The Islamic community neither invented nor has a monopoly on the practice of suicide attacks. During World War II, the Japanese military deployed kamikaze pilots who divebombed ships. In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam created special suicide units in its fight for a separate Tamil state.
Terrorism experts say that suicide attacks are especially effective. Practically, they are cheap to carry out and are very difficult to stop. There is no need for the complexities of organizing an escape route after the attack, and there is very little chance of the guerrilla surviving and being interrogated. Psychologically, the practice is unnerving for adversaries.
"This is part of a resistance plan that has its psychological as well as material effects," said Osama Hamdan, the Lebanon-based representative of the militant Islamic group Hamas, which claimed responsibility for outfitting and training Mahmoud Ahmed Marmash for the attack in Netanya. "The psychological effect can be seen from the Palestinian side that the people are ready to make enormous sacrifices to regain their rights."
Suicide bombings became inextricably linked with the struggle between the Arab world and Israel in 1983. At the time, Hezbollah decided to include the tactic in its fight against Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
Initially, there was internal dissension because some clerics felt that it was anathema to Islam. Because Hezbollah is affiliated with the Shiite arm of the faith, its leaders turned to Shiite-dominated Iran for a religious decision. The answer was predetermined because Iran, during its war with Iraq, had sent young troops into suicide missions, blessing them as martyrs before sending them out to die.
"They asked if the operation is legal or illegal and were assured it was permissible," said Diaa Rashwan, a researcher on Islamic militants with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The religious basis for the decision, he said, involved the death of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and a revered figure in Shiite Islam. He was killed in battle against the Umayyad clan in AD 680, fighting what he saw as an unjust rule over Islam.
When warned that his small band of fighters was no match for the thousand-strong army, Hussein said, "O people, the Apostle of God said during his life, 'He who sees an oppressive ruler violating the sanctions of God, reviling the covenant of God--and does not show zeal against him in word or deed, God would surely cause him to enter his abode in the fire.' "
In essence, the argument went that going into battle knowing that death is certain is not only permissible but also required in the appropriate circumstance. Supporters dismiss the distinction of dying by one's own hand as irrelevant.
Martyrdom is an enticing reward for believers who are promised eternal life in paradise, permission to see the face of Allah, the loving kindness of 72 young virgins who will serve each martyr in heaven and the privilege to promise 70 relatives eternity in heaven.
"Dear family and friends! I write this will with tears in my eyes and sadness in my heart," wrote Hisham Ismail Abdel Rahman Hamed, a suicide attacker who blew himself up in November 1994, killing nine people, including four Palestinians. "I want to tell you that I am leaving and ask for your forgiveness because I decided to see Allah today and this meeting is by all means more important than staying alive on this earth."
The issue continues to divide Muslim scholars around the world.
"It is a blessed act to struggle against injustice and even to give your life," said Muzammil H. Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County. The prophet Muhammad, he said, declared that whoever died to protect life, land, honor or religion would be blessed as a martyr. Siddiqi, however, cautioned against "generalizing" the enemy to include all Israelis.
Khaled Abou el Fadl, a UCLA professor of Islamic law, said the key issue is what he called the indiscriminate nature of the bombing attacks. He criticized as immoral bombing attacks that don't discriminate between Israeli pacifists and belligerents, between military personnel or those capable of waging war and children and the elderly.
While he criticized the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians, he also said that the Koranic verse 5:8 explicitly tells believers: "Let not a people's enmity toward you incite you to act contrary to justice."
"If one truly believes that Islam is a humane message, Muslims must not allow themselves to be dragged, because of political expediency, into the moral lower hand," Fadl said. "It is imperative that Muslims who face immorality and injustice remain moral, as the Koran commands."
As the theological debate goes on, it appears that the bombings will as well. On Tuesday, Hamdan went live on television in Lebanon and announced plans for 24 more attacks.
"Four remain, then there will be 10, and another 10," he said in a speech broadcast on Hezbollah's Al Manar television station.
In a telephone interview, Hamdan emphasized politics, not religion: "When the Palestinian youth sees that aggression and terrorism is taking place against his people, when he sees the formidable Israeli military machine killing his people, when he sees a suspicious silence on behalf of the international community with regards to what is happening to his people--then it is easy to find hundreds, perhaps thousands, of those who are willing to commit such operations."
Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe in Los Angeles contributed to this report.