Middle East Conflict

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

With the escalation of the conflict in the Gaza Strip, the adversaries are once again bandying about terms like "terrorism" and "resistance" from a highly subjective viewpoint. An objective classification is not always that easy, however. By Peter Philipp

Israeli attack on the Ministry of the Interior of the Palestinian authorities (photo: AP)
"The rule of thumb always seems to be: 'A terrorist is a freedom fighter on the other side'"

​​The Israeli Infrastructure Minister, Benjamin Ben Eliezer, a Workers’ Party member formerly known for his liberal and conciliatory stance toward the Palestinians, has no doubt about the best way to handle the "Hamas" government: "No one is immune. This is not a government; it’s an organization of murderers."

This opinion can by all means be regarded as representative for the administration in Jerusalem and at least partially explains why Israel, after the kidnapping of one its soldiers, is literally bringing in the big guns and dispatching tanks to the Gaza Strip while arresting members of the "Hamas" government.

At the same time, Israel continues to abstain from the debate on what exactly "terrorism" is, what constitutes "resistance," and what the difference is between a "simple crime" and a violation of international law. This debate has been launched repeatedly on the international front, but has never come to a satisfactory conclusion. The rule of thumb always seems to be: "A terrorist is a freedom fighter on the other side."

Israelis view everything as terrorism

For Israel, every attack against Israelis – whether civilians or soldiers, inside or outside the occupied territories – is an act of terrorism. Israel is not making life any easier for itself with this approach, but it is probably academic to try to search for the reasons behind this attitude since Israel is not prepared today to regard the Palestinian regions conquered in 1967 as "occupied" territories as defined by international law.

Israel is even more obstinate here than the Americans in Iraq: for them, whoever fights the US occupiers in Mesopotamia is by definition an "insurgent." But not a terrorist. This title is reserved for – and earned by – offenders who, like Mussab al-Zarqawi's followers, commit crimes against civilians, killing both Iraqis and foreigners in order to spread fear and terror.

Applied to the Near East – and in keeping with international law – this would mean that attacks on occupying troops in the occupied territories would have to be called "resistance," while attacks on Israeli civilian targets (buses, restaurants, hotels or supermarkets) would be characterized as "terrorism."

Palestinians accuse Israel of state-sponsored terrorism

The Palestinians therefore have a point when they claim that Israel is arresting, injuring or even murdering innocent civilians. This leads some of them to talk of "state-sponsored terrorism" on the part of Israel. The Israelis are of course outraged by this charge and reject it out of hand: the intention was never to harm innocent citizens, is the stereotypical retort. It's clear why the Americans have invented the ugly term "collateral damage."

Nevertheless, up until now the situation has been dominated by an obvious imbalance: Israel is a state with a functioning government and clear lines of command, while the Palestinians can boast only a government and president that are constantly at loggerheads, without a true state. And the Palestinian government has always used the excuse that it is unable to prevent violent acts carried out by individual perpetrators.

Palestinian government responsible for attacks

But in the meantime a major change has taken place. Since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, even if there is no state there, this region could no longer be considered an "occupied territory" – at least until Wednesday morning. The Palestinian government thus now legally bears the responsibility for attacks originating from this region. This includes rocket attacks on Israeli towns and the raid on an Israeli military post outside the Gaza Strip that resulted in the abduction of a soldier.

Instead of distancing itself from such acts, the Palestinian government is instead backing the demands of the kidnappers that Israel should release Palestinian prisoners if it wants to so much as find out where the kidnapped soldier is being held hostage. The "Hamas" government has thereby given its sanction to an attack beyond its borders and also bears responsibility for it, even if it did not itself issue the command.

Nevertheless, it is still not in keeping with international standards when the country under attack attempts to seize the offending government and perhaps to replace it. The poor example provided by Iraq cannot be expected to work in Gaza and Ramallah either.

Peter Philipp

© DEUTSCHE WELLE 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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