensible, it admits excep-tions. According to the Talmud-Kaplan and Schwartz, A Psychology of Hope-“suicide can be permissible and even preferred” when the alternative is forced apostasy or torture that is beyond endurance. Imaginably, the Palestinians who choose to ‘sacrifice’ their lives might argue that the pain and indignity of life under Israeli occupation exceeded their capacity for endurance.

Use your imagination again. Consider a different history of Germany and Europe-one without the Second World War, without the Final Solution, with-out Auschwitz-all because a lone Jewish ‘suicide’ bomber in 1938 had pene-trated the inner chambers of Nazi leadership and blown them to smithereens while also killing herself. Would this ‘suicide’ bomber-and her likes-also be regarded as a threat to all civilization? What would Mr. Friedman say about her?

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at

Copyright: M. Shahid Alam







M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at