All Kinds of Terrorists

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President Bush has declared a “war on terrorism”. Indeed?

Osama bin Laden is undoubtedly a terrorist. Killing 4800 civilians at the World Trade Center was a terrorist outrage. But the United States would have declared war on bin Laden even if he had been satisfied with killing American soldiers in Saudi Arabia or blowing up oil installations across the Middle East. It is not the methods of bin Laden that have caused this war, but his aim: to get rid of the United States and its satellites, the Arab kings and presidents, throughout the Middle East.

In order to pursue its war, the United States has set up a world-wide coalition. Everyone joining it has been issued an American permit to call his enemies “terrorists”: Putin in Chechnya, China in its Muslim regions, India in Kashmir, Sharon in the occupied territories é all are now fighting against “terrorists”. Everyone and his bin Laden.

Many years ago I coined a definition I am quite proud of: “The difference between freedom-fighters and terrorists is that the freedom-fighters are on my side and the terrorists are on the other side.” I am glad that this definition has been adopted by my biggers and betters.

Since the New York atrocity, it has become fashionable to talk about “terrorism”. As a result, it has lost all precise meaning.

“Terror” means extreme fear. The root of the word is the Latin “terrere” é to frighten or be frightened. The modern term was first used to describe the regime of terror instituted by the Jacobins, one of the factions of the French Revolution, to destroy their opponents by beheading them with the guillotine during the years 1793-4. In the end, their leader, Robespierre, suffered the same fate.

Since then, the term has acquired a more general use. Terrorism is a method of attaining political goals by frightening the civilian population. It does not apply to the frightening of soldiers. The Japanese who attacked the American fleet in Pearl Harbor were not terrorists. Neither were the Jews who attacked the soldiers of the British occupation regime in Palestine.

Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. That is true for terrorism, too. Terrorism is always an instrument for the attainment of political aims. Since these may be rightist or leftist, revolutionary or reactionary, religious or secularist, the term “international terrorism” is nonsense. Each terrorist body has its own specific agenda.

There is hardly a liberation movement that has not used terrorism. Algerian woman put bombs in the cafes of the French settlers (some of them were caught and horribly tortured by French parachutists). Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison because he refused to order his followers to abstain from terrorism. The Maccabees were terrorists who went around killing Hellenized Jews. So were the Irgun fighters who in 1938 put bombs in the Arab markets of Jaffa and Haifa in retaliation for Arab attacks. Shlomo Ben-Josef committed a terrorist act when he shot at an Arab bus (and I joined the Irgun when he was hanged by the British).

Generally, terrorism is the weapon of the weak. A Palestinian “terrorist” recently said: “Give me tanks and airplanes, and I shall stop sending suicide-bombers into Israel.” But big powers, too, can use terror. Dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima was a terrorist act, designed to frighten the Japanese population into demanding that their government surrender. So was the Nazi blitz on London and the British bombing of Dresden. Churchill and Hitler were as different as day and night, but they used the same method.

Israel has used this method from the day of its inception. In the early 50s the IDF committed “retaliation raids” designed to frighten the villagers beyond the border in order to induce them to put pressure on the Jordanian and Egyptian governments to prevent the infiltration of Palestinians into Israel. During the War of Attrition in the late 60s, Moshe Dayan terrorized half a million inhabitants of the Egyptian towns along the Suez Canal into fleeing, so as to put pressure on the Egyptian president to stop attacking Israeli strongholds along the Canal. In the 1996 “grapes of wrath” operation, Prime Minister Shimon Peres terrorized half a million inhabitants of South Lebanon by aerial bombardment into fleeing north, in order to pressurize the Beirut government into stopping the Shi’ite guerrillas from attacking the Israeli occupation force and its mercenaries. It is the same method that is used in the army when a commander punishes all the soldiers in a company, so that they will turn against the one who made him angry.

The trouble is, it does not work in conflicts between nations. Generally, it is counter-productive. The Taliban have not turned bin Laden over but have become more extreme in their opposition to America. The IDF blockade against Palestinian villages, which this week denied them water and food, does not isolate the ‘terrorists”, but on the contrary, turns them into national heroes. The devastation caused by the Russians in Chechnya did not break é indeed, it strengthened é the opposing guerilla forces.

Since terrorism is always a political instrument, the right way to combat it is always political. Solve the problem that breeds terrorism and you get rid of the terrorism. Solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem and the other flash-points in the Middle East, and you get rid of al-Qaida. It will wilt like a flower deprived of water.

No one has yet devised another method.

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Uri Avnery is a journalist, peace activist, former member of the Knesset, and leader of Gush Shalom. He is a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

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