Is All Palestinian Violence ‘Terrorism’?

Categories: Israel, Letters From Leadership
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I found this piece in Jewish Currents, “When Does Resistance Become Terrorism?,” by its new associate editor Ron Skolnik (a former executive director of Partners for Progressive Israel), to be mostly on point.  My one caution is that MK Bahloul’s otherwise appropriate distinction between Palestinian attacks on IDF soldiers serving in the West Bank and terrorist attacks on civilians was probably heard by most Israelis as justifying or encouraging attacks on Israeli soldiers, something that borders on treason.  I doubt that he meant any such thing, but if he indicated that he was explaining rather than advocating such violence, this was not reported.  (See postscript* for Ron Skolnik’s enlightening response to me on this point.)

The following are excerpts from Skolnik’s Jewish Currents article:

. . .  [I]n early April … 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]?”  .  . .

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.”

. . .  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.

Skolnik went on to mention Avigdor Lieberman’s characterization of Palestinian efforts at the UN as “diplomatic terrorism,” and Naftali Bennett calling a European Union boycott of settlement goods as “economic terrorism”:

. . . [This is] 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.”  . . .

Click here for the full article online.

*Postscript from Ron Skolnik: Bahloul was not calling for or encouraging attacks on Israeli soldiers. Similar to Tzipi Livni on Nightline 10 years ago, he termed an attack on a military camp, for example, an act of “war” (HEB interview at minute 4:30), as opposed to ‘terrorism’. Moreover, he said elsewhere, the perpetrators of attacks against Israeli soldiers should be severely punished by the Israeli court system. Bahloul’s stated goal was not to promote violence but to create a more nuanced discourse in which not all acts of Palestinian violence (or even Palestinian non-violence) are lumped together by Jewish Israelis into a single monolithic category.

About Ralph Seliger

A veteran editor, freelance writer and blogger, I edited the print magazine, "Israel Horizons," from 2003 until 2011; and I've blogged for and edited the Meretz USA and now Partners for Progressive Israel Blog since its inception in 2006 (although I no longer edit the PPI Blog). I've been an active supporter of the Zionist peace camp since 1982. Other print and online platforms where I've been published include: The Forward, The Daily Beast, History News Network, Tikkun, In These Times, Jewish Week, New Jersey Jewish News, Jewish Currents, Huffington Post, and Dissent.
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