At first, Zohra Drif’s act of placing a bomb on September 30, 1956 in the Milk Bar in Algiers, a place frequented by French civilians, looks like a clear violation of the laws of war.
A closer look at the specific historical circumstances may qualify that judgment — and also expose the hypocrisy of some who condemned Zohra Drif, both then and now.
But in the end, this ethical discussion unfortunately does not matter. Zohra Drif’s message in her stunning, just-published memoir, Inside the Battle of Algiers, is that a people under occupation can never be completely subdued and will fight for their freedom with any means necessary. Terrible violence by the occupiers will eventually engender violence in return. Israelis and their supporters in the United States ignore this hard truth at their peril.
The modern Algerian fight for independence started on May 8, 1945, the very day France and its allies were celebrating victory over Nazi Germany. Thousands of Algerians demonstrated peacefully at the town of Sétif, in the eastern part of their country, arguing that they, too, deserved liberation — from a colonial apartheid system that had stolen their land and confined them to second-class status. French colonial forces opened fire, and in the days that followed somewhere between 6000 and 13,000 Algerians died, possibly more.
Still, the National Liberation Front (FLN) did not launch armed attacks until November 1954, a full 9 years after the massacre of Sétif, as the Algerians still hoped to move peacefully toward independence. The colonial regime responded to the first FLN attacks with ferocious, indiscriminate violence that made no distinction between civilians and armed resisters. There are well-documented accounts of French mass killings, bombing raids, torture, and gang rape. The French/American writer Ted Morgan, who was drafted into the French army, described in his 2005 memoir (My Battle of Algiers) how he beat to death an Algerian FLN fighter who had already surrendered. Algerians responded with atrocities of their own, including killing French civilians and mutilating bodies.
An informal Balance of Terror seems to have taken hold within the brutal conflict, in which the French recognized that if they went beyond certain limits, the Algerians would retaliate in kind. Then, in June 1956, the colonial forces broke one of the rules. First, they guillotined two captured FLN members, violating a tacit understanding. Then, the French or their colon allies planted a huge bomb at the Rue de Thebes in the Casbah, the segregated Muslim community in the capital of Algiers, that killed more than 70 people.
Zohra Drif explains in her memoir, “Before Rue de Thebes, neither the FLN nor the ALN (National Liberation Army) had any bombs, explosives labs, specialists in the explosives field, or activists prepared to place bombs in public places. . . our bombings were a response — completely necessary but not premeditated — to the bomb attacks perpetrated by European civilians against our people.”
Public opinion in France and elsewhere denounced the FLN bombings, often without inquiring too closely into French violence. A compelling scene in the classic film, “The Battle of Algiers,” illustrates this hypocrisy concisely. At a press conference, French reporters ask Larbi Ben M’hidi, a captured FLN leader, if putting bombs in picnic baskets is not unethical. He answers: “The French drop their bombs on our people from warplanes. Give us your planes and you can have our baskets.” (In reality, the French murdered Ben M’hidi after his capture. Zohra Drif’s book includes a vivid first-hand portrait of him, which shows painfully how much a man of his character and intelligence could have contributed to an independent Algeria.)
In fact, you could even argue that the actions of Zohra Drif and her colleagues may well have helped partly restore the Balance of Terror, and ended up actually sparing many more civilians, Algerians as well as even French.
But the hard truth is that once the Algerian conflict passed a certain level of savagery, the ethical question was barely relevant. The cold facts are that occupiers will use escalating violence to maintain their hold over a subject people. The colonized will fight back in every way they can, without paying strict attention to a system of ethics that the colonizer has long since thrown out.
The relevance to Israel/Palestine in 2017 is clear. Let us take Israel’s attack on Gaza in July 2014 as just one example. Israel and its apologists lied about the “terror tunnels, ” supposedly aimed at civilians within Israel, even though the evidence is that Palestinian fighters used the underground passages exclusively to hit military targets. Meanwhile, the Israel Air Force blasted densely populated Gaza, and Israeli invading soldiers fired a total of 3 million bullets — nearly 2 rounds for every one of the territory’s 1.8 million people. The final death toll was more than 2000 Palestinians and 67 Israeli soldiers. But the international ethics discussion placed disproportionate importance on the Palestinian rockets — which killed a total of 4 civilians within Israel.
Again, though, the ethical debate unfortunately will come to matter little. Unless Boycott Divestment Sanctions and other peaceful measures start producing clear progress toward a solution, the Palestinians will continue to resist; Zohra Drif’s indispensable memoir points out that more than 120 years of French occupation did not break the Algerian people. The Israelis will become even more violent. And the Palestinians will not give in. They will fight back, using whatever means they can.