There is certainly agreement between all parties that there are obvious distinctions between legitimate wars of liberation and acts of terrorism on a variety of activities. In other words, on acts that can be easily seen in black and white terms, there is no difference of opinion. Where there is a wide difference is over the grey area, over acts whose definition would still depend on the eye of the beholder. It is this grey area that needs to be worked on, and I suspect that agreement can still be reached once the international community goes through the list of war-like acts that are usually committed during national struggles for liberation.
The laws of war, as articulated in the humanitarian norms, clearly define what is acceptable and what is not during the conduct of a war. The two additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 apply to both international and domestic armed conflicts. In the Middle East, we are certainly disturbed by the blur over what the Palestinians and Israelis can do and cannot do for as long as their conflict, armed or otherwise, continues. What Israel calls acts of terrorism committed by Palestinians when they strike in the depth of Israel or kill Jewish settlers is referred to, by the Palestinians, as legitimate acts to liberate the Palestinian soil from occupation. And what Israel calls as legitimate defense acts when it bombards Palestinians with heavy military equipment to silence the Palestinian resistance to occupation, the Palestinians call acts of state terrorism. In both situations, innocent civilians are often the targets, whether deliberately or otherwise.
One can go through a list of familiar acts committed by either side in order to label them more accurately as acts of terrorism or legitimate acts of liberation or defense. I think that both sides should sit down and go through this list. If they cannot agree on what is and what is not terrorism, they may seek the guidance of the international community. The easiest part to agree on is the classification of any act or acts aimed at innocent civilians, whether women, children or men, as acts of terrorism. Acts which can be projected to cause harm to such a vulnerable group of people should be treated as acts of terrorism, irrespective of whether or not there is deliberate intent to cause harm or injury. This would apply to both sides. Neither wars of liberation nor legitimate defensive acts by an occupying force should condone killing of innocent civilians.
Having said that, a people which is under occupation has an alienable right to liberate itself from the yoke of the occupying force. War-like activities are therefore condonable and legitimate as long as they target the military presence of the occupying force. In the absence of a peaceful avenue, it should be acceptable, under international law, to strike against the occupying Israeli army deployed on Palestinian soil. By the same token, striking at Israeli civilian targets within Israel should not be acceptable. The grey area here is what to do with settlers who are civilian targets situated on Palestinian lands in clear violation of international law. On one hand, it is not acceptable to strike against civilian peoples. On the other, the Palestinians have the right to expel settlers from their territories. What means and methods are open for the Palestinians to pursue in this particular grey area is something that requires deeper reflection and policy making by not only the immediate belligerent parties but also the international community.
On further reflection, the crux of the problem, as far as the Israeli and Palestinian peoples are concerned, is the Israeli occupation that has lasted more than thirty four years. This is an unprecedented type of occupation. This aberration in international behavior needs definitive resolution. If one zeroes in on the central issue of Israeli occupation, ending it would bring relief to both sides. What seems to fuel the Palestinian rejection of ending their Intifada is the deep conviction that Israel has really no intention to withdraw from their lands. The settlement activity is a sure sign that Israel does not entertain vacating Palestinian areas. The network of roads and highways that dissect the Palestinian territories is also a vivid example of where Israel stands on the issue of occupation.
As long as Israel entertains policies aiming at perpetuating the occupation of Palestinian lands, extremism will flourish on both sides. Israel needs to make the grand policy decision of whether it would want to terminate the subjugation of another people and then look for a peaceful mechanism to do just that or to maintain its occupation and subjugation under one pretext or another. If the latter is Israel’s final option, then the areas affected would remain fertile ground for all sorts of acts, including terrorism, no matter how the international community decides on its final definition.
It is repeatedly alleged that the Palestinians have wasted many opportunities for a peaceful resolution of their conflict with Israel. It can also be said, with considerable confidence, that Israel has also missed many opportunities to live in peace with its neighbors. By effectively aborting the partition plan of 1947, despite the Palestinian rhetorical rejection of the plan, and by not striking a deal with Jordan immediately after 1967, Israel has demonstrated that it is often intoxicated by its military might and could not see beyond its nose. That’s why we are still bogged down in an endeavor to define terrorism and the parameters of wars of liberation.