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When Does Resistance Become Terrorism?

Ron Skolnik
July 27, 2016


by Ron Skolnik

from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

Social Media JPGI WAS RECENTLY REMINDED of a conversation I had more than three decades ago, in 1984 or ’85, while doing my annual Israeli army reserve duty. I was stationed in the Lebanese village of Maaroub, with a unit of mostly young army conscripts (I was only about 25 myself). The government of Menachem Begin had ordered the invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were now mired in what would become a deadly, nearly two-decade occupation of Lebanon’s south.

One late Friday afternoon, I was paired with a 19-year-old for guard duty on the roof of the commandeered residence where we were quartered. At some point during our six-hour shift, my sentry partner, noting the relative proximity of the neighboring rooftops and our rather exposed position, remarked with concern that someone in the village might take a shot at us. Bored and hoping to provoke some lively conversation, I replied that this was a distinct possibility, but that since we were an occupying army, the local Lebanese, from their perspective, could reasonably view us as legitimate targets.

My companion stared at me as if my words had been uttered in ancient Greek. Try as I might to explain that in the eyes of southern Lebanese, we were an unelected, uninvited, and mostly unwelcome foreign body that controlled their land by force of arms, he was wholly unable to reconcile the duality I was proposing: that while we were right to defend ourselves and our unit comrades from potential harm, that didn’t mean that those who wished to do harm to us and drive us out of Lebanon were necessarily in the wrong.

Of course, official Israel never saw it that way: As the years went by and Hezbollah gained strength, its attacks against both occupying soldiers in Lebanon and noncombatant civilians in northern Israel were given identical terminological treatment by the media and government: No matter the target, they were all “acts of terrorism.”

MY LEBANON EXPERIENCE sprang to mind in early April when first-term Knesset member Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab Israeli who belongs to the center-left Labor Party, touched off a firestorm by suggesting during a radio interview that Palestinian attacks on IDF forces serving in the Occupied Territories should be viewed differently from attacks against Israeli civilians. Discussing a March 24 stabbing attack by two Palestinians against Israeli troops in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Bahloul referred to the pair as “assailants” (m’fag’im in Hebrew) and rejected the interviewer’s dogged insistence that he use the much more pejorative term, “terrorist” (m’habel). Explaining his choice of terms, Bahloul noted that the incident in question was part of “the interrelationship between the occupier and the occupied” and the Palestinian struggle for statehood.

In the days that followed, Bahloul fleshed out his remarks, drawing a distinction between “innocents” — a category in which he included noncombatant Israeli settlers — and “military targets,” including Israeli soldiers, whom he described as “a salient feature of the Occupation.” While anyone who attacked the former was committing an act of terrorism, Bahloul said, violence directed at the army was an act of war on the part of Palestinians seeking their independence.

“What is a Palestinian to do,” Bahloul asked rhetorically, “when, for forty-nine years, he’s been under the burden of occupation . . . seeking his freedom . . . and not getting it? Are Palestinians not allowed to struggle to achieve this?” By way of comparison, he cited the pre-state Zionist armed underground networks: “The Irgun, the Stern Gang, the Haganah, all the Jewish organizations,” rose up against the British Mandate’s soldiers, he said, “in order to establish your state, which became an amazing country. Why,” Bahloul wondered, “aren’t the Palestinians allowed [to do the same]?”

The historical and political circumstances surrounding Israel’s forty-nine-year occupation of the West Bank vastly differ from those that marked its eighteen-year presence in southern Lebanon, but the provocative observation I made to my army mate back in the ’80s, and Bahloul’s current effort to establish what he calls “a new discourse” on the Palestinian question, both raise the same thorny set of questions: When, if ever, is violence a legitimate course of action? What would determine its legitimacy or lack thereof in the Israeli-Palestinian context? To what extent is terrorism defined by the status of its victims?

Such ponderings are far from new. The Pax Dei (Peace of God) movement in the medieval Catholic Church, for example, sought, with some measure of success, to shield monks, priests, children, women, pilgrims, peasants, and other noncombatants from the ravages of warfare by making it a mortal sin to attack the defenseless. The more recent development of international humanitarian law has tried to limit the effects of armed conflict by protecting non-participants and restricting the permissible means and methods for waging war.

Aside from those who theologically or philosophically adhere to pacifism, human civilization as a whole has always viewed the use of violence as a behavior to be properly regulated, not entirely eliminated. When individuals wield violence on behalf of their society within accepted moral and legal limits, they are sometimes even heralded as heroes and patriots: In the U.S., George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower come to mind; in Israel, Prime Ministers Rabin, Barak and Sharon. The question that Bahloul wishes to open for discussion is: What acceptable limits apply to the Palestinian use of violence?

A SIMILAR CONTROVERSY erupted a full decade ago when then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was interviewed on ABC’s Nightline. Queried about her parents’ involvement with the Irgun, and that organization’s 1946 bombing of British Mandate headquarters in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, Livni, an ex-Likudnik who had come to embrace the two-state solution, was asked whether their activity was comparable to modern-day Palestinian violence.

In response, she submitted that her parents had been freedom fighters, not terrorists, since they “didn’t use violence against civilians” (a claim, it should be noted, that the Irgun’s own source material might not bear out). Pressed by the interviewer as to whether the distinction she made would also apply to Palestinians, Livni acknowledged that it would: “Somebody who is fighting against Israeli soldiers is an enemy. And we will fight back,” she replied, “but I believe that it is not under [the] definition of terrorism.”

Predictably, Livni was slammed at the time by figures on the Israeli right (and, less predictably, by the New York Post!). Not all rightists, however, disagree with her dichotomy. Writing in response to the recent furor over Bahloul’s statements, former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, a member of the far right and an ardent opponent of Palestinian statehood, bemoaned the fact that Israel has yet to proclaim its sovereignty over the West Bank, which he regards as part of the Divinely-promised Greater Land of Israel. Until Israel’s government does so, Feiglin conceded, the area is rightly considered occupied by the international community and, “as long as the occupation continues, Bahloul is not wrong.”

In an op-ed piece on the pro-settler Arutz Sheva website entitled, “Zouheir Bahloul is Right,” journalist Haggai Huberman argued similarly that only a complete disavowal of the two-state solution and an Israeli annexation of “Judea and Samaria” would make “the State of Israel . . . not an occupying force” and allow Palestinian assailants to be treated as “terrorists” rather than “freedom fighters.” Until then, he reasoned, stabbing an IDF soldier was akin to “hanging two British sergeants” — a reference to an execution committed by the Irgun in July 1947 and ordered by Menachem Begin, the group’s commander (and Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983), which Begin later credited with helping to end the British occupation.

Feiglin and Huberman should be commended for their honesty, at least, if not their expansionist aims. But most Jewish Israelis, it seems, are far less aware of the current legal realities. In an April 2016 poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, over 70 percent of Jewish respondents expressed the belief that Israel’s control of “the territories” does not constitute an occupation.

Perhaps it is just such an orientation that informed the more typical reactions to Bahloul coming from the Israeli right. Likud MK Avi Dichter, for example, told the Labor MK at a public event that the target, be it “a civilian, soldier or policeman,” was irrelevant — all Palestinian violence is terrorism. Another Likud backbencher, MK Nava Boker, called for Bahloul’s suspension from the Knesset. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took to Facebook to term Bahloul’s remarks “shameful.”

Bahloul’s own Labor party compatriots attacked him as well. Labor chair and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog tweeted that he “strongly condemns” Bahloul’s remarks. Labor MK Revital Swid, sounding much like Dichter, insisted there was absolutely no distinction between attacks on “children in their sleep” and “soldiers at bus stops,” where Palestinians sometimes target IDF troops in the West Bank as they await transportation. Other party leaders demanded a retraction by Bahloul, or suggested that he no longer deserved a place in Labor’s ranks. Even Labor MK Merav Michaeli, a highly regarded figure in the peace movement, termed Bahloul’s comments “unfortunate.”

ONE MUSTN’T get the impression that Israel rejects the idea of separate combatant and noncombatant categories. In fact, Israel’s government frequently invokes this classification in order to defend the country’s military actions, such as its operations in Gaza, where, it says, “The IDF strictly abides by the principles of international law . . . which calls . . . to distinguish at all times between civilians and military forces.” Consequently, the intense, almost wall-to-wall anger in Israel generated by Bahloul’s distinction between soldier and civilian suggests that the issue he raised challenges something fundamental in the Jewish-Israeli narrative. What particular nerve has he struck?

For one thing, he has challenged Jewish Israel’s rather familial nature. Although the IDF is far from the “people’s army” it was once feted as, over half of 18- to 21-year-old Jewish men do serve, and soldiers are very much part of the fabric of society. As a result, Jewish Israel takes its military casualties very personally, making it hard to objectify them as mere “combatants.” The former Labor Party chair, MK Shelly Yachimovich, expressed just such a sensibility in a TV interview when she said that as the mother of two IDF officers, it is “difficult to hear that . . . it’s permissible to spill [my children’s] blood.”

Bahloul did more than offend a parent’s natural desire to protect his or her offspring, however. He also, in the eyes of many, justified the wholesale slaughter of Israeli civilians. Netanyahu, in his widely shared Facebook comments, described Israel’s soldiers as something akin to human security barriers, “defending our lives, with their bodies, from the bloodthirsty murderers.” Palestinians, in other words, are attacking soldiers deep within the West Bank not because the troops are enforcing an occupation, but because they stand between the terrorists and the terrorists’ preferred, defenseless targets. Attacking armed combatants thus becomes tantamount to doing violence to innocent civilians.

As the deadly June 8 terrorist attack at a Tel Aviv restaurant complex so painfully demonstrated, Israeli fears are not to be taken lightly, and Netanyahu’s framing of the situation, while crassly oversimplified, is not a complete concoction. Some Palestinian leaders, such as Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, the Hamas co-founder assassinated by Israel in 2004, have gone so infuriatingly far as to argue that there are no real civilians in Israel, since every Israeli is either a past, current or future soldier.

But the blurring of the soldier-civilian distinction by mainstream Israel, which Netanyahu’s graphic imagery and public statements both express and reinforce, seems representative of a deeper collective dread, a fear that in the long run, the Palestinians seek not independence but the elimination of the Jewish presence anywhere between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. Ignoring the gradual (albeit painfully slow) evolution of the Palestine Liberation Organization position over the past five decades, Netanyahu insists that the occupation is wholly unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In essence, he is a disciple of former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who maintained that “the Arabs” as a whole were immutably committed to Israel’s destruction, and that a two-state solution was but their latest devious device aimed at driving the Jews into the sea.

It is in this light that one can properly understand the greatly expanded deployment of the word “terrorism” by the Israeli right to describe a whole range of activities that have no relation to violence. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sought an upgrade to Palestine’s status at the United Nations, then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called it “diplomatic terrorism,” which he gauged as “more serious” than knives, guns or bombs. In support of a bill to allow the force-feeding of Palestinian hunger-strikers, who are often held without charges or trial, Likud MK Miri Regev, now culture minister, defined a hunger strike as “terrorism in prison,” to which the bill would serve as a deterrent.

Nor is it only Palestinians who are seen as guilty of such “terrorism.” When the European Union (EU) decided it would no longer do business with entities located over the Green Line, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, a central member of Netanyahu’s coalition, termed the step “economic terror.” His party member MK Motti Yogev likewise said the EU was committing “construction terror” when it helped Palestinians build homes in areas of the West Bank that are under Israeli military rule.

WHILE IT IS EASY to roll one’s eyes at such rhetorical contrivances, they express a viewpoint that is all too prevalent in Israel: that any action by or on behalf of the Palestinians is ultimately part of a grand scheme for Israel’s extermination. It is this approach that Bahloul is right to challenge. He argues that “terrorism” has become an easy catch-all term for Jewish Israelis who wish to delegitimize the campaign to end the Occupation. Thus, he complained, no matter the tactic employed, any Palestinian who “takes part in the struggle to remove the wrongs of Occupation, to establish his State . . . and independence . . . he’s a terrorist, too.”

Bahloul likewise rejects Netanyahu’s ongoing efforts to depict the Palestinian issue as part-and-parcel of what the prime minister calls “the Islamic terrorism inundating the world.” Speaking at this year’s AIPAC conference, Netanyahu declared that, just like Al Qaeda and ISIS, the Palestinians have “no resolvable grievances.” Referencing the sites of recent terror attacks in the U.S. and Europe, he included the Palestinian struggle within his apocalyptic warning: “It’s not as if we could offer them Brussels, or Istanbul, or California, or even the West Bank. That won’t satisfy their grievances. Because what they seek is our utter destruction and their total domination. Their basic demand is that we should simply disappear.”

While polls show that roughly two-thirds of Jewish Israelis agree with Netanyahu, Bahloul begs to differ: Whereas groups such as ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra (“al-Qaeda in Syria”) wish to destroy civilization “and cut all our throats,” he said, Palestinian violence sprang from a different source and is fueled by the Israeli “settlements that arose on Palestinian land,” and the “Palestinian longing to create their state.” Bahloul, too, might be guilty of oversimplification in glossing over the powerful elements in Palestinian society that have still not come to terms with Israeli statehood, but his insistence that the conflict can, in fact, be resolved is an important counter to Netanyahu’s woeful forecast that Israel will “forever live by the sword.”

Meanwhile, however, Netanyahu and his supporters clearly have the upper hand, and are now seeking to give statutory force to their conception of “terror.” To date, Israel’s definition of terrorism has been guided by a loosely worded, nonspecific ordinance issued by the country’s provisional government in 1948, well before 1967’s Six-Day War, and therefore unconcerned with the legal distinctions and philosophical dilemmas posed by a military occupation. The Netanyahu government now wishes to supplant that ordinance with a “Fight Against Terrorism” law which would treat “transgressions against soldiers and transgressions against civilians” as legally identical. Both are acts of terror, the bill argues, since they are equally “illegitimate way[s] of achieving political, ideological or religious goals.” (Compare this to the U.S. State Department’s working definition of terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”) Passed in first reading last September with the opposition Labor Party’s support, the Israeli bill is now awaiting further preparation in committee before being submitted for final approval by the Knesset.

Ron Skolnik is the new associate editor of Jewish Currents. An American-Israeli political analyst and columnist, his writing has been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Report, Tikkun, Palestine-Israel Journal and elsewhere. He previously served as political adviser to the British Embassy in Israel and as director of Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA). You can follow Ron on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.