Since 9/11, the administration has tried to cast its “war on terror”
as broadly as possible, including an invasion of Iraq and the labeling
of groups that focus their attacks only on Israel—Hamas and Hezbollah—as
terrorists. And these groups do oftentimes engage in monstrously
unacceptable acts of terrorism—that is, by striking innocent civilians
to get them to pressure their governments to change policy.
But sometimes these groups undertake legitimate acts of war. Yet the
world’s most powerful governments—led by the United States—seem to deem
any actions by these groups as terrorism. At the same time, they avoid
that label for any actions taken by other governments, such as the
disproportionate measures now being undertaken by Israel.
The G-8 nations, at their summit in St. Petersburg, concluded that
Hamas and Hezbollah started the war by Hamas’ rocket attacks in Gaza and
the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and Hezbollah’s abduction of two
more Israeli soldiers. The G-8 leaders declared, “These extremist
elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the
Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must
immediately halt their attacks.”
But contrary to press coverage in the United States, the actual time
line of events indicates that Israel attacked first and also committed
the first acts of terrorism.
“Terrorism” is a term that was originally coined during the French
Revolution to apply to acts by the revolutionary government. Over
history, governments, because of their vastly greater resources and thus
killing capacity, have killed far more civilians in acts of terrorism
than rag-tag groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
For example, although not excusing Nazi and North Vietnamese terror
tactics, the U.S. government—by aiding in the firebombing of Dresden
toward the end of World War II when the Nazis were clearly defeated and
by the indiscriminate bombing of North Vietnam in the Linebacker II air
offensive in 1972—has committed acts of terrorism. And Israel regularly
dispenses “collective punishment”—as it is now in Lebanon and Gaza—that
should be labeled “terrorism,” but isn’t.
Even if Israel is given the benefit of the doubt for an explosion in
Gaza on June 9 that killed a family of seven (witnesses blame Israeli
artillery but Israel denies the causing it), Israel clearly killed 11
Palestinians, including nine civilians, in Gaza on June 13 using a
missile strike on a van.
In the latter case, the Israelis would argue that they were going
after “terrorists” in the van and that the civilians just happened to be
in the way. But Hamas could claim that its later June 25 killing of two
Israeli soldiers and capturing another was an attack on legitimate
targets in retaliation for the first two Israeli actions.
So the capture of the Israeli soldier by Hamas, on which the G-8
leaders and world press have focused, was not the beginning of the chain
of events that have led to the current war. If hitting military targets
is not terrorism, then Israel, not Hamas—at least in this episode—was
also the first to use terror tactics.
In the ensuing days after the soldier’s capture, Israel began
invading Gaza in a grossly disproportionate action. Israel destroyed
power stations, bridges, and other infrastructure in Gaza. This was
clearly collective punishment aimed at inflicting pain on Palestinian
civilians. For example, any time power is shut off to hospitals, some
patients die. Thus, this response has to be labeled a terrorist act,
rather than a defensive one as President Bush has claimed.
Furthermore, such an over-the-top response undermined, rather than
improved, Israeli security. Even if Hamas and Hezbollah do oftentimes
resort to acts of terror, what terrorists crave most is publicity.
Israel could have denied it to them by quietly using stealthy special
operations forces, killing or capturing leading figures in Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s excessive measures, conducted
mainly by a weak leader to show the folks at home that he was tough,
merely showed Hezbollah in Lebanon that they could get back into the
limelight by conducting a similar raid on July 12 that would kill eight
Israeli soldiers and capture two more.
Again, this would seem to be a legitimate military target, as was
Hezbollah’s launching of Katyusha rockets and mortar shells toward
Israeli military posts in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of Israel.
Hezbollah strayed into terror acts, however, when launching rockets and
mortar shells at the Israeli border town of Shlomi on that same day and
in the subsequent rocket attacks on northern Israeli towns and cities.
It launched the latter inaccurate rocket salvos en masse only after
Israel began committing terrorist acts on Lebanon by bombing power
stations, roads, bridges, gas stations, and fuel depots; displacing
thousands of Lebanese residents and shutting the country off from the
outside world using a naval blockade and bombing the ports, the
international airport and the only road out of the country to Damascus,
Since Israel withdrew its occupation forces from Lebanon in 2000,
Hezbollah had exhibited restraint, directing its increasingly infrequent
offensives against the disputed border area at Shebaa Farms.
Once again, Israel’s disproportionate action of holding a whole
country responsible for a group’s capturing and killing of a few of its
soldiers has now triggered a full-blown war that has endangered citizens
of northern Israel. Besides, as conservative commentator Pat Buchanan
points out, over an 18-year period, Israel couldn’t defeat and disarm
Hezbollah, so it is ridiculous for Israel to hold the weak government of
Lebanon responsible for doing so.
The total civilian casualties on each side also indicate that
Israel’s attacks have strayed into terrorism. Very few Israeli civilians
have been killed compared to the death tolls in Lebanon and in Gaza.
No one can excuse genuine acts of terror by rag-tag groups such as
Hamas and Hezbollah, especially indiscriminate rocket attacks on towns
and cities. But neither should great powers, especially the United
States, look the other way while a government—read Israel—systematically
kills many more civilians under the guise of a disingenuous claim of
Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute,
Director of the Institute’s
Center on Peace &
Liberty, and author of the books
The Empire Has No Clothes, and
Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.