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Israel’s decades-long effort to turn the word ‘terrorism’ into an ideological weapon

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The Israeli discourse on “terrorism” has a long history, one in which Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister, played a central role.

Thirty years ago, at a major conference on “international terrorism” in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu insisted that “without a clear understanding of terrorism, the problem cannot be tackled” and proposed a clear, simple definition: “Terrorism is the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.”

The discourse draws its normative, rhetorical power from a simple, central claim: what separates “us” from “the terrorists” is a fundamentally different, irreconcilable conception of the value of innocent, civilian life.

However, a historical survey of the years immediately preceding the Washington conference shows that the Israeli discourse never followed such a definition of “terrorism” and was, from the very start, fundamentally ideological.

In the real world, Israel repeatedly accused its enemies of “terrorism” for attacks against civilians but also against military targets; meanwhile, it never used the term to refer to violence against civilians by its allies.

The June 24-27, 1984 conference was organized by the Jonathan Institute, named after Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother, a member of the Israeli Special Forces killed in 1976 during the famous raid at Entebbe.

The participants represented a veritable who’s who of Israeli and American politicians, academics and commentators, making the conference (later published into an extremely successful book by Netanyahu) a landmark event in the history of the Israeli and American discourses on “terrorism.”

The purpose of the Institute, through such conferences (the first took place in Jerusalem in 1979), was to convince the governments of the “free world” that the “battle against terrorism” Israel had been waging for years was in fact “part of a much larger struggle, one between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism.”

“Terrorism” was said to be intimately linked to “totalitarianism” as well as to Islam. Moscow, along with the PLO and its Arab allies, were repeatedly described as the central actors in a veritable “international terrorist network.”

In his introductory comments Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that the fight against “terrorism” required “moral clarity.” Having presented the definition cited above, he argued that “terrorism” has a “pernicious effect” because it “blurs the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the central tenet of the laws of war.” This was why “guerillas” and “terrorists” were different: the former waged war on armed combatants while the latter attacked “defenseless civilians.”

In the real world however, Israeli officials used the word “terrorism” in ways fundamentally incompatible with Netanyahu’s claim to “moral clarity.”

By the time the conference took place, Israel had been involved in Lebanon for two years.

Repeatedly, Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted that the invasion came in response to the “terrorism” of the PLO, and that its main objective was to combat the “terrorist threat” posed by the organization’s presence in Lebanon.

Throughout the conflict, Israeli elected officials used the term “terrorist” incessantly, almost obsessively, to refer to all members of the PLO and, often, to all Palestinians living in besieged Beirut.

The same was true, to a great extent, of the Israeli media. As Robert Fisk notes in “Pity the Nation,” the Jerusalem Post changed all AP reports from Beirut and modified every reference to “guerrilla” into “terrorists” until the AP “told the paper’s editor to stop.”

And so, when a pick-up truck crammed with explosives smashed into the headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Tyre on November 4 1983, Israel immediately denounced it as an act of “terrorism” and, in response, bombed Syrian and Palestinian targets.

John Hughes, spokesman for the US State Department, called the Israeli bombings “understandable wrath” and condemned “the tragic bombing by terrorists of the Israeli army building in Tyre.”

At least one Israeli journalist took issue with his government’s discourse at the time. On November 13, Michael Elkins wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “by the criteria we ourselves have demanded […] what happened in Tyre may not be dismissed as terrorism, but was instead a guerrilla action.” Such a distinction was important because “by calling the action in Tyre ‘terrorist,’ we are demonstrating yet again our stubborn and increasingly pervasive refusal to see any slightest core of legitimacy in the Palestinian and Arab side of the conflict between us.”

In practice, Israel’s definition of “terrorism” was much broader than Netanyahu’s. It was also much narrower, since Israeli officials never applied the term to violence against civilians coming from their allies.

Around 6 pm on September 16, 1982, the Phalangists, a Christian militia, entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. A day and a half later, they had massacred hundreds of men, women and children.

If “terrorism” is “the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends,” then surely these men were “terrorists.”

On February 9, 1983, the Kahan Commission of Inquiry issued its report, famously concluding that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for what happened in the camps.

The word “terrorist” appears 45 times. At first, it is preceded by the qualifier “Palestinian.” Then, in the expression “the terrorists,” it is repeated over and over again.

Commission members appear to have worked from two clear, and related, assumptions. First: “terrorist” is the obvious, appropriate terminology to refer to anyone related to the PLO, Israel’s enemy in Lebanon. Second, and just as obviously: the word cannot refer to Israel’s allies, even when they massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

In fact, Israeli officials and the Commission itself saw the Phalangists as valued allies in the fight against “the terrorists.”

Thus, Brigadier General Yaron explained that, upon learning that the Israeli forces had sent the Phalangists into the camps, he was “pleased because it was clear to him that this camp contained many terrorists.”

The Commission agreed. Israel had wanted to “take advantage of the Phalangists’ professional service and their skills in identifying terrorists and in discovering arms caches.” They were, after all, “more expert than the I.D.F. in uncovering and identifying terrorists.”

This remained the Commission’s analysis even though the report cites a Phalangist who, asked about the killing of civilians, had explained: “The pregnant women will give birth to terrorists and children will grow up to be terrorists.”

At the Washington conference, Netanyahu did not refer to the Christian militias allied with Israel as “terrorists.” And yet, he illustrated his claim that the decision to harm civilians was “where the terrorist parts company with humanity” as follows: “A baby is fair game; he may, after all, grow up a soldier. So is the baby’s mother; she gave birth to this future soldier.”

The discourse on “terrorism” draws its rhetorical power from its claim to stand for a clear, principled opposition to all political violence against innocent, civilian life.

In the real world however, Israel’s discursive practices have repeatedly, in fact systematically, contradicted this claim. They have never reflected the definition of “terrorism” put forward by Netanyahu some 30 years ago.

The Israeli discourse, far from being driven by “moral clarity,” has been fundamentally ideological. It has been the discourse of de-legitimization, and of de-humanization.

From Lebanon to Gaza, it has all too often been used to rationalize and justify precisely the kind of political violence against civilian life that it claims to abhor. As historian Avi Shlaim rightly argues: “A new narrative is urgently needed, one based on the real facts of this tragic conflict, international law, and human decency.”

Rémi Brulin

Remi Brulin received his PhD at La Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris) in 2011. His dissertation is a historical analysis of the American discourse on "terrorism," and can be accessed and downloaded here. He has taught at New York University, George Washington University and, currently, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. You can follow him on Twitter here: @rbrulin.

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17 Responses

  1. just on August 26, 2014, 9:21 am

    Great article, Rémi Brulin.

    The lexicon needs to be changed. “The Global War on Terror” is part and parcel of our complicity in, and wholesale endorsement of, the corruptness of ‘Israel- think’.

    If one is to combat this, we have to apply the same ‘moral clarity’ and words to those that seek to de- humanize and de- legitimize resistance fighters. Are the actions of Israel terrorism? By Netanyahu’s own definition: “Terrorism is the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.” , one has to answer with a resounding ‘yes’.

  2. Karl Dubhe on August 26, 2014, 10:32 am

    If “terrorism” is “the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends,” then surely these men were “terrorists.”

    In the quote above, shouldn’t the word ‘men’ be replaced by nation states? Because any war is going to involve the deliberate, systematic murder… When have humans not fought to gain ‘political ends’? Using a term to describe everything makes the term meaningless doesn’t it?

  3. Kay24 on August 26, 2014, 12:08 pm

    It is so obvious that Netanyahu labels Hamas as terrorists to justify the brutality of Israeli troops, and since the world seemed skeptical he then went on to associate Hamas with ISIS.
    That too, does not seem to impress the rest of the world.
    As usual Israel calls the Palestinians terrorists, when the world questions the HIGH number of casualties, including the children. We heard Israel and their shameless American apologists, blame Hamas and the Palestinians for the deaths of children, blown up by US made weapons, and used by the ruthless IDF. They bomb Mosques, UN shelters, homes, the electricity plant, water systems, and justify it all saying “terrorists are in there/store weapons in there”,
    and no one can confirm this, it is the word of the damn occupier, who has been known to lie most times, even to start this bloody war.

    The war criminal Netanyahu has lost this war in many ways, including within his own nation.
    He is DOWN in the polls, and Israelis seem to be sick of the way he handled this slaughter in Gaza, maybe they wanted him to decimate the entire place, bomb it back to the middle ages, put the Palestinians in concentration camps, who knows, they overwhelmingly supported this war anyway.
    Support for Netanyahu plunges as Gaza truce remains elusive
    Fewer than four in 10 Israelis think the prime minister is doing a good job, down from a record 82 percent around a month ago.

    Only 38 percent of Israelis are satisfied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance as the Gaza fighting approaches its 50th day, according to a poll for Channel 2 by market research firm Shiluv Millward Brown.

    • amigo on August 27, 2014, 11:52 am

      “Support for Netanyahu plunges as Gaza truce remains elusive
      Fewer than four in 10 Israelis think the prime minister is doing a good job, down from a record 82 percent around a month ago. -” Kay 24.

      Not to worry, he can have his 97,000 Euro bed installed in his plane on his way out of Yisrael.

      His travel plans might soon be somewhat restricted though.Going to be tough spending his retirement years in Micronesia or Palau.

  4. gracie fr on August 26, 2014, 1:30 pm

    Netanyahu is following closely in the footsteps of Ariel Sharon, now elevated by hagiographers to a Minister of Defense who put Israel first in the face of global terrorism…..
    The Israeli Kahan commission (28 September 1982 – 8 February 1983) of enquiry into the Sabra and Shatila massacre provided absolute proof that Israeli soldiers saw the massacre taking place. The evidence of a Lieutenant Avi Grabovsky was crucial. He was an Israeli deputy tank commander and reported what he saw to his higher command. “Don’t interfere,” the senior officer said. Ever afterwards, Israeli embassies around the world would claim that the commission held Sharon only indirectly responsible for the massacre. It was untrue. The last page of the official Israeli report held Sharon “personally responsible”. It was years later that the Israeli-trained Phalangist commander, Elie Hobeika, now working for the Syrians, agreed to turn state’s evidence against Sharon – now the Israeli Prime Minister – at a Brussels court. The day after the Israeli attorney general declared Sharon’s defence a “state” matter, Hobeika was killed by a massive car bomb in east Beirut. Israel denied responsibility. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Brussels and quietly threatened to withdraw Nato headquarters from Belgium if the country maintained its laws to punish war criminals from foreign nations. Within months, George W Bush had declared Sharon “a man of peace”. It was all over
    Sharon voted against the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. He voted against a withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1985. He opposed Israel’s participation in the Madrid peace conference in 1991. He opposed the Knesset plenum vote on the Oslo agreement in 1993. He abstained on a vote for peace with Jordan in 1994. He voted against the Hebron agreement in 1997. He condemned the manner of Israel’s retreat from Lebanon in 2000. By 2002, he had built 34 new Jewish colonies on Palestinian land. …….It was he who claimed that the preposterous Yasser Arafat was a Palestinian bin Laden. He it was who as Israeli foreign minister opposed Nato’s war in Kosovo, inveighing against “Islamic terror” in Kosovo. “The moment that Israel expresses support…it’s likely to be the next victim.

  5. just on August 26, 2014, 1:56 pm

    well, here’s something ‘interesting’:

    “In response to discovering an Israeli drone flying over its nuclear facilities, Iran said it will arm Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, an Iranian military official said.

    “Tehran will accelerate arming Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in retaliation for Israel deploying the spy drone over Iran,” General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of aerial forces of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, said in a statement on its official website.

    “We reserve the right to give any response,” he added.

    Israel refused to comment on the incident saying that it does not comment on information obtained through mass media.

    Meanwhile, Hajizadeh warned that if such spying mission was repeated, the Iranian response would be “destructive”.”

  6. Bumblebye on August 26, 2014, 2:57 pm

    Regarding the current bout of Israeli State terrorism:

    “Riad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, wrote to the governments of the UK, US, France, Australia, Canada, South Africa and five Latin American countries on Tuesday, reminding them that all states are obliged under international law to investigate alleged violations, including war crimes, committed by their nationals. Malki said that governments should warn their citizens that they could be liable for investigation and prosecution.

    Thousands of soldiers with dual nationality are conscripted into the Israel Defence Forces, while non-Israelis also volunteer under the IDF’s Mahal programme, which invites Jews from other countries to serve in combat and support roles for up to 18 months. The IDF did not respond to a request for figures.

    Malki’s letter, which was also sent to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, sets out the requirements under international law for governments to investigate alleged violations over which they have jurisdiction, including the actions of their nationals.”

    Our governments should be arranging for the nationals who served to attend for interview on their return, to ascertain which brigades they served with, where and when. If it can be shown they participated in specific war crimes they should be prosecuted.

  7. seafoid on August 27, 2014, 10:45 am

    I think bibi’s worldview is dead . It had a good innings- almost 40 years

    Worth listening to in full. It’s Bernie Sanders’ stem as well.

    Killing children caused revulsion around the world. Maybe he believes they have 22 other countries to go too but the general public in the West doesn’t.

    The propaganda machine in Israel is ultra slick and they can reach Yossi Israeli’s hate gspot pretty much instantly but as ever the problem is translating the memes from Hebrew

    “In his speech, Rosen-Zvi said, “I want to single out two things that seem new and very frightening to me. First, the death of soldiers no longer creates the same public pressure as in the past. It’s a new mechanism and different from what we knew, when coffins created a sense of revulsion that led to criticism and media pressure. It seems that now death creates togetherness and at the same time invites more death in order to justify it.
    “Second,” he said, “I want to single out the normality of violence against the left. At anti-war demonstrations in which I participated there were Kahanist gangs walking around shouting ‘death to Arabs and leftists,’ and chasing demonstrators to beat them up, and they did beat them up. People were afraid to disperse and avoided walking home alone. Nobody was shocked and they aren’t now either, the condemnations were against extremism of all types, from both right and left, as though right-wing journalists also walk around with bodyguards.” This last was a reference to Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who hired a bodyguard after receiving numerous threats over his critical writing and interviews about the war.
    Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum, chairman of the graduate school of philosophy, criticized Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter, who reportedly justified the massive civilian casualties resulting from the assault on the Rafah area following the abduction of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, who was later declared dead by Israeli authorities. Lorberbaum quoted Winter saying that “whoever kidnaps has to know that he will pay a price. It was not revenge. They simply started up with the wrong brigade. … This population is hostage, but I think that it’s also a partner. … I’m not absolving them of responsibility so quickly.”

    “A hundred and sixty-six channels lit
    To train that animal shit

    Who wanna hold hands with this sicko malnutritionist
    Soaked in newspeak?
    Dirty words paralyze words and infect shit
    Insofar as the ineffectual bed for elections
    Development arrested
    Trapped in the Cuckoo’s nest
    Looking for the nexus
    If it’s wild like that y’all found
    infrared scope in the clutch of a tyrant

    Devil in a blue skyline with clean conscience
    Save the gesture
    But can’t save the children, weren’t worth the effort”

    This is not about terrorism. This is Palestinian self determination. Palestinians are there and they want their rights.

  8. amigo on August 27, 2014, 11:44 am

    Israel has been using this word so long , they even came up with their own version!!.


    However, it did/does not apply to Irgun/Stern/Lehi/Hagannah or any Jewish terrorists.

    You can fool some of the people etc etc.

  9. MHughes976 on August 27, 2014, 12:14 pm

    It cannot be denied that innocents are menaced and injured, sometimes maimed, by government efforts to suppress insurgencies. At that rate most governments and most political forces sometimes resort to terrorism: which raises the question of whether terrorism can sometimes be justified. The rhetorical ploy is to keep that question open when these things are done by Us, closed when they’re done by Them. AAll parties will of course say that they never murder only kill with justification

  10. bilal a on August 27, 2014, 1:27 pm

    2 Jewish voices fiercely debate Gaza siege: Max Blumenthal v ZOA’s Morton Klein RT

  11. amigo on August 27, 2014, 1:56 pm

    Nuttyahoo is on AJ claiming Hamas gained nothing.he sais Israel had forced Hamas to accept a ceasefire without any pre conditions .

    He humorously claimed that the international community had given Israel 50 days to get the job done.No one asked him why Israel stopped and if it was due to pressure from the same International community.

    This guy knows his time is up.

  12. seafoid on August 27, 2014, 5:20 pm

    Ha’aretz had a super interview with Haim Oron, the former head of Meretz, the other day

    Netanyahu is a total liability, even if Israeli society is set up ideologically to adore him . They are going to have to reconfigure education in Israel to survive.

    “But Netanyahu’s behavior,” Oron continues, “led Abbas to conclude that Israel’s aim was to go on playing with negotiations, because Netanyahu understands that without this game, the whole world will gang up on him. In practice, his intentions aren’t serious – it’s make-believe negotiations. I definitely sensed that Abu Mazen was in despair over Netanyahu. ‘You don’t want it, the Jews don’t want it’ – that’s the refrain I hear from leading Palestinians. In fact, it’s gone so far that there is a big argument among them about whether to pursue a dialogue even with people like us. They say, ‘You’re good people, we know, but you’re part of the cover, the deception.’”
    If Netanyahu had entered into serious talks with Abbas in 2009, where would we be today?
    “I know there are many left-wing Israelis who believe that there is no longer a chance for an agreement. I’ve always thought that, after a tough internal debate, a Palestinian majority will accept the Clinton blueprint, the Geneva Agreement. Only a blind person could not have noticed the coalition that arose recently, of the Jordanians, the Saudis, the PA and the Egyptians. It spoke in the clearest terms about a preference for a two-state solution to quell Islamic ferment and radicalism, along with a desire to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians. Netanyahu has never taken advantage of the opportunities that were presented to him, despite the very real danger that we will ultimately be left without an interlocutor like Abu Mazen.
    “I believe that Netanyahu is simply psychologically incapable of signing off on the partition of Jerusalem and a return to the 1967 borders,” Oron continues. “During his terms, we’ve seen a disproportionate preoccupation with Iran, under the illusion that we can cope with that danger alone. Billions of dollars were poured into that effort, which had an additional motivation: to change the agenda and, by inflating the Iranian issue, obscure the major danger we face, namely the conflict with the Palestinians.”

    “Three approaches have been dominant in Israel recently. One says: ‘There’s no alternative, we must maintain control of the territories, and in the end we will subjugate them.’ This is the view of Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman. The contrary approach states that we have to strive to find a solution, otherwise we endanger our survival. In the Netanyahu era, a third thesis, which is gathering momentum, has emerged: that since there is no solution, we need to manage the conflict. Both Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Moshe] Ya’alon espouse this approach. They want to see two Palestinian entities: a weakened one in the West Bank under Abu Mazen, and a ruling but weakened one in Gaza, under Hamas. ”

    the contrary view seems the most likely to pass

    From the appropriately titled album “it will end in tears”

  13. piotr on August 27, 2014, 9:40 pm

    How boring, Another boring moral relativist. What is wrong about moral clarity? Yes, some can be perplexed when even in the most clear situations the explanations get long and tedious. From time to time the basics have to be repeated:

    We Good.

    They Bad.

    The rest is a commentary.

  14. seafoid on August 28, 2014, 7:58 am

    “SodaStream to decide whether to shut down controversial West Bank plant

    CEO says this is solely a business decision and company is not giving in to ‘financial terror’ of BDS movement.

    SodaStream will decide within two months whether to close the West Bank plant that prompted a high-profile boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against the Israel-based beverage machine maker, CEO Daniel Birnbaum said Wednesday.

    The Israeli beverage maker’s decision has nothing to do with the “financial terrorists” who organized the boycott, said Birnbaum. The BDS campaign turned U.S. actress Scarlett Johansson into a darling of Israel supporters when she quit her role as Oxfam representative over the charity’s insistence that she could not represent SodaStream if she were to remain with Oxfam.

    “The considerations will be purely financial, and do not include the European boycott on manufacturing in the territories,” said Birnbaum. “Nor [will they include] the various calls to boycott products of the company because of its location in Ma’aleh Adumim. The boycott is a nuisance, but does not cause serious financial damage. We are not giving in to the boycott. We are Zionist.” “

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