Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: An argument

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As I wrote in my blog of March 18, “Israeli Terrorism: Does Evidence Matter?” I have been unable to place the long article on which the blog was based in any professional journal. I have decided to end that quest, and instead publish the full version here, for whatever interest it may hold for scholars, journalists, and interested general audiences. Unfortunately, my blog  program does a very poor job with citations—it does not allow them to be published at the bottom of the page, nor can you read them by clicking on or hovering over them.   They can, however, be read as endnotes.

The article is quite long, but necessarily so: when you make the kind of argument I am making, one that so fundamentally challenges the standard mythologies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’d better make sure you can back it up with lots of evidence. Assertions are easily dismissed; evidence—one would hope, though probably forlornly—is another matter.

Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: An Argument

Is terrorism—as commonly understood to mean deliberate attacks on innocent civilians–ever justifiable, or at least subject to morally persuasive distinctions? I will argue that while terrorism is always morally wrong, it is both possible and desirable to distinguish between degrees of moral wrongness. I will examine this issue in the context of just war moral theory and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have resorted to terrorism at various times during the course of their long conflict. After a broad overview of this history of mutual terrorism, the article analyses and compares it in terms of the following criteria, drawn from standard just war moral philosophy: (1) just cause; (2) last resort, or the availability of alternatives to terrorism to reach a just cause; and (3) the probability that terrorism will realize a just cause.

My central argument is that contrary to the standard mythology, especially in Israel, Israeli terrorism has been significantly worse than that of the Palestinians. A refutation of this mythology is important for a number of reasons. First, of course, ascertaining historical truth is important for its own sake. Second, the truth might make Israelis less blind to their own behavior and therefore less intransigent in seeking a compromise settlement of their conflict with the Palestinians; in particular, the truth should make it clear—or rather, obvious–that Israel has neither the moral legitimacy nor the national interest to refuse to negotiate with Palestinian organizations that have employed terrorism, particularly Hamas, without whose participation there is no chance that there can be a compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Third, because the Israeli mythology is also widely accepted in the United States the truth might—or, at least, should–lead to the rethinking of the attitudes of most of the American Jewish community and therefore, in turn, the nearly-unconditional U.S. government support of Israeli policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, a refutation of the standard mythology should serve not only the principle of truth but also justice: current US attitudes and policies have precluded serious and sustained pressures on the Israeli government, in the absence of which there is next to no chance of a fair settlement of the conflict.

The organization of this article is as follows. Part I examines the philosophical issues concerning terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After considering the definitional issues—what counts as terrorism, what doesn’t—I proceed to the question of whether the moral prohibition of terrorism to which nearly everyone claims to subscribe is truly a categorical or absolute one. Terrorism creates a seemingly insoluble moral dilemma. On the one hand, it seems impossible to find a moral justification (as opposed to an “understanding” or a plausible excuse) for deliberate attacks on civilians or noncombatants. On the other, there are a number of morally relevant distinctions that we almost invariably do make about terrorism, even when we deny we are doing so–such as between terrorism employed by our allies and that employed by our enemies, or between terrorism as a last resort on behalf of a just cause vs. terrorism for unjust causes. These distinctions– relevant to the question of whether terrorism can ever be justified–will be explored, employing the concepts of mitigation and lesser evil.

Part I. The Philosophical Issues

What Constitutes Terrorism? It is often argued that terrorism is very difficult to define and objectively identify because the matter is hopelessly confused by semantic or ideological issues: “Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder” or “One man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom fighter,” and the like.

This argument, however, is mistaken: among students of terrorism, and indeed in everyday discourse, there is a generally accepted and objective definition (though with minor variations): terrorism consists of deliberate attacks—whether by governments or non-governmental groups– on noncombatants (sometimes described as “innocent civilians”) as well as their crucial economic and societal institutions and infrastructures, aimed at reaching political, religious, or ideological goals.

An important implication of this definition is that it does not seek to resolve crucially important issues by building the answers into the definition, such as whether all forms of terrorism are equally morally indefensible. Moreover, it is unhelpful to moral analyses as well as policy prescriptions if the definition of terrorism is confined to mean actions that only non-state actors engage in as, for example, the U.S. government seems to do when it defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.”[1] (emphasis added)

Since terrorism should be understood as a method of warfare, not (except in extremely rare cases) its purpose, it follows that fighters in a just cause–such as resistance to occupation or tyranny– can be both freedom fighters and terrorists.

The Prohibition Against Terrorism: Categorical or Consequentialist?

Is it morally allowable to use unjust means if they are truly necessary to reach a just end or realize a just cause? Not in terms of categorical morality, which holds that certain rules or principles are inviolate, regardless of the circumstances—as the Catholic moral tradition holds, evil may never be done in order that good can come of it. With regard to terrorism, then, categorical morality prohibits any deliberate attacks on innocent civilians (noncombatants), even if employed on behalf of a just cause, and even if no other means are available to realize the just cause.

By contrast, consequentialist morality holds that in the final analysis actions and behavior can only be judged in terms of their practical consequences. Thus, consequentialist analyses cannot rule out that in some circumstances the consequences of terrorism might be morally preferable to a status quo which cannot be changed except by terrorism.

Most writers on terrorism—and certainly most Western political leaders– claim to categorically oppose it, regardless of consequences. That is clearly not the case, however, for hypocrisy or simple moral blindness have often trumped a categorical rejection of terrorism. For example, during the cold war the United States actively supported Latin American military dictatorships which routinely tortured and murdered thousands of their own people in the name of “anticommunism.” Likewise, during the 1990s there was little or no U.S. government criticism when Algerian military dictatorships used extensive terrorist methods of their own in order to defeat an Islamic terrorist movement which at one point was on the verge of victory in democratic elections.

In short, for one reason or another distinctions are quite common—and not only made by governments for political reasons. At the very least, in general discourse it is often held that some forms of terrorism are more “understandable”—a vague euphemism, but essentially meaning, at the least, less wrong—than others. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that in ordinary judgments, few people truly believe that all forms of terrorism are equally and always prohibited. In real life, then, as distinct from moral theory, we make distinctions and consider mitigating circumstances (even by those who refuse to admit, or fail to recognize, that they are doing so): causes, circumstances, exceptions, and consequences are typically taken into account and inform our final moral judgments about terrorism. In particular, the most common distinction is between terrorism on behalf of what we think of as a just cause and that on behalf of an unjust one.

Aside from governments and ordinary citizens, a number of consequentialist moral philosophers have questioned whether all terrorism can be truly categorically rejected, especially in cases of extreme injustices in which all other measures of remediation have failed.[2] As well, it is commonly observed that an absolute prohibition against terrorism favors the militarily strong over the militarily weak, an obvious issue in regard to terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as I shall examine below. For this and other reasons, as C.A.J. Coady puts it: “Many contemporary moral philosophers, sympathetic to just war thinking, are wary of moral absolutes. They would test the prohibition as expressing a very strong moral presumption against terrorism….but allow for exceptions in extreme circumstances.”[3]

The moral dilemma seems inescapable. On the one hand, deliberate attacks on noncombatants are a clear moral evil. On the other, we instinctively wish to make distinctions between lesser and greater evils, or between unmitigated and mitigated evils.

Just War Theory and Terrorism

For those who cannot accept a truly categorical (exceptionless) moral prohibition of terrorism, just war theory points to a number of morally relevant distinctions.

Just Cause. The first distinction is between terrorism whose purpose is morally indefensible and that whose purpose (or cause) is justified. But what constitutes a just cause? Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary define a just cause as one which is “morally right and fair.” Clearly, this will not take us very far if we are seeking an objective or empirically demonstrable criterion for recognizing just causes.

Consequently, what constitutes a just cause is a matter of argument and judgment. That said, in both international law and common morality there are causes that are clearly so just that they may warrant the use of force to attain them. The traditional and almost universally accepted justification for the use of deadly force is that of self-defense. Beyond that, there is an increasing acceptance of the principle that force may be justified when necessary to protect human rights from massive abuse. In this light, the principle just cause argument I am making here is that in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians have the right (just cause) to freedom, independence and the end of the Israeli occupation and repression.

All this said, however, while a just cause is an obviously necessary condition if violence in general—and terrorism in particular–can ever be considered justifiable or, at least, mitigable, it is by no means sufficient, for in just war moral philosophy further conditions must be met.

Last Resort, or Absence of Alternatives. Terrorism, it is often said, is a weapon of the weak: the strong (such as states) have alternatives that the weak (such as non-state groups and movements) lack: diplomatic and political influence, economic incentives and disincentives, and powerful armed forces. For those reasons, state attacks on noncombatants—even assuming a just cause–have an even greater burden of moral proof than non-state attacks.

Nonetheless, even terrorism by the weak on behalf of a just cause (the end of oppression, national liberation) could never be regarded as justifiable unless it was clear that all other means had failed. These means must include negotiations for a political settlement and/or nonviolent resistance if political means fail; they may even include armed resistance, but only so long as it is directed not against the civilian population but only against the oppressor’s military forces or other instruments of violent repression.

A Reasonable Probability of Success. Even if the morally required conditions of just cause and absence of alternatives are met, any consequentialist justification for terrorism must also show that terrorism can lead to the realization of a just cause. In that sense, does terrorism ever work? There is a considerable body of scholarly literature on this issue, but no consensus on the answer: some conclude that terrorism only hardens the resistance to it, while others argue that it has sometimes resulted in the realization of a just cause after others methods have failed.

The historical record suggests that the latter argument is the more persuasive one: it would appear that terrorism employed for national liberation—that is, ending colonialism or other forms of foreign oppression—has sometimes achieved its goal, or at least has been a major contributing factor. Among the examples often cited to support that conclusion are the Algerian independence movement in the 1950s, the ANC terrorism against South African apartheid, the defeat of British colonialism in Kenya and white settler colonial rule in Rhodesia—and what is of the greatest relevance to this article, the oft-cited success of Zionist terrorism in the creation of the state of Israel.[4]

Whether the Zionist success provides a useful precedent and model for the Palestinian nationalist cause is another matter, as will be shortly examined. In any case, as I have argued, in the terms of this analysis the more important issue is whether even successful terrorism in a just cause is morally justified.

Part II.Terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Palestinian Terrorism: What are the Facts?

Israel typically labels acts of Palestinian armed resistance, including against its occupying military forces, as “terrorism.” However, even actual Palestinian terrorism—attacks on civilians—has regularly been exaggerated, both in terms of its purpose and its extent. As the Israeli political philosopher Igor Primoratz has pointed out, although there were Palestinian riots and mob violence in the 1920s-1930s, there was no sustained and large scale organized terrorism until the late 1960s, when there were numerous attacks against Israeli civilian targets (such as buses and restaurants) and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad: the Munich Olympic attacks, the attacks on air traffic, and others. [5] Even then, most historians of this period agree, the primary practical purpose of the terrorism (despite some of the extremist Palestinian rhetoric) was less that of destroying the Israeli state–which it obviously had no chance of doing—than to call the world’s attention to the Palestinian plight. That is not to say that the terrorism was justified; nonetheless, it is important to understand that even in its earlier stages the operational goal of most Palestinian terrorism was a limited one.

In any case, beginning in the 1980s Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gradually but steadily moved away from their early ideological and uncompromising rejection of the existence of Israel and effectively abandoned the dream of creating a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine. Finally, in November 1988 Arafat and the PLO officially agreed to end not only terrorism but all forms of attacks on Israel in the context of a compromise two-state political settlement that would create a largely demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

Nonetheless Israel continued the occupation and refused to negotiate a two-state settlement, precipitating the Palestinian intifada (uprising) that began in December 1987. Israel considered this first intifada to be “terrorism;” however, as a number of Israeli as well as other studies have concluded, most of the Palestinian demonstrations and protest actions were in fact nonviolent, and “of the violent acts, the vast majority consisted of rock throwing against the Israeli Defense Forces in the territories, with few incidents of terrorism inside the Green Line.”[6] Indeed, in order to demonstrate that its 1988 commitment to end terrorism remained in force, during the intifada Arafat’s security forces worked hand in hand with those of Israel, often in joint patrols, to identify and jail extremists and suspected terrorists.

There continued to be few Palestinian terrorist attacks until February 1994, when an Israeli settler attacked a Hebron mosque and killed 29 Palestinian civilians. However, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin refused to withdraw the fanatic Israel settlers from Hebron, Hamas—but not the PLO–retaliated with a number of suicide terrorist attacks inside Israel. In 1997, though, the chief Hamas leader Khaled Meshal conveyed an offer to Israel (through King Hussein of Jordan) to agree to a 30-year cease fire; Israel not only ignored the offer, but a few days later its operatives tried to assassinate Meshal. [7]

The second intifada broke out in September 2000. In the early stages of the uprisings there was little Palestinian armed violence, even against Israeli soldiers and police; the initial protests were unarmed and limited to stone-throwing, and remained so until Prime Minister Ehud Barak authorized the Israeli police to use deadly force. In the ensuing weeks, the police killed hundreds of Palestinians, even though the Israelis suffered only a few casualties of their own. As Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli Minister of Security at the time, admitted: “Israel’s disproportionate response to what had started as a popular uprising with young unarmed men confronting Israeli soldiers armed with lethal weapons fueled the intifada beyond control and turned it into an all-out war.”[8]

During the intifada Arafat and other PLO leaders repeatedly stated that it was not directed against the state or the people of Israel proper (i.e. within its pre-1967 boundaries), but only against the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, their behavior was generally consistent with this claim, for with but a few exceptions, until the early 2001 election of Ariel Sharon as the Israeli prime minister Palestinian violence was directed almost exclusively at either the Israeli military forces or the most extremist and violent settlers in the occupied territories.

For several years after the election of Sharon, who ended the peace process, the Palestinians—primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also some members of the Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Brigades (organizations loyal to Arafat)—did engage in outright terrorism, such as suicide bombings of Israeli buses, restaurants, and meeting places. Even so, there were differences of purpose among the groups engaging in terrorism: the pro-Arafat secular groups insisted that the purpose of their attacks was only to force Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.

To be sure, some of the religious extremist groups, especially Islamic Jihad, openly proclaimed their goal was not merely to end the occupation but to destroy Israel. Hamas’s rhetoric was inconsistent: sometimes it proclaimed that its attacks were intended to put an end to the state of Israel, but more typically its terrorism was explained by the goal of ending the occupation, or merely as retaliation for Israeli assassination of its militants or for other Israeli military attacks that killed Palestinian civilians. In fact, this claim was taken seriously by a number of Israeli observers, for it was an observable fact, frequently reported in Israeli newspapers, that Palestinian attacks often followed such Israeli attacks.

Following the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a severe economic blockade– often called “the siege of Gaza” by Israeli critics—which in turn led to an escalation cycle: Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket attacks aimed at nearby Israeli towns were followed by Israeli military raids in Gaza, precipitating further Palestinian attacks, and so on. In the last eight years these cycles have repeatedly ended with massive Israeli attacks on Gaza, as will be discussed below.

Palestinian Terrorism: Just Cause?

In the early years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the declared purpose of the Palestine Liberation Organization was to destroy the state of Israel and reclaim all of historic Palestine for the Arabs. Since 1988, however, both the declared and observable purpose of Arafat, the PLO, and the present Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas has been the end of the Israeli occupation and the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state in the 23% of the historical land of Palestine that remained after the Israeli victory in the 1948 war—a clearly just cause. As a result, except for a few brief periods following the breakdown of the 2000-01 peace talks and the election of Ariel Sharon, PLO terrorism dramatically declined throughout the remaining period of Arafat’s leadership. Since the 2004 death of Arafat, Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has embraced negotiations, compromise, and nonviolence, both in its rhetoric and its actions.

In any case, a number of prominent Israeli writers, peace activists, politicians, and even retired Shin Bet officers have not hesitated to attribute such Palestinian terrorism as has occurred during the history of the conflict as an understandable reaction to the Israeli occupation and repression. None other than Ehud Barak himself once admitted that “If I were a Palestinian, I would join a terrorist organization;”[9] similarly Nissim Levy, a twenty-year veteran of the Shin Bet’s operations in the occupied territories acknowledged that “If I were in their situation, I would make our lives bitter….When you take a person and put him up against the wall and don’t leave him many options, then what do you want him to do? Do you think that if we were in their situation we wouldn’t have suicide bombers?” [10]

There have been a number of similar statements by prominent Israelis, especially following periods of Palestinian terrorism, such as after Sharon’s election ended the peace process. A partial list from one year alone (2003) includes the following:

*Twenty-seven reserve duty or retired pilots send a letter to the Air Force Chief of Staff, declaring that they will refuse to participate in air operations against the Palestinians, because they “are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral attack orders [such as] attacks in civilian population centers.” In a public letter, one the officers (Assaf Oron) elaborated: “I refuse to be a terrorist in my tribe’s name. Because that’s what it is: not a ‘war against terror,’ as our propaganda machine tries to sell it. This a war of terror…”[11]

* Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist who served as an adviser to Barak during the Camp David talks, charged that Israel had been engaged in terrorism since the outbreak of the intifada, because it had “systematically assaulted a civilian population that is hostile, but noncombatant.” The Israeli army, he added, frequently operated as “an agent of terror;” unlike the Palestinian “terrorism of the weak,” he concluded, Israel terrorism was “terrorism of the strong, the mechanism of the state.”[12]

*A leading Israeli columnist wrote that Sharon’s demand that Arafat end terrorism as a precondition for negotiations was “ridiculous” and really designed to thwart any negotiations. How would the pre-state Zionist movement have responded, he asked, to a similar demand that the Irgun and other Zionist terrorist organizations be dismantled before “we achieved our goal and established our state?”[13]

*The editor of the English language edition of Haaretz wrote that “we are running a military occupation regime in the territories that denies 3.5 million people their basic rights, bringing upon ourselves a bloody war of terrorism.”[14]

*Amram Mitzna, a former IDF General and the Labor Party’s candidate for prime minister in the 2003 elections , wrote that “Far from defeating terrorism, the prevailing policy–closures, checkpoints, liquidations–is creating terrorism.”[15]

*Avraham Burg–a longtime leading Labor Party leader, the speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, the former chairman of the Jewish Agency as well as the World Zionist Organization, and an Orthodox Jew–wrote the following: “The Israeli nation today rests…on foundations of oppression and injustice….Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the center of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture.”[16]

*The head of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights called for Sharon to be tried, in an Israeli court, for war crimes: “Apparently, what guided Sharon during his military career and reached its shameful climax at Sabra and Chatilla, now dictates the way the IDF conducts its war against terror….we are every day [sic] witness to the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians.”[17]

*Perhaps most startling of all, while not specifically arguing that it was the Israeli occupation that had pushed the Palestinians into terrorism, a former head of the Shin Bet (Avraham Shalom), went to far as to compare the conduct of the Israeli armed forces with that of the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.[18]

These and other similar statements by prominent Israelis effectively conceded—or, at least, implied–that insofar as PLO terrorism was designed to end the Israeli occupation rather than the state of Israel itself, its cause was a just one.

The Hamas Problem

What about Hamas, however? The issue is complicated, turning on how to evaluate its real goal today. Certainly in its early years after its founding in 1987 the undoubted goal of Hamas, as not only its Charter but numerous statements by its leaders made clear, was to destroy the state of Israel. However, in the last decade the evidence it has become increasingly evident that Hamas is gradually moving towards a pragmatic acceptance of the realities of power—though a reluctant, inconsistent, and uneven one–and therefore to a two-state political settlement.

The evidence includes the following:

* Shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan parliamentary elections, Hamas sent a message to president George Bush, offering Israel a truce for “many years,” in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied.[19]

*In February 2006, Meshal said that Hamas would not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem.[20]

*In May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah prisoners and issued the “Prisoner’s Declaration,” which went further than the earlier Hamas overtures. It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state “in all the lands occupied in 1967” and reserved the use of armed resistance only in those territories.[21]

*In August 2006 Gazan prime minister Ismail Hanieh in effect accepted and incorporated the Prisoner’s Declaration into the Hamas position, especially its crucial distinction between the occupied territories and Israel within its 1967 borders, telling an American scholar: “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.”[22] (emphasis added)

*In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was established; a Haaretz story noted that “this is the first time that a Hamas official has raised the possibility of full and official recognition of Israel in the future.” According to the story, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “shrugged off” Meshal’s statement.[23]

*Throughout 2008, Hamas’s political positions continued to evolve. In particular, in April Meshal publicly reiterated that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.[24] Israel ignored the statement.

*In a May 2009 interview in the New York Times, Meshal said that Hamas should be judged on its current deeds and policies and that it was “not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago” in its Charter.[25]

*In December 2010 Hamas announced that it would honor any Palestinian referendum that approved a peace plan with Israel: “We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees,” said Haniyeh. “Hamas will respect the results [of a referendum],” he added, “regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles.” Zvi Bar’el, a leading Haaretz political analyst, noted: “Not a return of refugees, not the destruction of the State of Israel, no preconditions.”[26]

*In January 2012 Hamas announced that it was suspending all acts of terror in favor of “popular resistance” (i.e. nonviolent resistance); was joining in a unity government with the Palestinian Authority; would accept past deals between the PA or PLO and Israel, such as the Oslo agreements; would accept Mahmoud Abbas as the prime minister in that government, which would conduct negotiations with Israel; and would agree to a two-state solution if the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum.[27]

*In May 2012 Haaretz and the New York Times reported that Hamas was taking direct action in Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. Later that year top IDF officers said that Hamas had not participated in rocket attacks against Israel for over six months, and the military correspondents of Haaretz reported that since Cast Lead, Hamas “has almost completely refrained from firing rockets into Israel.”[28]

*In November 2012, the ceasefire ended when Israel initiated an eight-day round of exchanges of fire with Hamas. However, before Israel once again broke the ceasefire (as had been repeatedly the case in past ceasefires), Hamas had apparently been on the verge of a radical change in its policies towards Israel. The story was covered in a series of articles in Haaretz. Gershon Baskin–a prominent Israeli peace activist who had ties both to Hamas and the Israeli government and who had helped negotiate the earlier deal in which an Israeli prisoner of Hamas was released in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners of Israel– had negotiated a draft agreement with Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari that provided for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas: that is, no longer a ten year, or even a thirty year truce, as Hamas had proposed in the past, but a permanent one.[29]

A few weeks later, Reuven Pedatzur, the military correspondent of Haaretz, confirmed Baskin’s account, writing that contacts between Baskin and Hamas had taken place “with the knowledge and consent of Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” and who was shown the draft agreement. Several hours later, though, Israel assassinated Jabari, “the man who had the power to make a deal with Israel,” wrote Pedatzur.[30]

*After eight days of intense Israeli air attacks on Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to a new ceasefire, the central terms of which were that as long as Israel was not attacked, it would significantly ease the economic blockade–widely termed, even in Israel, as the “siege” of Gaza. Throughout 2013, however, this agreement was violated by Israel, which not only continued most of the economic sanctions but repeatedly engaged in assassinations and armed attacks inside Gaza. By contrast, Hamas continued not only to observe the ceasefire but cracked down even harder on Islamic Jihad and other militants to prevent them from launching rocket or mortar attacks; as a result, in the first three months after the ceasefire was negotiated there was just one mortar attack from Gaza and throughout the rest of 2013 there were fewer attacks than in any year since 2003, the first year that such attacks had begun. Israeli intelligence was said to be satisfied with Hamas’s efforts to maintain the ceasefire.

*In January 2014 Hamas and the PA government in the West Bank signed a new reconciliation agreement (the previous agreement of 2012 had broken down). Under its terms an interim unity government would be formed until new elections in six months time, but until then none of the cabinet level positions would be filled by Hamas officials. Even more importantly, Hamas agreed to the PA’s conditions that the Palestinian goal was a two-state settlement generally based on the 1967 lines, and that only nonviolent methods would be employed to reach it.[31]

A cautionary note: Despite the accumulating evidence, it cannot be denied that there have been inconsistencies in Hamas’s position and that on occasion—usually following a particularly destructive Israeli attack—its spokesmen have returned to their earlier militant and rejectionist rhetoric. Sometimes Hamas officials have said that they accept Israel as a “fact” but would “never recognize its legitimacy”—on other occasions, however, they have strongly implied that their formal position had no practical importance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas official makes a particularly conciliatory statement, but other officials then deny there had been any changes in its policies. Sometimes Hamas has continued to stress its commitment to the “right of return” of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a permanent settlement—but at other times it downplays the problem and generally indicates, like Abbas, that in the context of an overall settlement it will accept a symbolic resolution of the issue. And so on.

Despite the occasional mixed signals and contradictory rhetoric, there simply is no doubting the ongoing evolution of Hamas thinking, if for no other reason that, as Paul Pillar (the former Deputy Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center) has recently put it, “Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so.”

In any case, in the final analysis, the only way to resolve the remaining (but generally declining) ambiguities in Hamas’s position and test its willingness to reach a settlement is for Israel to enter into serious political negotiations with it, as several former directors and other high officials of Mossad and Shin Bet have been urging for a number of years. Far from doing so, not only does Israel continue to refuse political negotiations with Hamas, but it continues its assassinations that have killed—or unsuccessfully tried to kill–most of the founders and leaders of Hamas and its main activists, right up to the present day. Pillar succinctly sums up what the evidence demonstrates: “Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas.”

Palestinian Terrorism: A Last Resort?

Since the Palestinians have no chance of defeating the Israeli armed forces, the main alternatives to terrorism for the Palestinians have been negotiated political compromise and nonviolent resistance. As has been discussed, Yasir Arafat ended most PLO terrorist actions in the late 1980s–Hamas or other more extremist groups were not yet an important factor—and sought to negotiate a two-state settlement with the Israelis. Since Arafat’s death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, his successor as the primary leader of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, has continued to seek a negotiated political settlement and has offered a number of further compromises—or retreats from previous PLO positions–to that end. All such negotiations have failed, overwhelmingly because no Israeli government has been prepared to agree to end the occupation, withdraw the settlers, and turn over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza to the Palestinians.

For that reason, the political path to a settlement is all but dead, leaving the Palestinians only nonviolent resistance as the alternative to resistance by terrorism. In fact, at various periods throughout their history the Palestinians and their political leaders have tried nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience, and political protest: especially in the first and largely unarmed intifada in the late 1980s, and in the last few years to prevent the further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

All of these efforts have been suppressed or violently crushed by Israeli forces. As Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a leading Israeli intellectual, writer, and journalist, has written: “The fear that nonviolent protest will take root among the Palestinians has accompanied the conflict for many years, and the response of the Israeli authorities to nonviolent protest has been no less severe that they reactions to violent acts. …the Israelis have managed to persuade the Palestinians that they have no inhibitions when it comes to using force, even gunfire, against unarmed protesters, and they make no distinction between violent and nonviolent demonstrations.”[32]

Palestinian Terrorism: Probability of Success?

Despite the continuing history of Israeli rejection of a two-state settlement and the failure of both armed and unarmed Palestinian resistance, it does not necessarily follow that the Palestinians have had no choice–even on purely practical grounds, let alone on moral ones–but to resume terrorism. Nonetheless, let us begin with the practical question: has Palestinian terrorism worked?

A case can be made that in the past, Palestinian terrorism sometimes did work, not in achieving its primary goals, but at least some of them: for example, the 1972 Munich attack on the Israeli Olympic team is often cited as an example, insofar as it succeeded in dramatizing and calling the world’s attention to the Israeli occupation and Palestinian desperation, which in fact was one of its objectives. More broadly, a number of Israeli commentators have argued that the historical evidence as well as the findings in public opinion polls had often demonstrated (at least in the past) that when Palestinian violence was greater, the willingness of Israelis to compromise increased.

The Israeli withdrawal of its settlers from Gaza in 2005 illustrates the difficulty of ascertaining the impact of terrorism: on the one hand, many Israeli analysts believe that the Palestinian attacks on the Jewish settlers in Gaza were a major factor in Ariel Sharon’s decision to cut the Israeli costs and withdraw the settlers. On the other hand, Sharon continued and expanded Israel’s extensive system of indirect controls over, and punishment of, Gaza, leading a number of other analysts and human rights organizations to conclude that the occupation and repression of the Gazan people effectively was continuing.

The more important point today is this: even if it is arguable whether in the past the Palestinians gained more than they lost by their earlier periods of terrorism, it no longer is. In the last ten years it has become clear that Palestinian terrorism has become a disaster for both peoples: it has reinforced the Israeli “Never Again”` mindset that results in the entirely inappropriate analogy—cynical or genuine—that compares Palestinian resistance to the Holocaust; it has resulted in a major loss of popular support for Israeli peace activists, who argue that it is both desirable and possible to negotiate peace with the Palestinians; it has largely silenced criticism of Israeli policies by the U.S. government and most of the American Jewish community (especially the big donors to U.S. politicians); it led to the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001; and it resulted in the Israeli economic blockade and military attacks on Gaza.

In short, Israel today is both too strong and too ruthless for strategies based on armed resistance, let alone terrorism, to work.

                 Israeli Terrorism: A Brief History

In 1923 Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Russian-born journalist, soldier, and early leader of rightwing Zionism, published an article entitled “The Iron Wall.” The heart of his argument was this: “We cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries…..A voluntary agreement is unattainable.… We must either suspend our settlement efforts or ontinue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can [only develop] behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.” [33]

As Shlaim and many other Israeli historians have demonstrated, the iron wall strategy has been at the core of Zionist/Israeli policies towards the Arab world ever since Jabotinsky’s enormously influential essay was published. Jabotinsky did not elaborate on what military strategies the Zionists should adopt to create the iron wall, but his own history as well as that of the Zionist movement in the pre-state era and of Israel since 1948 makes it unmistakable that attacks on the Arab civilian population –terrorism–are a central component of the iron wall.

As is now widely acknowledged, in the pre-state period–like the Palestinian pre-state period today–the Irgun and Stern Gang terrorist groups (led, respectively, by future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir,) frequently employed terrorism against Palestinian civilians, including planting bombs in market places and theaters, firing on buses, and the like.

Then, during the Nakba Zionist forces—including not only the clearly terrorist organizations but often with the collaboration or at least acquiescence of David Ben Gurion and the Haganah carried out a number of outright massacres, such as—but not limited to– the notorious 1948 attack on the Arab towns and villages of Lydda and Deir Yassin, which had the intended consequence of terrorizing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee from the lands and regions coveted by the Zionists.

The expulsion of the Palestinians led to the creation of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, which for a number of years operated out of bases in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Guerrilla attacks inside Israel were met with an Israeli policy of massive retaliation—not merely an eye for an eye, but many eyes for an eye. Moshe Dayan, Avi Shlaim writes, was a believer in the iron wall strategy and during the early 1950s “had few inhibitions and no moral qualms about the use of military force, even against civilians.” Thus, in the early 1950s Dayan created a special secret unit was created in the Israeli army; led by the young Ariel Sharon, it carried out a number of cross-border retaliatory raids into Jordan that targeted Palestinian civilians, the purpose of which was to intimidate them into not supporting PLO raids into Israel.

During his years as one of Israel’s leading generals, Yitzhak Rabin sometimes supported such tactics; Shlaim writes that PLO raids from Jordan convinced Rabin that “the problem was the civilians who assisted Israel’s Palestinian enemies; as a result, the Israeli cabinet agreed to Rabin’s plan to attack civilians in order “to serve as a warning…not to cooperate with the Palestinian saboteurs.”[34]

Israeli Terrorism Against Egypt.

These Israeli policies and practices continued in the 1970s and 1980s. Attacks on civilians were not limited to those against the Palestinians. In 1968 Dayan warned that Israel might attack Egyptian cities in order to “strike terror into the hearts of the Arabs of the cities….[and] break the Arab will to fight.”[35] And it did so during the 1968-1970 Suez Canal “War of Attrition” between Egypt and Israel, when Israel responded to Egyptian attacks against its armed forces along the Canal with massive artillery shelling and bombing of Egyptian towns and cities along the western banks of the Canal, the “undeclared aims” of which were “to break Egyptian morale” by deliberately making life miserable for the Egyptian population and thus increasing pressure against Nasser and later Sadat.[36]

The New York Times correspondent in Israel during this period later estimated that the Israeli air and artillery bombardments forced the evacuation of 750,000 civilians, destroyed 55,000 homes, and killed and wounded an untold number—all designed to be “a pressure tactic on the Egyptian authorities.”[37]

Israeli Terrorism: Lebanon

There have been six major (and many smaller) Israeli air and ground force attacks against Lebanon: in 1978, 1981, 1982, 1993, 1996, and 2006. While Hezbollah or PLO forces based in Lebanon were the main target of the attacks, a wealth of evidence (including newspaper accounts, Israeli commentaries and major books, and investigations by leading human rights organizations) leaves no doubt that during those attacks Israel deliberately attacked Lebanese civilian targets in order to deter the local population from supporting the PLO or Hezbollah and in the hope that the Lebanese government would be forced to suppress those groups. The various Israeli attacks killed over fifteen thousand civilians, wounded many thousands more, and deliberately targeted the Lebanese electricity network, ports and airports, fuel depots, and factories—as well as private homes, small businesses, and dozens of schools and hospitals. [38]

In addition to these attacks, there is no serious doubt that the Israeli army in general and Ariel Sharon in particular collaborated with the 1982 Lebanese Christian military slaughter of over one thousand Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps near Beirut.

Astonishingly, in unguarded moments, leading Israeli officials have sometimes acknowledged that Israel has employed terrorism as an instrument of policy. In 1978, for example, General Mordechai Gur, then Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces and later a leading Labor Party politician, responded to criticism of Israeli tactics in Lebanon in this way: “I’ve been in the army thirty years. Do you think I don’t know what we’ve been doing all those years? What did we do the entire length of the Suez Canal? A million and a half refugees….Since when has the population of South Lebanon been so sacred? They know very well what the terrorists were doing…..I had four villages in South Lebanon bombarded…[as, he says, was done in Jordan]….the whole Jordan Valley was evacuated during the War of Attrition.”

The Israeli interviewer then comments: “You maintain that the civilian population should be punished?” Gur responds: “And how….I have never doubted it, not for one moment….For thirty years from the War of Independence to this day we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and towns…”[39] Ze’ev Schiff, a leading Israeli military journalist commented, “In South Lebanon we struck the civilian population consciously, because they deserved it….The importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously…even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.”[40]

As well, in 1981 Menachem Begin wrote a column in the Israeli press, responding to what he considered to be “hypocritical” criticisms of his government’s bombing of Beirut, which killed hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. In his defense, he offered a “partial list” of more than 30 Israeli military attacks against Arab civilians under Israeli Labor governments; “Under the Alignment [Labor] government, there were retaliatory actions against civilian Arab populations; the damage was directed against such structures as the canal, bridges and transport.”[41]

A rather shocked Abba Eban, the former Labor Party Foreign Minister, responded: “The picture that emerges is of an Israel wantonly inflicting every possible measure of death and anguish on civilian populations in a mood reminiscent of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name.” However, while Eban complained that Begin’s charge helped “Arab propaganda,” he did not contest Begin’s facts. On the contrary, he defended Israel’s earlier attacks on civilians on the grounds that unlike the 1981 case, “there was [then] a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that afflicted population would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities.” [42]

As in the case of Gur’s and Eban’s remarkably revealing earlier statements, on other times Israeli officials in effect have openly admitted or warned of their intentions. For example, following Hezbollah’s 2006 capture of several Israeli soldiers, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, called Hezbollah a “cancer” that Lebanon must get rid of, “because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price. Senior officers in the IDF elaborated: “If the kidnapped soldiers are not returned alive and well, the Lebanese civilian infrastructures will regress 20, or even 50 years.”[43] Nor were such draconic threats limited to military officials; Eli Yishai and Haim Ramon, both Cabinet members in the government of Ehud Olmert, publicly threatened to “flatten” Lebanese villages.[44]

In addition to the military and government officials, several leading figures in the general Israeli security establishment confirmed what Israel was doing. For example, Yossi Alpher, a former deputy chief of Mossad and senior advisor to Ehud Barak, argued that the humanitarian suffering in both Gaza and Lebanon, “is a deliberate act on Israel’s part…intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments.”[45] Similarly, wrote Zeev Schiff, the long-time centrist defense analyst for Ha’aretz, “by encouraging large numbers of civilians to flee…to serve as a source of pressure,” Israel was making “a strategic mistake,” because such methods had led to the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories.[46]

Even more remarkably, several years later Moshe Arens—a high Likud official and well-known rightist, a former ambassador to the United States in the Menachem Begin government, the foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government, and a three-time defense minister in Likud governments since the 1980s—wrote: “The ‘leverage’ theory—which holds that the destruction of enemy infrastructure and attacks on the enemy’s civilian population will produce pressure on decision makers to cease their attacks against Israeli civilians….did not work in Lebanon, and it certainly does not work in Gaza. Quite the contrary, it only increases the support that the terrorists receive from the civilian population…. Cutting off fuel, cutting off electricity, preventing food from reaching them is both counterproductive and immoral.”[47]

In 2008, an allegedly new Israeli military doctrine—in fact, far from new—was announced by Gadi Eizenkot, a leading Israeli general. This so-called “Dahiya doctrine,” named after a 2006 Israeli attack with two thousand bombs on the residential Beirut suburb of Dahiya, made explicit and–in effect, official—what until then had been obvious although unacknowledged: “What happened in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israeli is fired on….We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction….This is not a recommendation….it has been approved.”[48]

Today Eizenkot is Chief of Staff of the IDF.

Israel Terrorism and the Palestinian Uprisings

In response to the Palestinian intifadas Israel deliberately employed terrorist tactics to crush them, especially—but hardly limited to—three major military attacks on Gaza. In March 2002, Israeli forces invaded cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, supposedly to root out “terrorists” but obviously having the much broader purpose of destroying the governing capacity of Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian Authority as well as to intimidate Palestinian civilians from supporting Hamas or Islamic Jihad attacks on Israel. In the course of the invasion, the Israeli forces killed dozens of civilians, destroyed hundreds of homes, shut off water for over ten days, and even attacked schools, ambulances, and hospitals. Beyond that, the invading forces methodically and systematically destroyed Arafat’s and the Palestinian Authority’s security, governmental, public health, education, and other civic institutions.

The Israeli attack was extensively covered by the international and Israeli media as well as by a number of human rights organizations. Jessica Montell, the head of B’tselem, Israel’s most important and prestigious human rights organization, wrote that “the suffering of the [Palestinian] population is not merely a byproduct of Israel’s attacks on militants. It is an intentional part of Israeli policy. The clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population.”[49]

Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006—in democratic elections—Israel has engaged in both economic and military warfare in that area, supposedly against Hamas but, in effect, against the Gazan civilian population as a whole. The economic warfare includes the still-ongoing (though slightly eased) economic blockade or siege on Gazan trade and commerce–including the prevention of Gaza from exporting its goods and products to other countries, severe restrictions on Palestinian drinking and agricultural water, substantial restrictions on the use of electrical power (mostly imported from Israel), and preventing farmers from reaching their lands and orchards and fishermen from fully plying their trade.

Beyond the economic warfare, there have been ongoing Israeli military attacks in Gaza as well as numerous death squad assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. The two major military attacks were “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-09 and “Operation Protection Edge” in 2014. I have written extensively about Cast Lead,[50] so I will only briefly summarize the main facts here: Israel deliberately attacked Gazan government institutions and police stations; economic targets, including transportation and communications networks, roads and bridges, electrical generation plants and power lines, industrial facilities, and fuel depots; and even private homes, residential apartment houses, sewage plants, water storage tanks, various food production systems (orchards, farms greenhouses, and fishing boats), and hospitals and ambulances.

The generally accepted estimate is that in Cast Lead Israel directly killed some 1400 Palestinians, two-thirds of them noncombatants, including hundreds of women and children, while losing only three noncombatants of their own. And that, of course, does not include the far vaster longer term death, destruction, and suffering of the civilian population of Gaza.

“Protective Edge.” In November 2012, following a period of escalating military exchanges, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, which included an Israeli commitment to end its military attacks, assassinations, and economic warfare in Gaza in exchange for the end of all attacks on Israel. According to the most detailed and credible discussion of the ceasefire, Hamas implemented its commitments but Israel violated them, continuing its economic blockade and making periodic incursions into Gaza.[51]

In June 2014, the Netanyahu government blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank, even though, as many Israeli security officials privately admitted, there was no evidence of, or a credible motive for, Hamas responsibility. Then, using the tragedy as a pretext, on July 8th Israel launched a massive air and ground attack on Hamas in Gaza (‘Operation Protective Edge’). As in Cast Lead in 2009, Israel bombed from the air and fired over 30,000 shells into Gaza, many of them into densely populated areas, deliberately or indiscriminately striking many civilian targets, including homes, schools, hospitals, industries and workshops, agricultural facilities, roads, water and sewage treatment plants, and the main Gaza electrical power plant. According to UN and other international agencies, some 2100-2200 Palestinians were killed, up to three quarters of them civilians (including more than 500 children) and about 11,000 were wounded; 100,000 people were left homeless, and 100,000 buildings destroyed or damaged. In the course of the seven week attack, seventy two Israelis were killed, all but six of them military personnel.[52]

A number of Israeli and international human rights organizations have investigated Protective Edge, and concluded that the Israeli attacks amounted to war crimes; to be sure, many of these and other reports acknowledge, Hamas rocket attacks aimed at Israeli civilians were also war crimes, but the overwhelming emphasis of all the reports is on the Israeli attack.[53]

Israeli Terrorism: Just Cause?

It is necessary to separate the issue of whether it was legitimate for the Jewish people to have a state of their own from the issue of where it could have been established. The argument is strong that in light of centuries of murderous European anti-Semitism in general and the Holocaust in particular, in principle the establishment of a Jewish state was justifiable. On the other hand, the Zionist argument that such a state had to be in Palestine and nowhere else, regardless of the consequences for the Palestinians, was far less persuasive. Nonetheless, by 1948 there was no practical alternative for a Jewish state other than in Palestine. For that reason, the argument has been made–including by some leading Israelis who otherwise are appalled at Israel’s policies since 1967–that the moral wrongs of Zionist and Israeli terrorism and ethnic cleansing during the 1947-49 period were at least mitigated by the need to establish a viable state with a large Jewish majority: a just purpose although an unjust means.

Even if one accepts that argument, however, no such mitigation is available for Israeli terrorism since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, during which Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem—for not only have the continuing Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians and their institutions been unjust, so have their essential purpose, which is to maintain the occupation and prevent the Palestinians from reaching their just goal of an independent state.

Such is the power of Israeli mythology that after both Cast Lead and Protective Edge, even strong critics of the those attacks typically argued that “of course, Israel has the right to defend itself” from Hamas rocket attacks, but that its response was “excessive” or “disproportionate.” Such criticisms are far too weak: aggressor states have no “right of self-defense” when it is their criminality that has provoked violent resistance—and that holds true if their response is aimed only at military targets and is somehow “proportionate.”

Matters would be different, of course, if Palestinian attacks on Israel were to be continued after it had withdrawn from the occupied territories and accepted a political settlement, for then—and only then—Israel would have a true just cause: a secure state within its legitimate territory and boundaries, and therefore an undeniable right of self-defense.

Israeli Terrorism: Last Resort?

Everything the Palestinians have tried to win a state of their own has failed: armed resistance directed against military targets, political negotiations and compromise, and nonviolent protest. For that reason, it is reasonable to view Palestinian terrorism as truly a last resort. That doesn’t necessarily make that terrorism morally defensible—if for no other reason than it largely hasn’t worked—but there is no avoiding the problem that the Palestinians genuinely have a desperate dilemma.

The Israelis have no such dilemma, for their only legitimate goal is to preserve their security within their legitimate borders, widely agreed to include Israel’s borders before the 1967 war. When Palestinian terrorism escalated after the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the early 2001 election of Sharon, it was highly likely that Israel could have ended all or nearly all that terrorism by negotiating an obtainable long-term ceasefire with Hamas, and then a two-state political settlement. But not only did Israel refuse political negotiations with Hamas, it repeatedly violated ceasefire agreements with that organization and refused even to explore its offers for a long-term truce and possibly even for a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[54]

    Conclusion: Comparing Israeli and Palestinian Terrorism

While all terrorism is morally wrong, it is still possible and perhaps necessary to make some distinctions. There can be lesser or greater degrees of moral wrongs; we commonly make such distinctions, or consider mitigating circumstances, especially between moral wrongs committed in pursuit of just causes as opposed to the double moral wrong of injustices done for unjust causes.[55]

For several reasons Israeli terrorism has been morally worse than that of the Palestinians. First, at least since the 1980s most—though not all–Palestinian terrorism has been largely driven by the just cause of national liberation in part of Palestine rather than the unjust one of the destruction of Israel. By contrast, while there is a strong case that Zionist terrorism was instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel during the 1940s—a just cause–since at least 1967 Israeli terrorism has had no just cause, for contrary to the widely accepted mythology, its primary purpose has not been that of “self-defense” but rather to prevent a two-state settlement and maintain the occupation and other forms of control over the Palestinians.

The just cause issue aside, a second reason that Israeli terrorism has been worse than that of the Palestinians is that its scale and extent have been far greater and more destructive. Numbers matter: the greater the number of innocent victims (other considerations being equal), the worse the immorality of terrorism. Indeed, the huge disparity in numbers aside, Israeli terrorism is also worse than Palestinian terrorism because it has often attacked the doubly innocent. When Palestinians plant bombs in Israeli cities, they are attacking the citizens of their enemy—which is bad enough. However, when Israel attacked Lebanese towns and cities, it was attacking the innocent citizens of a state that was to a great extent a helpless bystander—or victim—in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it had no control over.

Third, Palestinian terrorism comes much closer to meeting the just war criterion of last resort, or the absence of alternatives. In their legitimate quest for the independence and political sovereignty—not to mention dignity–the Palestinians have tried armed resistance against the Israeli occupying forces, negotiations and diplomacy, and nonviolent political action: none have worked. The Israelis have no such mitigating justification, since they have repeatedly refused to agree to an increasingly obtainable compromise political settlement with the Palestinians.

A final reason that Israeli terrorism is worse than Palestinian terrorism is that Israel is a democracy (however flawed), so when it repeatedly elects as its prime ministers some of the worse Israeli terrorists—Yitzhak Shamir, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon—its people bear a far greater moral responsibility for the crimes of its government than do the Palestinian population in Gaza, who live under the autocratic rule of Hamas. Indeed, a number of Israeli polls have shown that more Israelis demand of their government even greater violent repression of the Palestinians than oppose it. Even so, as “innocent civilians” or, in this case, more accurately described as “noncombatants,” the Israeli people are still not subject to legitimate attacks– but they are surely less innocent than are the Palestinians.

All this said, the argument here should not be construed as a defense of Palestinian terrorism. In the final analysis, despite mitigating circumstances not available to Israel, Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians—even those whose purpose is to end the occupation, let alone to destroy Israel—cannot be justified (in the strong sense of that word, as opposed to mitigated), either in terms of morality or, at least in recent years, in terms of their consequences.

As I have argued, while there is a reasonable case that Palestinian terrorism in the 1970-2000 period did bring international recognition to the plight of the Palestinians and probably resulted in some increase in the Israel public’s willingness to consider a compromise two-state settlement, today the circumstances are different. Israeli attitudes have hardened and Palestinian terrorism has backfired–meaning that the Palestinians have no other means of attaining their just cause other than through nonviolent resistance, international diplomacy, and moral appeals to convince the United States to end its de facto support of the Israeli occupation.

Tragically, it must be admitted that all of these methods so far have failed and show little promise of succeeding in the near future; nonetheless, the Palestinians and all those who support their demand for the end of the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent state have no morally acceptable or practical option but to keep trying.

In the final analysis, there probably is only one way that Palestinian terrorism can be brought to an end: by the conclusion of a peace settlement that will give the Palestinians a genuinely independent and viable state in the West Bank. East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Under these circumstances, the non-fundamentalist Palestinians and their leaders—still the majority—will have very powerful political and economic incentives to stop further terrorism by fanatics who won’t settle for such a state. Failure to do so would surely eventually end with an Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank and Gaza and put a permanent end to Palestinian independence. And if that were to occur, few would deny that the Israelis would then have a legitimate right of national self-defense; in any case no one could stop them.

[1] Among other places, U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001, Washington D.C., May 2002, xvi.

[2] There is a substantial and growing philosophical literature and debate on terrorism. Among the most important works, some of which specifically address the issue of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are T. Asad, “Thinking about Terrorism and Just War,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, No. 1 (2009): 3-24; C.A.J. Coady, “‘Terrorism, Just war and Supreme Emergency”, in Coady and Michael O’Keefe, eds., Terrorism and Justice (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002), pp. 31-42; C.A.J. Coady, “Terrorism and Innocence,” The Journal of Ethics 8:1, 2004, pp: 37-58; R.M. Hare, “On Terrorism.” Journal of Value Inquiry 13: 240–49 Virginia Held, “Terrorism and War,” Journal of Ethics 8:1, 2004, pp. 59-75; Ted Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7 (London: Continuum Publishing Group, 2006); Jeff McMahan, Killing In War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009); Igor Primoratz, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013); Andrew Valls, ed., Ethics in International Affairs: Theory and Cases (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

Allison Jaggar provides a sophisticated review of the arguments over whether terrorism is ever justified: Jaggar, “What is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?”Journal of Social Philosophy 36:2, Summer 2005, pp. 202-217.

[3] C.A.J. Coady, “Terrorism and Innocence,” p. 58.

[4] There are many works making this argument. Two of the most important are J Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion; The Fight for Israeli Independence (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996) and Bruce Hoffman, “Anonymous Soldiers; The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Knopf, 2015)

[5]Primoratz, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation (Polity Press, 2013); pps. 148-49.

[6]Abrahms, “Why Terrorism Doesn’t Work,” p. 73.

[7] Zeev Schiff, “Ex-Mossad Chief: Hamas Offered 30-Year Ceasefire in 1997,” Haaretz, March 30, 2006.

[8]Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 267.

[9] Barak’s startling admission has been widely quoted in Israel. For example, see Akiva Eldar, “If I Were a Palestinian,” Haaretz, April 27, 2009.

[10]Uri Blau, “If I Were a Palestinian,” Haaretz, January 5, 2007.

[11] Haaretz, September 24, 2003

[12] Klein, “Terrorism Rules,” The World Today, August/September 2002, pps. 1-2.

[13] Hillel Shocken, “Before We Blame the Palestinians,” Haaretz, August 20, 2003.

[14] David Landau, “False Frontier,” Haaretz, September 5, 2003.

[15]“A Historical Act by the Chief of Staff,” Haaretz, November 2, 2003.

[16] Burg, “A Failed Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent,” Yediot Aharonot, August 29, 2003.

[17]David Forman, “Put Sharon on Trial. Here.” Haaretz, February 13, 2003.

[18] In a 2012 interview in the Israeli film documentary, “The Gatekeepers.”

[19]Barak Ravid, “In 2006 Letter to Bush, Haniyeh Offered Compromise With Israel,” Haaretz, November 14, 2008

[20] Danny Rubinstein, “Don’t Boycott the Palestinians,” Haaretz, February 13, 2006.

[21] Arnon Regular, “Hamas, Fatah Prisoners Agree to Two-State Solution in Joint Draft,” Haaretz, May 11, 2006.

[22]Quoted in Scott Atran, “Is Hamas Ready to Deal,” New York Times, August 17, 2006.

[23] Avi Issacharoff, “PM Dismisses Meshal Comments That Israel’s Existence Is A Reality,” Haaretz, April 2, 2008.

[24] Avi Issacharoff, “Meshal: Hamas Backs a Palestinian State in ’67 Borders,” Haaretz, April 2, 2008.

[25] Quoted in Fares Akram, “Hamas Says That Its Political Leader Does Not Plan to Seek Re-election,” New York Times, January 22, 2014.

[26] “Is Hamas Really Willing to Change?” Haaretz, Decemer 7, 2010

[27] Merav Michaeli, “Israel Is Missing Another Opportunity for Peace,” Haaretz, January 2, 2012

[28] Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Hamas’ Change of Strategy: Rocket fire Directed at Israeli Military Targets,” Haaretz, June 20, 2012

[29] Baskin wrote an oped in the New York Times describing the event: “Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination,” November 17, 2014.

[30] Reuven Pedatzur, “Why Did Israel Kill Jabari?” Haaretz, December 4, 2012

[31] For details on the agreement, see Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid, “Hamas, Fatah Sign Reconciliation Agreement,” Haaretz, April 23, 2014. For discussions emphasizing the significance of the agreement, see Nathan Thrall, “Hamas’s Chances,” London Review of Books, August 21, 2014;

Paul Pillar, “Dedication, Destruction and Hamas,” National Interest, August 2, 2014; and John Judis, “Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza? A Primer,” New Republic, July 25, 2014. After reviewing the evidence, Judis concludes: “Hamas’s charter can’t be used as an excuse by Israel to prolong the occupation”

[32] Meron Benvenisti, “An Explosive, Dangerous Balance,” Haaretz, Feburary 27, 2008

[33] Quoted in the most important work on the Iron Wall concept and its influence on Zionist/Israeli policies Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall; Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2000), p. 13.

[34] “Iron Wall,” pps. 233-34. The quotations are Shlaim’s summary of Rabin’s position.

[35] Quoted by Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), p. 122.

[36] Shlaim, Iron Wall, p. 292.

[37]David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 45.

[38]The literature on the Israeli attacks on Lebanon is extensive, including major books by Israeli writers, journalists, and soldiers, as well as extensive reports of human rights organizations. I sum up this evidence in Jerome Slater, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Campaign in Gaza,” International Security, Fall 2012, pps.47-51.

[39]From an interview with Gur in the May 10, 1978 edition of the Israeli newspaper Al Hamishar.

[40]Haaretz, May 15, 1978.

[41] The Begin letter was printed in Haaretz, August 4, 1981

[42] Eban’s response, “Morality and Warfare,” was published in the Jerusalem Post, August 16, 1981.

[43] Amos Harel, “Israel Prepares for Widespread Escalation,” Haaretz, July 12, 2006.

[44] Quoted by Tom Segev, “Three Theses for the Committee’s Examination,” Haaretz, August 18, 2006.

[45] An Integral Part of This Conflict,” bitterlemons, July 17, 2006

[46] Schiff, “A Strategic Mistake,” Haaretz, July 20, 2006.

[47] Arens, “Too Much To Expect,” Haaretz, March 5, 2008

[48]The Eizenkot statement has been widely quoted in Israel. See also Rashid Khalidi, “The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Autumn 2014), pp.5-13.

[49]Montell, “A Form of Collective Punishment,” bitterlemons, July 17, 2006.

[50] Slater, “Just War.”

[51] Thrall, “Hamas’s Chances.”

[52] For an overall summary of Protective Edge, see Khalidi, “Dahiya Doctrine.”

[53]The major reports by Israeli and international human rights organizations include those of Amnesty International (; Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (; Human Rights Watch (; and B’Tselem (

[54] For a detailed discussion of Israeli violations of ceasefires, Slater, “Just War,: pps. 58-62

[55] In a report to the United Nations, John Dugard, the Special Rapporteur in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the UN Human Rights Council, an internationally renowned South African scholar and a leading opponent of apartheid in the 1980s, made that argument: “Common sense….dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al-Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation…..While Palestinian terrorist acts are to be deplored, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation….As long as there is occupation, there will be terrorism.” (quoted in Haaretz, Feb. 27, 2008)

This article and similar headnote appeared on Jerome Slater’s site yesterday, though his headnote included a bar on anonymous comments.

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Thank you for this. Sometimes, in some places, it takes intellectual and moral courage to say what ideally should be well-known and obvious. At those times and places it is all the more important to say so.

Thank you, Jerome. This is very well-argued and factually informative. On the point about whether states can by definition engage in terrorist acts. States always demand a monopoly on physical power and will do what they can to enforce this. The words “terrorist” “terrorism” carry immensely negative emotive power, which States harness to fortify their interests. To make sure that this power is never used against them, States simply define away the possibility that they… Read more »

Excellent article! Thanks very much Professor Slater

Let me add to the praise. I think you should try to publish this and some of your other pieces in book form, but don’t know how much trouble that would be to do. I think there is a fair chance it would actually get mentioned favorably at the New York Review of Books, as they’ve been putting out some good material on this subject. You would probably be ignored at the NYT. But it’d… Read more »

This is a very meaty argument – just a preliminary point about how people don’t always think through what their definitions of words amount to. I’m sure that the official US government definition was indeed framed with an eye to protecting the reputation of governments and to making insurgents look bad – but it does not fully succeed in either respect. If terrorism exists when there is an attack on non-combatants by clandestine agents then… Read more »