A FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION in the Middle East conflict is whether the Palestinians can be saved, not from Israel, as many of them would have it, but from themselves.

Consider that the Palestinians want their own state. But to achieve that end, which, depending on the Palestinian you talk to, may or may not entail the destruction of Israel, the Palestinians have relied on a grossly immoral means, the suicide bomb, used to kill not only Israeli soldiers but also civilians, including women and children. How can a people who sanction such an abomination achieve statehood?

It is wrong to think that only a few Palestinians actually approve of suicide bombing. Polls (taken by Palestinians) consistently have reported that more than 60 percent of the people endorse it.

Not surprisingly, the ranks of the suicide bombers have become more diverse. At first, it was the franchise of radical Muslim groups, most notably Hamas, which sent the first suicide bomber into Israel in April 1993, and Islamic Jihad. Between them, the two are responsible for more than 80 bombings, including the one (a Hamas special) in Netanya on Passover that killed 25 people. But in recent months, the suicide bomb also has become the weapon of choice of secular groups, especially the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which has ties to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement.

Nor do only Palestinian males carry out suicide bombing: Women, including a high school senior, have strapped themselves with explosives. And suicide bombing isn't the activity of only those "desperate" and without prospect: The son of a wealthy businessman recently carried out a bombing. Older Palestinians also have become bombers: A middle-aged man, married and with children, killed himself and three others at an Israeli train station. Whoever carries it out and whether for secular or religious motivation, suicide bombing isn't the spontaneous act of an individual but that person's deliberate choice, supported and encouraged by influential others, often including family members, who are paid after the deed is done in serious coin by such supporters of terrorism as Iraq.

And, of course, suicide bombing is repudiated without equivocation almost nowhere in the West Bank and Gaza, nor, for that matter, in the Muslim world. To the contrary, it often is celebrated by politicians and clerics alike.

The Palestinians' commitment to suicide bombing is so strong that there is no shortage of their number willing to do the deed. Indeed, the New York Times recently carried a chilling story about Hamas leaders operating openly in Gaza in which it reported that they "have more than enough recruits for suicide attacks."

Hamas and the other terrorist organizations justify the use of suicide bombers in now familiar terms, as the most effective way for the Palestinians to force the Israelis to withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza, the first step (in their view) toward the creation of a Palestinian state. But suppose Israel did totally get out. What would come next?

Finally in position to build a state, the Palestinians would have to confront vices produced by the years of suicide bombing. Those include a willingness to devalue human life, a tendency to ignore such considerations as personal safety and basic feelings for others, and little patience with compromise.

Can such a people create a plausible state? In particular, can they form a democracy, as some Palestinian leaders say they want? Are they--the question virtually answers itself--anywhere close to being fit for self-rule, which requires, as the American founders understood, a good bit of moderation, both toward oneself and others?

There are Palestinians who think they can quit their attachment to suicide bombing today and tomorrow begin building a state, even a democracy. What we know about human nature, however, argues to the contrary. The culture of suicide bombing in the West Bank and Gaza has been shaping hearts and minds in ways not quickly or easily changed.

That is the deepest implication of what President Bush said in his speech last week on the Middle East: "Blowing yourself up does not help the Palestinian cause. To the contrary, suicide bombing missions could well blow up the best and last hope for a Palestinian state."

What the Palestinians badly need is to be saved from themselves. That has no chance of happening until, finally, the Palestinians quit their passion for killing others by killing themselves.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.

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