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Terrorism on Both Sides

By Ivan Eland
July 19, 2006

Editor's Note: "Terrorism" is a word that should be used very carefully -- since it sets in motion a slew of negative reactions and violent counter-measures -- but it is frequently employed carelessly or subjectively, often proving the old saying, "one man's freedom-fighter is another man's terrorist."

The classic definition of terrorism is the use of violence against civilians to achieve a political end. The 9/11 attacks were a prime example of terrorism because large numbers of civilians were killed by al-Qaeda to advance a political agenda. A suicide bomber at a busy restaurant would be another clear case.

But often selective judgments are applied. If you favor a cause or despise a population, you're more likely to tolerate violence against civilians. But shouldn't that still be called terrorism? For instance, when George W. Bush ordered the bombing of a Baghdad restaurant at the start of the Iraq War -- hoping to kill Saddam Hussein -- but instead butchered 14 civilians, including seven children, shouldn't that be denounced as terrorism? That it isn't is more a measure of Bush's power than an objective application of a word.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland examines the double standards that have been applied to the current bloodshed involving Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas:

By declaring that “Israel has right to defend itself,” the Bush administration is tacitly approving Israel’s pounding Lebanon into rubble and reinvading Gaza.

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, Syria.

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 offensive self-defense.


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.


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