Terrorism in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Terrorism in the Israel-Palestine conflict

Professor Igor Primoratz
Department of Philosophy, The Hebrew University, and
Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, The University of Melbourne

[Text of a talk given at Macquarie University on October 21, 2005.]

Terrorism is a central component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every public debate about the conflict abounds in charges and countercharges of terrorism, indicating much confusion about who is and who is not a terrorist and just what terrorism is.

When addressing issues of this sort, applied philosophy seeks to clarify the concepts involved, and to display moral and other principles and values grounding the positions taken. That is what I do, briefly, in the first part of this paper. After offering a definition of terrorism I find helpful in this context and sketching the main approaches to the question of its moral justification, I review the use of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and try to see whether resort to it by either party might be morally justified.

What is terrorism?
Ordinary usage displays a wide variety and considerable confusion. One thing it does make clear is that terrorism is a bad thing. No-one applies the word to oneself or to those one supports. This suggests a double standard of the form "us vs. them".

Another double standard is the tendency to accuse insurgents who resort to violence of engaging in terrorism without taking a closer look into who the victims are, coupled with unwillingness to talk of terrorism when talking about the violent actions and policies of a state, in particular one's own state-even though what is done is the same. This indicates a double standard of the form "state vs. non-state actors": the assumption that terrorism is something done only by insurgents, and never by a state.

Debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provide a good example. Both sides have been committing what many consider terrorism. Yet both deny that they have been engaging in terrorism, and both accuse the other side of doing so. Palestinians are saying: ours is a just struggle against occupation and oppression and for self-determination. We are morally and legally entitled to use violence to this end. That is not terrorism, but fighting for freedom. Israelis respond by saying that the state is merely using its armed forces and security services in defense of the country and the security of its citizens against terrorist attacks. Palestinians are assuming that the decisive criterion of terrorism is the ultimate goal of the agent: if it is a legitimate goal such as national liberation, it cannot be terrorism. In their book, "terrorists fighting for freedom" is a contradiction in terms. Israelis are assuming that it is the identity of the agent that determines whether some act or policy of violence is terrorist or not. If it is a state, it cannot be terrorism; it is warfare or policing action. If it is an insurgent group, then it is terrorism. In their book, "state terrorism" is a contradiction in terms.

Additionally, both sides seem to be assuming that, if there is a violent conflict between two parties and one of them is guilty of terrorism, the other party is thereby absolved of the charge. If they are terrorists, we cannot be.

Unsurprisingly, the debate is at cross-purposes. Philosophy might help by pointing at the sources of confusion, and by offering clarification, and perhaps even a definition, of the concept at issue. I will not try for a definition that captures the core meaning of "terrorism" in ordinary usage, nor one that should be pertinent in every possible context and useful for every possible purpose. Mine should be helpful in discussing the morality of terrorism.

For this purpose, I believe terrorism is best defined as the deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating some other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take.

The direct victims of terrorism are "innocent" in that they are not guilty of any action (or omission) the terrorist could plausibly bring up as a justification of what he does to them. They are not responsible-on any credible understanding of responsibility-for the (real or alleged) injustice, suffering, or deprivation that is being inflicted on him or on those whose cause he has adopted, an injustice, suffering, or deprivation so grave that a violent response to it can properly be considered. Or, if they are, the terrorist does not know that.

If the terrorist subscribes to some plausible understanding of responsibility, that means that he kills or maims people he himself thinks innocent. This is the distinctive obscenity of much terrorism. Some terrorists adopt extremely crude notions of collective responsibility, taking mere membership in an ethnic or religious group or citizenship of a state as sufficient for ascription of such responsibility. Still others are amoralists, and won't be bothered by questions of responsibility at all. Terrorists belonging to these two classes do not believe their victims to be innocent. The distinctive obscenity of their type of terrorism lies in their preposterous notions of responsibility or morality, and the gory consequences these notions have in practice.

The definition highlights the elements of terrorism that lead most of us to judge it as gravely wrong: the use or threat of use of violence against the innocent for the sake of intimidation and coercion. But it does not prejudge the question of its moral justification. It implies only that terrorism is generally wrong. Particular acts and campaigns of terrorism must still be examined and judged on their merits.

Is terrorism ever morally justified?
The answer will depend on one's ethical theory. Consequentialists judge terrorism solely in terms of its consequences. Obviously, it is likely to have bad consequences most of the time, so consequentialists will condemn it most of the time.

Consequentialists criticize those who resort to terrorism too quickly, without checking thoroughly enough whether their terrorist actions and campaigns can indeed be justified by their consequences. This is something many terrorists do and many apologists of terrorism condone. A consequentialist justification of an act or policy of terrorism must show three things: that the aim sought is good enough to justify the harm inflicted; that the aim will indeed be achieved by terrorism; and that it cannot be achieved by any other, less costly means. However, the consequentialist has no case against those terrorists who do their calculation responsibly and thoroughly, and reach the conclusion that yes, under the circumstances, terrorism will have good consequences on balance-say, it will indeed lead to liberation from oppressive foreign rule-which cannot be achieved in any other way.

From a nonconsequentialist point of view, terrorism does appear as never, or hardly ever, morally justified. It offends against the fundamental moral principle of respect for persons. Respect for persons can be understood as respect for their basic human rights. Human beings are to be respected as holders of rights, which circumscribe a certain area of freedom, thereby acknowledging and protecting personhood. The terrorist cannot show this type of respect. For if you have any basic rights at all, surely the right not to be killed or maimed in order that the terrorist's aim be promoted is one of them.

Alternatively, showing respect for persons can be taken to mean not treating them as mere means. At a minimum, this requires that the other be able to "share in the end" of our action towards her, that is, to consent to it. That is just what the terrorist's victim is in no position to do. Indeed, terrorism is often cited as an example of reducing other people to mere means.

Another central nonconsequentialist objection to terrorism refers to one of the fundamental moral distinctions-that between responsibility and the lack of it, or between guilt and innocence. Hostile treatment of another human being must be justified by her being responsible for some wrongdoing whose gravity is proportionate to the gravity of our response. Those not responsible for such wrongdoing should not be subjected to hostile treatment, and in particular mustn't be subjected to violence. Yet terrorists deliberately attack, kill, and otherwise severely harm innocent people; this, and the aim of intimidation and coercion, is what makes them terrorists.

Some terrorists maintain that their victims are not innocent. But this assumes a drastic extension of the notions of responsibility and guilt that allows for claims such as "All Israelis are responsible for the policies of the Sharon government", or "All Palestinians are implicated in terrorism". When the notions of responsibility or guilt are stretched to this extent the very distinction between responsibility and the lack of it, or between guilt and innocence, no longer makes much sense, at least when we are concerned with the sort of thing terrorists do to their victims.

These objections to terrorism show it to be at odds with some of the most basic moral beliefs of many of us. Do those who hold these beliefs have to say that terrorism can never be justified?

Some want to say just this. Mine is a less uncompromising position. I reject the consequentialist view that terrorism is justified whenever its consequences are good on balance, but admit that it might be justified in certain extreme, and extremely rare circumstances. This shouldn't be confused with the argument about "the only method available to the poor and powerless". My position lays down two conditions: that terrorism is indeed the only method available and likely to succeed, and that what is to be prevented by its use is an imminent evil so great that it can be considered a moral disaster.

Contrary to what fighters against social or economic oppression, colonial rule, or foreign occupation, and radical thinkers generally, tend to say, evils of such magnitude that they can justify wholesale killing and maiming of innocent people are extremely rare. Not every case of oppression, foreign rule, or occupation, however morally indefensible, amounts to a moral disaster in the relevant sense. The radical is soft on insurgent terrorism.

On the other hand, not every imminent threat to the "survival and freedom of a political community" should count as a "supreme emergency" that can justify large-scale onslaught on innocent people, as Michael Walzer has argued. My position is structurally similar to Walzer's "supreme emergency" view, but much more restrictive. Walzer is soft on state terrorism.

But if a community is subjected to genocide, or to an attempt at "ethnically cleansing" it from its land, then it is facing a true moral disaster, and may properly consider terrorism as a means of struggle against such a fate. In view of their enormity and finality, genocide and "ethnic cleansing" constitute a category apart. To be sure, resorting to terrorism will be morally justified only if there are very good grounds for believing that terrorism will succeed where nothing else will: in preventing an imminent genocide or "ethnic cleansing", or stopping it in its tracks, or reversing its effects. Cases where both conditions are met will be extremely rare.
This completes the ethical groundwork for the discussion of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I now turn to some facts of this conflict.

Palestinian terrorism
In much public discourse, the Palestinians are cast as the villain: the party that has been using terrorism, unrelentingly and almost throughout the conflict. Yet they have not been the only party employing terrorism; they were not the first to use it on a large scale; and their terrorist actions and campaigns do not account for the majority of civilians deliberately killed in the course of this conflict.

What is true is that the Palestinians were the first to resort to violence, and to violence against the innocent at that. During the first decade of British rule in Palestine, Palestinian mobs rioted in several towns; scores of Jewish civilians were killed and many more were wounded. Such riots were outbreaks of blind mob rage, rather than advised acts of violence aiming at intimidation and coercion. Thus they fall short of terrorism, although this is not to say that they are much less morally repugnant. Similar riots took place in the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt against British rule. The primary targets of the guerrilla bands were British military and police; but they also attacked Jewish settlements and killed both their armed defenders and civilians. What should count as terrorism were focused attacks on Jewish traffic, farmers in the field, and homes in towns.

The 1948-49 war included one major case of Palestinian terrorism, committed in response to the massacre in Deir Yassin: the ambush of a convoy taking medical personnel to the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, in which more than seventy civilians were killed.

It is only since late sixties that the Palestinians resorted to terrorism in a sustained way and on a large scale. After the Palestine Liberation Organization failed to bring about a popular uprising in the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war had failed, it took to terrorism, and carried out numerous attacks against civilian targets in Israel and the occupied territories, and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. Many still remember some particularly spectacular and gory attacks in the seventies and eighties, such as the attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972, in which eleven Israeli athletes were killed, or in Ma'alot in 1974, which claimed the lives of twenty high school pupils. Palestinian terrorists also focused on air traffic, hijacking planes, attacking them with rockets, bombing them out of the skies, and massacring passengers at airports.

In the last two decades, Palestinian terrorism has gone through ebb and flow. The mid-nineties and the second Palestinian intifada were the heyday of suicide bombers. Some attacked Israeli soldiers and should be considered guerrilla fighters, although Israelis perceived them, too, as terrorists. But others targeted civilians. Some of these attacks claimed scores of victims.

Have the Palestinians been justified in employing terrorism? They have had a just cause for taking up arms against Israel: theirs is a struggle for national liberation. But although virtually every case of foreign rule, and every case of oppression of one nation by another, is a moral enormity, not every such case is such an enormity that terrorism, too, may be used in response. Terrorism is such a great moral wrong in itself that it is almost absolutely prohibited. In this, as in any other case, this extremely weighty moral prohibition can be overridden only when two conditions are satisfied: (1) when a community is facing a true moral disaster, such as genocide or "ethnic cleansing", and (2) when terrorism, and only terrorism, will prevent, or stop, or reverse, that disaster.

I submit that the first condition is satisfied. The Palestinians have had a just cause for armed resistance from a very early stage of the Zionist settlement, which was taking their land from them and appropriating it for Jewish settlers. This applies both to the lands and homes of individual Palestinians, and to the country as a whole. Nonviolent political struggle proved impotent against the combined strength of the Zionist movement and the British. The 1948-49 war ended with the State of Israel secured, its boundaries way beyond what the UN resolution enjoining the division of Palestine had allocated to it, encompassing about 78 per cent of the country. No Palestinian state came into being in the remaining parts of Palestine; they were taken over by Jordan and Egypt. Some 700,000 Palestinians who had lived in what was now Israel were "ethnically cleansed": scattered all over the region, about half of them in refugee camps, denied the prospect of ever returning to their homes, their towns and villages either given over to Jewish settlers, or systematically razed to the ground. Those Palestinians who remained within Israel's borders (less than 150,000) became second-class citizens of the Jewish State. An entire society, with its history and culture, was uprooted and pulled apart. Surely this qualifies as a true moral disaster. Indeed, that is what the Palestinians call it: al nakbah-the Disaster.

Subsequent developments cemented and compounded this disaster. In the 1967 war, Israel conquered the remaining parts of Palestine. Further 200,000 to 250,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled. Those who remained were subjected to an intrusive and oppressive regime of occupation, dispossession, and economic strangulation, geared to forcing ever more Palestinians to leave. Israel started settling Jews in the conquered territories with a view of eventually annexing all or at least large chunks of them.

Back in late sixties, Palestinian resistance might well have felt justified in resorting to terrorism so far as the first of the two conditions-that of a community being hit by a true moral disaster-was concerned. The second condition is another matter. Nonviolent politics and guerrilla warfare had proven of no avail. If Israel was to be pushed out of the territories conquered in 1967, if the Palestinians were to attain self-determination, and if at least some of the consequences of the nakbah were to be reversed, the only remaining method of struggle seemed to be terrorism. Yet from the fact that non-terrorist methods have failed it doesn't follow that terrorism will succeed. Not every problem has a solution; not every disaster can be reversed, or even significantly mitigated.
Palestinian terrorism did mobilize Arab public opinion behind the Palestinians' cause. It made the international community understand that the problem was not merely humanitarian, but one of liberation, self-determination, and repatriation of an entire people. Yet it also greatly undermined the sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Israelis, too, found it ever more difficult to ignore the political nature of the problem. At the same time, every wave of terrorism brought about further hardening of attitudes. Even the most desperate type of terrorism, the suicide mission, has been of no avail.

Overall, terrorism does not seem to have brought the Palestinians any closer to liberation, self-determination, and repatriation. They might have hoped that it would at the very beginning, but should have been disabused of any such hope early on. Nor is it likely to help achieve these aims in the foreseeable future. Therefore, their resort to terrorism doesn't satisfy the second requirement of what I hold to be the sole acceptable justification of terrorism: the requirement of effectiveness. The terrorism of the Palestinians was not justified in the past. It is not justified today. The killing and maiming of civilians they keep perpetrating is neither rational, nor morally defensible.

Jewish/Israeli terrorism
In much of public discourse in Israel and in the West, the Palestinians' armed struggle is perceived as bound up with, if not reducing to, terrorism. Yet the other party to the conflict, too, has engaged in terrorism. First the military wing of the Zionist movement and then the State of Israel employed terrorism, in a sustained way and on a large scale, in establishing the Jewish state, expanding its borders, and making the state as ethnically homogeneous as possible. The facts of Jewish/Israeli terrorism tend to be ignored, denied, or recast in a very different light.

In response to sporadic acts of Palestinian terrorism in the course of the 1936-39 rebellion against British rule, the Zionists responded in the same currency, but in a sustained way and on a larger scale. In the 1948-49 war, Jewish terrorism escalated further. By now all three Zionist armed formations-the mainstream Haganah and the smaller Irgun and Lehi-were engaging in terrorism, systematically and in a big way. That was the obvious thing to do, as their aim was to set up and defend a Jewish state that would comprise as much of Palestine as possible and would be ridden of as many of the natives as possible. Given the demographic situation, that required what we now call "ethnic cleansing", and what the Zionist movement and later the Israeli establishment euphemistically termed "transfer".
Jewish terrorism had two main forms. The two smaller organizations carried out a campaign of bombing in towns. Both of them also cooperated in military operations with the Haganah, which after the proclamation of Israel's independence on May 14, 1948 had become the regular army of an internationally recognized state. That involved attacking Palestinian villages and towns and killing civilians. That was sometimes done, in part, in the course of the conquest of a village or town, whether by shooting and shelling from outside positions, or when Jewish forces burst in with all guns blazing in every direction. Sometimes it was done in the aftermath of the conquest, when Palestinian civilians were killed in their homes, or rounded up and shot. According to Benny Morris, the Zionist military perpetrated "20-odd cases of massacre" in the course of the war. Some claimed a dozen or so victims, some many more.

The question of the causes of the Palestinian exodus from the parts of Palestine that ended up under Israeli control has always been contentious. The official Israeli line has been to blame the Palestinians themselves: they left because they had been instructed to do so by their highest political body, the Arab Higher Committee. The official Palestinian line has been that the nakbah was the result of systematic implementation of a Zionist master plan for cleansing Palestine of Palestinians. No-one has ever produced the alleged AHC instruction, nor discovered a document spelling out a Zionist grand plan for making Palestine, or as much of it as possible, Arab-free. Morris shows that the exodus had a number of causes: expulsion by Jewish forces, fear of Jewish attack or of being caught up in the fighting, assault on the towns and villages by Jewish forces, atrocities committed on civilians by those forces, psychological warfare waged by Jewish forces aiming at getting the Palestinians to flee, instructions to leave given by local Palestinian leaders, and news of the fall of neighboring Palestinian towns and villages or of a flight from them. The relative importance of these causes for the overall outcome cannot be established with any accuracy. But "the atrocity factor" played an important role in this process. The Deir Yassin massacre, in particular, had an immense impact throughout the country. Its message of slaughter of civilians, rape, and plunder-periodically reinforced by subsequent massacres perpetrated by Jewish forces-couldn't fail to register dramatically. According to Morris, Deir Yassin "had the most lasting effect of any single event of the war in precipitating the Palestinian exodus."

After the war, more than three quarters of the native population of what was now Israel ended up outside the new state's borders, while their homes and lands remained within those borders. Some found themselves in refugee camps close to the new border, their homes and lands within sight, but beyond reach.
This brought about a new phenomenon, Palestinian infiltrators into Israel. Their motives varied. Morris estimates that less than ten per cent were bent on guerrilla warfare or terrorism. They did cause numerous Israeli casualties. Others came to retrieve possessions, look for missing relatives, or just get a glimpse of their homes. Still others came to steal. The vast majority went unarmed. However, Israelis saw them all as terrorists. Israeli army responded by laying mines, shooting to kill on sight, executing captured infiltrators, and carrying out reprisal actions.

At first, Israeli reprisals were to be directed against the infiltrators who had inflicted Israeli casualties. When these proved elusive, Israel switched to "indirect deterrence": to sending army units across the border to kill civilians and blow up their homes, thereby forcing the authorities of the neighboring Arab states to curb infiltration into Israel. This policy was implemented from 1951 to 1953. The numbers of civilians killed and homes destroyed in such attacks varied. What did not vary was that soldiers were deliberately killing innocent civilians for the sake of intimidation and coercion of others, that the numbers of Palestinians killed were disproportionately high relative to Israeli casualties that had triggered the response, and that Israeli government denied all responsibility, portraying the reprisals as vigilante actions of unidentified frontier settlers.

Israel took to "indirect deterrence" again, on an even larger scale, in the seventies, trying to put an end to guerrilla and terrorist attacks Palestinian resistance organizations were launching from Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Again, the numbers of civilians killed in Israeli reprisals were disproportionately high compared to casualties sustained by Israel. In late seventies and throughout the eighties and nineties, the reprisals were directed mainly against Lebanon. The proclaimed aim of Israeli artillery and air force attacks on towns and villages was to make south Lebanon "uninhabitable", thereby forcing the Beirut government to curb Palestinian and Lebanese resistance.

Finally, some of the methods Israel has used to maintain its occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 can be considered terrorist. One is "pinpointed liquidations"; another is blowing up family homes as collective punishment.

These, then, are the main varieties of Jewish/Israeli terrorism against Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Can it be justified?

I cannot see how any of it can be defended from a moral point of view. The only plausible justification of terrorism, the argument about the only way of preventing an imminent moral disaster, does not apply at any stage. Would losing the 1948-49 war have been such a disaster for the Jewish population of Palestine and what remained of European Jewry? It depends on just what war aim would not have been achieved. If the aim was to establish "a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine", then some might argue that, in view of the fate of European Jews in World War II, failure to achieve this aim should count as a moral disaster. The question whether it should need not concern us; for attaining this aim did not require the use of terrorism. On the other hand, if the aim of the war was to take over most of Palestine and "ethnically cleanse" it of most of its native population-that is, what the Zionists actually achieved-then terrorism was indeed necessary. But there was no moral justification for doing that. Indeed, the success of that enterprise was itself a moral disaster: the nakbah.

If the argument of preventing an imminent moral disaster doesn't apply to the 1948-49 war, it is irrelevant to the later stages of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since its establishment, the State of Israel has faced a series of challenges. But none can seriously be portrayed as a threat of an imminent moral disaster such that fending it off could justify a policy of deliberate killing and maiming of large numbers of innocent civilians. All the campaigns of terrorism Israel has carried out throughout its conflict with the Palestinians have been morally indefensible.

I believe this discussion of the use of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in addition to providing a brief account of the facts more balanced than the one informing much of public debate in the West, also tells in favor of the definition of terrorism I find helpful in discussing the question of its morality, and supports the position I take on this question. When deciding what is to be described and condemned as terrorism in this, as in any other conflict, we need to cut through the thicket of different identities of those using political violence, their different and often mutually opposed ultimate objectives, and the rhetoric and double standards that compound the confusion. The definition I suggest puts all that to one side, and focuses on the nature of the act and the proximate aims it is meant to achieve. It highlights the traits which we find in such instances of terrorism as Ma'alot or Qibya, and which cause most of us to regard terrorism with utmost moral repugnance: violence against the innocent for the sake of intimidation and coercion of someone else. This is terrorism, whether done by Palestinian insurgents or by the armed forces and security services of the State of Israel; whether done in the struggle against Israel's oppression of Palestinians, or as part and parcel of that oppression, or in response to Palestinian terrorism.

Since this is what terrorism is, it is morally wrong. Its wrongness is intrinsic and extremely serious. When employed in a struggle lacking a just cause, there is nothing to be said in its defense-as in the case of Jewish and Israeli terrorism throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it is highly unlikely to be justified even when employed in a just cause-as in the case of Palestinian terrorism throughout that conflict. What the Palestinians call the nakbah is indeed a moral disaster of the sort that might override the prohibition of using deadly violence against innocent people. But for this prohibition to be overridden, a further condition must be met: such violence must be an efficient way, and the only way, of preventing the imminent disaster, or putting an end to it, or reversing its consequences. This further condition has never been met: killing and maiming civilians did not help prevent or stop the nakbah, or reverse its consequences, and there is no reason to believe that it will help reverse its consequences today. Therefore the Palestinians' resort to terrorism was not justified in the past, and is not justified today.
All this is an object lesson in the extreme difficulty of justifying resort to lethal violence against innocent civilians, in line with the view that terrorism is almost absolutely wrong.

Back to the top of this page