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Israeli forces block the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp after a soldier was killed in an attack on an East Jerusalem checkpoint, October 9th, 2022.
Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images
October 25th, 2022
On October 9th, a Palestinian shot and killed Noa Lazar, an Israeli soldier serving at a checkpoint near the Shuafat refugee camp. Three days later, a Palestinian gunman killed Ido Baruch, a soldier who was guarding Israeli settlers as they marched near the Palestinian town of Sebastia in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the Shuafat attack a “severe terrorist attack,” and said the assailant behind Baruch’s shooting was a “despicable terrorist.” The Jerusalem Post, Israel HaYom and i24 News referred to the Shuafat shooting as a “terrorist” act. The centrist Anti-Defamation League as well as the liberal Zionist J Street also referred to the shootings as “terror” attacks.
This broad consensus across the Zionist political spectrum reflects a commonly-held view among many Israelis and Israel advocates that the killings of soldiers engaged in a military occupation are acts of “terror,” in the same category as indiscriminate attacks on civilians. But this view represents only one pole of a discursive struggle between Israelis and Palestinans, and, more broadly, Western countries and formerly-colonized nations, who have clashed in international fora like the United Nations (UN) over whether violence against agents of a military occupation ought to count as “terrorism.”
While different countries have codified their own definitions of terrorism in their national laws, “there is no international legal consensus on the meaning of terrorism,” said Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney and author of the book Defining Terrorism in International Law. According to Saul, there is general agreement among states that the deliberate killing of civilians to achieve political goals constitutes terrorism; the disagreement lies in “whether insurgent or guerrilla attacks on soldiers in armed conflicts should also be called terrorism.”
The 1972 murder of 13 Israeli athletes during the Olympics prompted a decades-long series of UN General Assembly debates around the definition of the term “terrorism.” During these discussions, sharp divisions emerged between Western countries and formerly-colonized states over what to call the use of force by national liberation groups—political movements representing colonized peoples that have yet to achieve independence.
In 1987, Syrian ambassador to the UN Ahmad Fathi al-Masri proposed a UN conference that would distinguish between “terrorism” and struggles for “national liberation,” a proposal Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s UN envoy at the time, said would make a “laughingstock” out of the UN. Syria’s view was that attacks against occupation forces should not be considered terrorism, according to Remi Brulin, a scholar of terrorism whose research focuses on how Israeli and American discourses on “terrorism” developed. Brulin said that “the huge majority of member states at the General Assembly at the time agreed with the necessity” of discussing the difference between terrorism and struggles for national liberation, but “every single Western state and Israel opposed the idea completely,” with Netanyahu accusing Syria of “[conceiving] the idea of this conference in order to change the terms of reference about terrorism.” “In the past they denied that they perpetrated these crimes. Now, having been exposed, they say they are not really crimes,” he said. The US said it opposed the conference because it would pose “unnecessary conceptual problems,” which “could easily divide us and erode the [current] measure of communality now existing” on the issue of terrorism. Syria eventually dropped its push for the conference.
The international debate over terrorism also encompasses the question of whether states themselves can engage in terror, with the same divisions emerging between formerly-colonized countries and their erstwhile colonizers. Western powers “primarily see terrorism as a non-state phenomenon, and oppose the idea of any legal concept of “state terrorism,’” Saul said, whereas formerly-colonized nations argue that Western colonialism and military invasions “are the worst and largest kind of violence in the world, and should be called terrorism.” During an October 2001 General Assembly debate on terrorism, Iraq’s UN envoy said US-imposed sanctions on his country—which decimated the country’s economy—were a form of “state terrorism.” Iran’s UN envoy levied the same charge against Israel following a November 2006 Israeli shelling attack in Gaza that killed 19 Palestinian civilians.
Since 2000, countries at the UN have tried to come to a consensus on what’s called the Comprehensive Terrorism Convention, which would codify the criminalization of terrorism in international law. But consensus has again stalled due to disagreements on how to classify national liberation struggles. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a body of 57 mostly Muslim-majority countries, argues that violence committed by those in a struggle for self-determination—a term referring to a people’s ability to form their own state and govern themselves—should not be covered by the terrorism convention but rather by international humanitarian law, which governs the permissible use of force based in part on the “principle of distinction” between civilians and soldiers. The OIC’s argument is aimed at exempting Palestinian and Kashmiri fighters from being considered “terrorists” under international law when they launch attacks on Israeli or Indian soldiers who currently occupy their lands. The African Union and League of Arab States share the OIC’s perspective: Both bodies have adopted regional terrorism conventions that exclude struggles for national liberation from their definition of terrorism.
According to George Bisharat, an emeritus professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, “terrorism” is “a buzzword” intending to cast violence against occupation soldiers as illegitimate. In Israel/Palestine, “it’s being used for its political and rhetorical impact to discredit any violent resistance against Israel’s occupation,” he said, which is why “the non-aligned nations, as they call themselves, are insistent on the principle that violence exercised to advance the right of self-determination is not illegal.”
Armed struggle is not the only form of Palestinian resistance that has been cast as “terrorism.” In 2019, Danny Danon, Israel’s UN ambassador, said the International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes was “diplomatic terrorism” waged by the Palestinian Authority, which requested the international inquiry. In July 2021, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement targeting Israel “a new sort of terrorism” called “economic terrorism.” In October 2021, Israel declared six leading Palestinian human rights groups as illegal “terrorist” groups because of alleged links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Palestinian political movement with an armed wing. Labeling all forms of resistance as “terrorism” is a strategy to justify Israeli repression, said Yousef Munayyer, a writer and a scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC. “It’s a lot easier to shut down human rights organizations if you can brand them as terrorists first. It’s a lot easier to carry out extrajudicial assassinations if you brand the targets as terrorists,” said Munayyer. “The purpose of all of this is to create as much leeway as possible for the most violent and repressive type of action to eliminate any form of resistance.”
Palestinians and supporters attempt to remove an earth mound newly erected by Israeli forces near Deir Sharaf, west of Nablus, in order to cut off travel on October 20th, 2022. Since October 11th, following the killing of an Israeli soldier by the Nablus-based armed resistance group Lions’ Den, Nablus has been under Israeli closure, blocking most of the entrances to the city. The closure represents an act of collective punishment, a frequent tool used by Israeli forces to maintain control in the West Bank. No such policy is used against Israeli settlers.
Photo: Anne Paq / Activestills.
As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.
- Israeli forces conducted a large-scale raid early Tuesday morning in the West Bank city of Nablus. The raid targeted the Lions’ Den, a new Palestinian armed group consisting of members of different political factions. The Lions’ Den has risen in popularity as they’ve carried out shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers. In response to the killing of Baruch, an Israeli soldier, Israel imposed a closure on Nablus, harming the city’s economy and severely restricting freedom of movement for all Nablus residents. Today’s raid in Nablus sparked a firefight where Israeli troops killed five Palestinians including Wadie al-Houh, a leader of the Lions’ Den group. Israeli soldiers killed a sixth Palestinian in the village of Nabi Saleh during a protest. The killings came after another Lions’ Den member died in Nablus on Sunday when a nearby motorcycle exploded. The Lions’ Den blamed the explosion on Israel; Israeli officials did not comment on what might have caused it.
- In a span of ten days this month, Israeli settlers committed 100 crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank, including damaging property and attacking civilians. Settlers have also attacked Israelis who worked alongside Palestinians, such as a 70-year-old Israeli woman accompanying a Palestinian farmer during an olive harvest, who settlers “attacked . . . with clubs until she bled, after which they beat her in the head with rocks,” according to a report in +972 Magazine. The current surge in settler violence has followed the recent rise in Palestinian armed attacks in the West Bank, though settler violence has long been a daily reality for many Palestinians, which often goes ignored and unpunished by Israeli authorities.
- Last Wednesday, Israeli soldiers killed Udai Tamimi, the 22-year-old Palestinian man allegedly behind the Shuafat shooting of 18-year-old Israeli soldier Noa Lazar, while he attempted to carry out another attack on a security guard in the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. Tamimi’s deadly October 9th attack on an Israeli soldier resulted in the Israeli military imposing a closure on Shuafat as they conducted a manhunt for the assailant. In response to Tamimi’s death, multiple Palestinian political factions declared a day of mourning, while multiple West Bank cities went on strike to protest the killing.
- The UN’s Commission of Inquiry focusing on Israel/Palestine released its first report this week, finding that Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem is “illegal” due to the permanence of the occupation and Israel’s de facto annexation policies. Under international humanitarian law, military occupations are supposed to be a temporary state of affairs, but the commission concluded that Israel has “intended to create irreversible facts on the ground and expand its control over territory” permanently. The commission was established in the wake of Israel’s assault on Gaza and the escalation of violence in Jerusalem last year, and has a mandate to investigate any events leading up to last year’s developments. In response to the report, the US called it “one-sided,” while Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid labeled it “antisemitic.”
- Last Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) asked the US Supreme Court to overturn an Arkansas law requiring state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel. The Arkansas law—one of 28 such laws around the country, according to data maintained by Palestine Legal—requires contractors who refuse to sign an anti-boycott pledge to reduce their fees by 20%. In 2018, the ACLU sued Arkansas on behalf of The Arkansas Times, a newspaper asked to sign the pledge in order to secure advertising fees from the state. In 2019, a federal court dismissed the ACLU’s lawsuit, but in 2021, the Eighth Circuit appeals court found the anti-boycott law a violation of the First Amendment. Arkansas appealed the ruling, resulting in a ruling by the Eighth Circuit panel that the law was, in fact, constitutional, because boycotts are not a protected form of speech. This is the ruling the ACLU has now asked the Supreme Court to review, potentially setting up a landmark Supreme Court decision on whether the right to boycott is covered by the constitutional right to free speech.