In one of his columns a few years ago, a frustrated Paul Krugman asked: “Does evidence matter? I’d like to believe that ideas and evidence matter….Otherwise, what am I doing with my life?” He was writing, of course, about the role of ideology vs. evidence in economics. Lucky fellow: we who write about Israeli behavior and policies should only be so fortunate.
Take the issue of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are two major books (and dozens of journal and magazine articles) on Zionist terrorism in the pre-state period. The first was J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion, published in 1977. The second is Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers; The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, just out this year.
There are three central issues concerning terrorism in general and terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first is the issue of fact: what is the evidence of the mutual terrorism in the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The second is whether the terrorism of both sides “worked”—did it serve or undermine the goals of the terrorist organizations and actions? And the third is the moral issue: Can terrorism ever be morally justified, regardless of its purposes and even if it “works”?
In the March 13th Washington Post, Daniel Kurtzer, the former US Ambassador to Israel and now a professor at Princeton, reviews the Hoffman book in the course of which he at least touches upon—in essence, though not always explicitly—these three issues.
Before those issues can be considered, we must first deal with the definitional issue: What do we mean by the term “terrorism?” Kurtzer repeats the misleading cliché: “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and Hoffman’s study will undoubtedly add to the partisan debate over who exactly was and is a ‘terrorist’ and whether violence associated with the struggle of one people for national independence is more legitimate than the struggle of another people.”
That argument, however is confused and 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”), aimed at reaching political, religious, or ideological goals.
Furthermore, 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 terrorism is always morally indefensible: that’s a separate issue. Moreover, this objective definition precludes the kind of ideologically biased formulations favored by the U.S. and Israeli governments, who typically confine the term to actions that only non-governmental groups—as opposed to states-- engage in; for example, the U.S. government has regularly defined terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” (emphasis added)
Terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What are the Facts?
As Hoffman and many other scholars have established, during their struggle in the 1930s and 1940s for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, the Zionists as well as the Palestinians engaged in terrorism. That definitively established fact clearly worries Kurtzer, who writes:
The reader of Hoffman’s book might be drawn to equating Palestinian and Jewish terrorism, concluding that there is no difference between what the Zionists did before 1948 to achieve an independent state and what the Palestinians are doing now for independence. But there are critical differences, which Hoffman makes clear….Both the Irgun and the Lehi focused their attention on British military and governmental targets. Civilians were killed, but they were not generally targeted….Palestinian terrorism, on the other hand, has been often indiscriminate and frequently directed specifically at civilians. (emphasis added)
That is highly misleading, despite the qualifier “generally,” which seems intended by Kurtzer to provide him with “plausible deniability” that he is obscuring the record. In fact, both Bell and Hoffman forthrightly and in some detail discuss a number of deliberate attacks and bombings by Zionist organizations on civilian markets, buses, movie theaters, and so on—the purpose of which was to terrorize the Palestinians from resisting the Zionist goal of establishing a Jewish state encompassing all of historic Palestine. And then, of course, there was the even more extensive and murderous Jewish terrorism, including wholesale massacres of ordinary Palestinian noncombatants during the Nakba, as in Lydda, Deir Yassin and elsewhere.
Did Terrorism Work?
Palestinian terrorism during the pre-state period obviously didn’t work, for it failed to prevent the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel—and may even have made it more inevitable. As for the Zionist goal, Hoffman, Bell, and many others agree that while that Jewish terrorism was not the only reason that the British decided to withdraw from Palestine and allow the creation of Israel, it was an important contributing factor.
The Moral Issues
Does the existence of a just cause that may not be attainable by other means morally justify terrorism? It is a complicated question, and there is no consensus even among moral philosophers on the answer. My own view is that regardless of the justice of its purpose, terrorism—attacks on innocents—is always morally wrong or, if you will, evil. Yet, important distinctions can be drawn, based on the concepts of mitigation and lesser evil. That is, the moral wrong of terrorism may be mitigated if necessary to achieve a sufficiently just cause; alternatively, terrorism might legitimately be regarded as a lesser evil than the continuation of an unjust status quote which can’t be overturned by any other methods, principally armed resistance against legitimate military targets, nonviolent resistance, or political negotiations.
How does this apply to the mutual Jewish and Palestinian terrorism before the establishment of Israel? My view is both sides had just causes: Zionism was justified because in light of the Holocaust--but not only the Holocaust—there was a demonstrable need for the Jewish people to have a safe haven, which in turn required the creation of a Jewish state. Yet, the Palestinian people also had the right of political sovereignty in a territory in which they had long been an overwhelming majority.
Even so, in my view the resort to terrorism by both sides was not justifiable: if the creation of Israel could only be attained by terrorism and the Nakba--which is far from certain--then a Jewish state in Palestine (and in practice by 1948 there was no alternative location) should not have been created. On the other hand, the just cause of Palestinian political sovereignty was not of such overwhelmingly high value as to justify terrorist methods—particularly because the Palestinian leadership rejected the UN-proposed compromise, the 1947 partition plan.
Terrorism Since 1948
Hoffman does not examine terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948, but a very brief summary may be in order. Both sides have resorted to terrorism throughout the course of the conflict. In particular, on many occasions Israel has deliberately attacked Palestinian civilians-- indeed, other Arab civilians as well, as in Lebanon in the late 1970s through the 1990s and in Egypt during the early 1970s “war of attrition”--and their crucial political economic, civic, medical and societal institutions. These include deliberate attacks on homes, apartment houses, government institutions and police stations; transportation and communications networks; roads and bridges; electrical generation plants and power lines; industrial facilities; fuel depots; sewage plants; water storage tanks; various food production systems, including orchards, greenhouses, and fishing boats; and even schools, ambulances, and hospitals.
For a number of morally relevant reasons (largely drawn from just war philosophy), Israeli terrorism has been much worse than Palestinian terrorism:
The Just Cause Criterion
The goal of most Palestinian terrorism in the first few decades after the establishment of Israel was to destroy the state of Israel, a clearly unjust cause. However, at least since the late 1980s most—though not all--Palestinian terrorism has been largely driven by the just cause of the creation of a Palestinian state in the some 23% of the historic land of Palestine not presently constituted by, or occupied by, 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 repression and control over the Palestinians.
The Last Resort Criterion
Terrorism, it is often said, is a weapon of the weak: the strong (such as states) have alternatives that the weak (non-state groups and movements) lack: diplomatic and political influence, economic incentives and disincentives, and powerful armed forces. For those reasons, other things being equal, state terrorism is morally worse than non-state terrorism.
To be sure, 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. As previously mentioned, these means include armed resistance against the military forces of the oppressor, nonviolent protest and resistance, and negotiations for a political settlement.
However, the Palestinians have no military option against the overwhelmingly more powerful Israeli armed forces; Israel routinely ignores or crushes Palestinian nonviolent resistance, frequently by deadly violence; and the dominant PLO and Palestinian Authority leadership—Yasir Arafat since the early 1980s (and probably earlier) and Mahmoud Abbas since 2004—have sought to negotiate with Israel on the basis of the international consensus two-state settlement, while Israel as a matter of policy continues to expand the Jewish settlements in the West Bank that are designed to thwart Palestinian independence and a two-state compromise settlement.
The Scale and Extent of Terrorism
The just cause and last resort issues aside, the third 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: throughout the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, repeated Israeli attacks on noncombatants and their crucial infrastructures, both by economic and military warfare, has wreaked far more death and destruction on the Palestinian people than Palestinian terrorism has inflicted on Israeli civilians.
In particular, consider the two most recent massive air and ground Israeli attacks on Gaza, in 2008-09 (“Operation Cast Lead”) and in July 2014 (“Operation Protective Edge.”). In Cast Lead, the generally accepted estimate is that Israel killed some 1400 Palestinians, two-thirds of them noncombatants, including hundreds of women and children, while losing only three noncombatants of their own.
In “Protective Edge” Israel bombed from the air and fired over 30,000 artillery and tank shells into Gaza, deliberately or indiscriminately striking many civilian targets, including homes, schools, ambulances, hospitals, industries and workshops, agricultural facilities, roads and bridges, water and sewage treatment plants, and the main Gaza electrical power plant. The generally accepted figures, according to investigations and reports by a number of UN and other international as well as Israeli human rights organizations, are that 2100-2200 Palestinians were killed, up to three quarters of them civilians (including more than 500 children), and another 11,000 were wounded. As well, about 100,000 people were left homeless—many of them still are—and hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed or damaged.
In the course of the seven week attack, seventy two Israelis were killed, all but six of them military personnel.
A final reason that Israeli terrorism has been morally worse than Palestinian terrorism is that Israel has often attacked the doubly innocent. When Palestinians plant bombs in Israeli cities, they are attacking the citizens of their enemy. However, when Israel attacked Egyptian population centers in the 1970s and Lebanese towns and cities in the 1980s and 1990s, it was attacking the innocent citizens of a state who were essentially helpless bystanders—or victims—of the Arab-Israeli conflict that they had no control over.
Israel typically claims—frequently with U.S. support—that one should never negotiate with terrorists. What this grim history shows, at the very least, is that even if that were always a persuasive rule—and it is not--Israel would lack all moral standing to make it. In any case, as Benjamin Netanyahu has now made officially explicit, Israel also refuses to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, which has repeatedly and explicitly rejected all forms of terrorism.
A final note. In the course of this very brief summary, I have made grave charges about Israeli terrorism; no one can, will, or should simply take my word that these are the facts of the matter. For the past two years I have been trying to place a long article in a professional journal in which I do provide the detailed, overwhelming, and irrefutable evidence of Israeli terrorism since 1948. There are not many political science or history journals that would even consider an article on this topic, and on this length—it needs to be long in order to make the case that the evidence is overwhelming—and it has now been rejected by six such journals.
Of course it is always possible that the rejections were justified by the poor quality of the piece. However, perhaps I may be forgiven for thinking that the topic and my argument are the more likely explanation, as I have never before in the course of my 50+ years of professional writing encountered such multiple rejections, as well as the fact that three top American journals to which I submitted in the past have published a total of twenty-three of my articles.
I am just about out of options and not in the mood to keep banging my head on the Wall of Willed Ignorance that characterizes discourse in this country on the general topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but if necessary I will publish the full article on this website.
 For example, a Haaretz investigation found that the total number of Israelis killed by acts of terrorism in the 1967-1982 period was 282, while Israel killed thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese civilians. (Haaretz, July 16, 1982) After that, according to a study by B’tselem, Israel’s leading Human Rights organization, between September 2000 to April 2008, over 4600 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, as compared with 234 Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians.
For an extensive discussion of Cast Lead, see Jerome Slater, “Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Israeli Campaign in Gaza,” International Security 37, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 44-80.
For an overall summary of Protective Edge, see Rashid Khalidi, “The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Autumn 2014)