In Mideast, one weapon of choice is a loaded word

The tactical uses of labels, as well as bombs

On June 1, a Palestinian man wandered into a crowd of young Israelis waiting to enter a Tel Aviv dance club. Just before midnight, the bomb strapped to his midriff exploded, riddling the clubgoers with ball bearings and bolts.

Nineteen Israelis and the bomber died that night. Three more Israelis later died of their injuries.

During nearly a year of Israeli-Palestinian strife, the dance-club bombing stands out as the deadliest instance of a certain kind of political violence. "It was terrorism, because what terrorism means is an attack on innocent civilians," said Lianne Elias, a Canadian-Israeli college student who was several blocks away when the bomb exploded. The next day, a mixture of curiosity and condolence drew her to the scene.

"But on the other hand, I see that as a half-truth," she continued, standing near the discarded wrapper of a surgical glove. "Because it's the only way [the Palestinians] have to fight against Israel."

After 10 months of strife, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly defined by "terrorism" - both the act and the epithet.

The Palestinian uprising, or intifada, began last year with mass demonstrations of Palestinian frustration with the unfulfilled promises of the peace process. But in recent months the intifada has devolved into attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians that mix elements of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

On the Israeli side, the country's leaders endlessly cite "Palestinian terrorism" to justify a stranglehold on the Palestinian territories, summary executions of alleged militants, and other measures that Palestinians say add up to "state terror."

Given the absence of any political dialogue that might provide some hope for peace, people on both sides say the situation is as grim as ever, perhaps more so. Palestinians must cope with an increasingly Draconian occupation as Israelis worry about suicide bombings and other assaults by Palestinians.

On both sides of the conflict there are echoes of the past in this near-obsession with terrorism. For many decades, the Palestinians have argued among themselves over what sort of violence was appropriate in their struggle against Israel. In the 1970s and early '80s, international condemnation of Palestinian terrorism - sometimes internecine and sometimes against Israeli targets - undermined what international support the Palestinians were able to muster for their cause.

Despite the Palestine Liberation Organization's 1988 renunciation of armed struggle, some Palestinians groups insist on perpetrating acts of violence that are broadly considered terrorist. With each blast or shooting, a little bit of Palestinian legitimacy seems to seep away.

Defining the word

Attacks on its civilians have long allowed Israel to cast the conflict as a battle for security in the face of the scourge of terrorism, rather than as a struggle between peoples with competing claims to the same land. Today the copious use of the word "terrorism" remains as central as ever to the Israeli portrayal of the dispute. As Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer recently told reporters, "I am not fighting against the Palestinians; I am fighting against terror."

Perhaps no word in modern political usage is more controversial than "terrorism." The United Nations spent 17 years trying to come up with a universally accepted definition, and failed.

In the West and particularly in the US, it is used to describe political groups that stoop to barbarism to advance their agenda. But the Arabs and Muslims who have often been on the receiving end of the word contend that the "terrorist" label unjustly vilifies them and their causes.

They insist that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and that an 18th-century American revolutionary would surely have been a terrorist in British eyes. They argue that the label is used to smear legitimate movements of resistance and national liberation whose interests do not mesh with the West's.

Here is one definition, offered on the website of an Israeli terrorism think tank: "The intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims." This wording contains the three elements found in many attempts to define the concept: violence, civilians, and politics.

At a July 1 Tel Aviv University seminar on terrorism and war crimes, some participants argued that a terrorist act can be recognized on its face. "In deciding whether something is terrorism, you do not ask about the rights or justice of the cause on either side - you only look at what was done," said Max Singer, an Israeli-American public policy researcher who divides time between the US and Israel. Other intellectuals have long argued that acts of political violence have to be considered in light of what brings people to engage in them.

Edward Said, a Columbia University professor of literature who is a defender of the Palestinian cause, wrote in 1996 that "terrorism is bred out of poverty, desperation, a sense of powerlessness and utter misery: it signals the failure of politics and vision."

In much the same way, Palestinian spokesmen emphasize context in discussing their militancy. "We don't justify killing people, but we do justify defending ourselves," says Ismail Abu Shanab, a US-educated engineering instructor in the Gaza Strip and a spokesman for Hamas, a Palestinian party whose militants have killed scores of Israeli civilians. "Whether you call it 'terrorism' or 'self-defense,' the words have no meaning," he explains. "What you have to see is the action and the reaction."

Mr. Abu Shanab says that Hamas's operations are a reaction to Israel's military-enforced occupation of Palestinian lands, its retaliatory strikes against Palestinian targets, its strategy of assassinating Palestinian militants, and the "closures" of towns and villages that choke off Palestinian economic life. Yesterday, Israeli helicopters fired missiles at a Palestinian police building in Gaza City that Israeli officials said was being used to produce mortars and other weapons. At press time, there were no reports of casualties.

"If you hit Palestinian civilians," he adds, "you can't expect your [own] civilians to be safe." His organization claimed responsibility for the bombing at the Tel Aviv dance club.

Many Palestinians say the Israeli measures amount to state terrorism. Palestinians fear being killed in an Israeli military strike, just as Israelis worry about dying at the hands of a Palestinian suicide bomber. Since the uprising began in September, 539 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and 123 on the Israeli side.

Israeli officials concede that their actions and policies have resulted in the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians, but argue that Israel is only defending itself against a Palestinian negotiating strategy that now prominently features violence. Palestinian attacks, particularly those inside Israel proper, are something different, the Israelis say: indiscriminate strikes against civilians that are designed to instill fear.

Israel's own history with terrorism

The Israelis haven't always been on the receiving end alone. Writers such as Professor Said and Patrick Seale, a British journalist with long experience in the Mideast, argue that Jewish groups active before the founding of the Israeli state brought the practice to the region.

In the 1930s and '40s, as Zionists were buying land in what was then known as Palestine, Arabs often rioted against their settlements and attacked Jews on the roads. Vigilante groups arose to retaliate on behalf of the Zionists, often with devastating results.

After a spate of individual killings of Jews in 1938, writes the British historian Martin Gilbert, "on July 6 a single Jewish terrorist bomb killed 25 Arabs in Haifa." The killings continued, and less than three weeks later a Jewish bomb killed 39 Arabs in Haifa's melon market.

More recently, in 1994, an Israeli settler killed 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque in Hebron, and earlier this month an Israeli group called the "Committee for Road Safety" claimed responsibility for the apparantly random killing of two Palestinian men and their 15-week-old relative.

Despite these events, Israel has successfully portayed itself as a victim, not a perpetrator, of terrorism. By the mid-1980s, writes Mr. Seale, "Israel had won wide acceptance for its version of the Arab-Israeli dispute: the violence of its opponents was 'terror,' its own was 'legitimate self-defense.' "

This trend is even more pronounced today. "It's fair to say that Israel describes any attack against it as terrorism," says Mark Heller, deputy director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

In February, a Palestinian bus driver drove his Israeli bus into a bus stop full of waiting soldiers, killing seven of them and one civilian. The Israeli media labeled the event a "terror attack" despite the driver's apparent intent to kill soldiers. "When they kill Israeli soldiers,"says Mr. Singer, referring to palestinian attackers, "it isn't terrorism, it's guerilla warfare."

The Israelis portray the Palestinians as terrorists in part because it helps the country overcome what the Israelis have long seen as an image problem - that fact that they dramatically overpower the Palestinians in terms of military strength and economic power.

At a second Tel Aviv University seminar this month, this one on the strategic use of the media, a top Israeli general named Giora Eiland noted that "we are not the weaker party, nor do we want to be."

David-and-Goliath analogies ought to be discarded in favor of a sheriff-vs.-outlaws scenario, Major General Eiland suggested. "The sheriff is allowed to be stronger because the other side is criminal," he said. "There is no limit to how much you can explain how evil the other side is."

Emphasizing "Palestinian terrorism" also helps Israel find friends abroad in a world that has been broadly supportive of UN resolutions concering the Palestinian claim to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most governments are concerned about terrorism of one kind or another, so rising in support of a people who are constantly described as "terrorists" is no easy matter.

The antidote to terrorism, in the Israeli view, is security. "Terrorism is a form of warfare, and if it's going to be addressed at all, it needs to be addressed as a security threat," says Mr. Heller of the Jaffee Center.

Throughout the negotiations of the 1990s, Israel's dominant concern was guaranteeing its security. After 10 months of fighting, the fear of Palestinian militancy looms ever larger. There is less and less discussion in Israel about the possibility of co-existence.

Palestinians debate tactics

Even though a mid-June poll found that nearly 69 percent of Palestinians say that suicide attacks are a "suitable response" to "current political conditions," some question the wisdom of engaging in such acts.

In early June a Palestinian journalist and Ministry of Information official named Muhannad Abdelhamid argued in the daily newspaper al-Ayyam that suicide operations were illegal and counterproductive.

"The question that poses itself in this regard is whether Israeli repression, the practice of targeting Palestinian civilians, and the imposition of collective punishments allow us to abandon our commitment to universal humanitarian standards in our dealings with Israeli civilians? The answer is No," Mr. Abdelhamid wrote. "Commitment is an indication of strength, an expression of a moral and humanistic superiority, and in addition it serves to win world public opinion to our side."

Abed al-Rahim Mallouh, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, offers a gentle critique of the suicide operations carried out by Hamas and another group, Islamic Jihad. "The PFLP," he says, referring to his own party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, "is not in favor of such actions, but I understand why people are doing such things."

In an interview Mr. Mallouh refuses to say whether suicide operations amount to "terrorism" - the word is apparently too controversial. But his party does practice a different kind of militancy.

After years of dormancy, the PFLP reactivated its military wing a half-year ago. Its members eschew suicide tactics and attacks against civilians. They prefer targets identified with the state of Israel or its security forces.

In late May, the PFLP detonated a car bomb just outside a major Israeli police facility in Jerusalem. The vehicle was parked in a way that reduced the chances of injuring civilians, and indeed, no one was seriously hurt or killed. But the point was made: the PFLP can strike at the heart of the Israeli security apparatus.

While bombings draw the most attention, they aren't the only type of Palestinian violence that can be called terrorist. Many Palestinian militants consider Israeli settlers - those who have built communities on land seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - to be legitimate targets of attack because they are the leading edge of Israeli occupation and enjoy the protection of the Israeli military.

Palestinian gunmen have killed dozens of settlers since last October, and militant groups have fired scores of mortars into Israeli settlements. While the Jerusalem representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross has sharply criticized the settlements, saying they contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention, the ICRC is adamant that settlers themselves are civilians.

Despite the internal debate and the damage to the legitimacy of the Palestinian cause, some Palestinians are intent on continued terrorism against Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad show no signs of backing away from their suicide operations. Their fighters - as well as militants aligned with other, more mainstream Palestinian organizations - continue to kill Israeli settlers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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