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Understanding The Conflict Between Palestinians And Israelis Politics Essay

Theory and Ethics of Terrorism and Political Violence. The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis has been going on for many years and will go on for many more if the word terrorism does not cease to be used by both sides and the world media while focusing on this conflict. Using the word terrorism and the derivative terrorist should be outlawed from at least this specific conversation and context where the historical, sociological, economic and above all religious influences have shaped the present situation and in no way should either side be able to rely on a simplistic shortening of that extensive history by using the extremely slanted and biased word terrorist to describe the other side.

The word ‘terrorism’ is at this present moment in time itself problematic with the United States and its allies around the world currently fighting a ‘war on terror’ how this can be achieved, planned, executed or managed are completely beyond me and I believe many others in this world, but that still hasn’t stopped the current administration from continuing to use the rhetoric of terrorists and terrorism all the time. This war is specifically focused on or so we’re told, the crippling of networks like al-Qa'ida that intentionally set out to commit ‘terrorist’ acts to achieve a political or religious goal. This ‘war on terror’ has brought the United States Armed Forces into conflict in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Somalia and Yemen. To achieve success in rallying up support for this war, which came into effect in mid September 2001, when al-Qa'ida claimed responsibility for two large attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. The problem is that many areas of the world that had been fighting conflicts of armed rebellion or resistance movements or separatists movements of all sorts would then shortly after the attacks be labeled as terrorist groups and would be the target of the new ‘war on terror’ that the United States was about to engage in as retaliation for the attacks in New York in 2001. One conflict that would suffer the consequences of this new utilization of the word terrorism and the connotations held within was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The key thing is that it was not the whole conflict that would suffer the consequences, instead just one side. Even though looking at the bigger picture and taking every aspect of the situation known since the beginning of the ‘war on terror’ era, there can be a case made that if the side suffering the consequences were unknown and the actions of both sides were to be described to an independent observer than I believe that from face value the supposed ‘terrorists’ would be hard to determine. This is not to say that one side in this conflict is in the right and the other is in the wrong, no I am instead saying that the difference in actions between the two sides taken in the correct context will indicate that neither is much worse than the other morally and more importantly that neither deserves the label of terrorist.

If there were a way to remove the term terrorist from the situation, suddenly not only would both sides be able to look at the situation objectively but also the necessary scrutiny might be placed on their actions so that the truth will come out as to why certain groups of individuals believe that they have the right to act in the way that they do. Some might say that to attempt this would be like to remove God from the situation, which almost all observers would not only deem impossible, but the Israeli-Palestinian territory would not exist in a form recognizable to anyone if there were no God present. To this I would argue, that the culture of the area is deeply entrenched on both sides and its prime characteristic is religion, and that the reason why both sides feel the need to live in that specific location is related to God, but if one were to remove the blinding veil of terrorism and look at the situation objectively without name-calling and stereotyping, you might see that both sides only have justification for their actions because the other has acted like a ‘terrorist’ in some sort or fashion. I will come back and expand on this idea and how it plays out and can be solved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict later, but first I shall attempt and come to an acceptable definition of terrorism so that we know what the rules of the game are. To do this I will turn to a couple of notable opinions on the issue of defining terrorism and see if any of their definitions will be suitable for the purpose of outlining what terrorism is.

Before I begin to layout the possible definitions for the word terrorist and hopefully arrive at some amalgam of them to come up with a useful definition in order to examine the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I must admit that the process of finding an acceptable definition is itself daunting. For there are so many factors to take into account when creating a definition of terrorism, things such as: civilians, combatants (and non-combatants), collateral damage, state or non-state, state-sponsored and many more, and all of this before you can if you want to take into account the motivations of the actor committing the terrorism. Another problem is that the laws of war and the morality associated with fighting a just war or engaging in just military action, limit the amount actions and persons who can be labeled as terrorists or engaging in terrorist activities. It appears as though the way you shape your definition of terrorism and terrorists, clearly depends on the situations that you either currently or shortly will find yourself in militarily in order to protect certain decisions that need to be made.

In an article entitled “Terrorism and Innocence,” C.A.J. Coady laid out an acceptably accurate definition of terrorism or at least a good starting point when he defined it as such: “The organized use of violence to attack non-combatants (‘innocents’ in a special sense) or their property for political purposes” (Coady, 2004, p.39). This is a useful definition for the purposes of analyzing the conflict in which one side happens to be a state and the other is a combination of an unrecognized state and a group of supposed terrorists, as Coady does not eliminate state terrorism as a possible option leaving the door open to show that both sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could still be labeled terrorists and not just the one side that we always hear about being labeled as such.

Published via Cambridge Press in a 1989 edition of the journal Philosophy, Jenny Teichman wrote an influential article entitled “How to Define Terrorism” giving us the following definition:

Terrorism consists of violent actions carried out for political or other social purposes, including some large-scale mercenary purposes, by individuals or groups, having an aim which might be either good or bad, but carried out by means of either or both of the following: 1) attacks on innocent or neutral or randomly chosen people, or 2) using means which involve atrocities (e.g. torture, cruel killings, or mutilation of the living or dead) committed against randomly or non-randomly chosen people who may be either innocent or not (1989, p. 513).

Her expanded definition has a key difference from that of Coady, which is preciseness. While Coady chose to keep his definition as narrow as possible while allowing the possibility of state terrorism to be part of it; Teichman took this into account and expanded upon it just slightly. She added other social purposes besides solely political to the concept, as well as adding the caveat of using means which involve atrocities against basically all people regardless of innocence. This is helpful to clarify the conflict in question by again allowing state terrorism to be part of the definition, but also allowing many other means carried out by both sides to fall under the expanding and yet to be completed definition of terrorism. Teichman explicitly lists certain atrocities that might be committed as well as hinting at possible others. Another key point of hers is that she also places the emphasis on whether the victim is innocent or not, which helps to shed more light on the conflict in question and its connection to the word terrorism. The last definition that will add another dimension of specificity comes from an essay about Terrorism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Neve Gordon and George A. Lopez co-wrote an article in 2000 entitled “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” within which they came up with the definition that follows. It provides another way of looking at terrorism that is similar to the other two definitions looked at so far yet it is slightly different by their stating:

“Terrorism is a form of violence that by design violates some of the society’s accepted moral and legal codes, is often ruthlessly destructive, and is somewhat unpredictable in who will be its instrumental targets. Terrorism hardly constitutes mindless violence. Instead, it reflects a detailed strategy that uses horrific violence to make people feel weak and vulnerable, often disproportionate to either the terrorist acts or to the terrorists’ long-term power. This fear seeks to promote concrete political objectives (2000, pp. 107-108).”

The authors further point out that:

“The definition also does not indicate the means by which terrorism is carried out, entailing that the perpetrators can use handguns and small bombs or tanks and warplanes. As a result, it enables us to treat Israel and the Palestinians, at least initially, as having an equal capacity to employ terrorism (2000, p. 108).”

First, let us look at this final definition which has commonalities with the first two that allow for the possibility of the inclusion of state terrorism, as well as concurring with Coady’s emphasis on political objectives. This definition is more expansive than the first two in the way it takes into account the motivations of the actor’s perpetrating ‘terrorist’ actions, but also lends some rationality to the actions of the ‘terrorist’. Second, it appears that this definition provides a good lens through which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict can be examined. The work of Gordon and Lopez focuses on this specific context with a concentration on terrorism. The last sentence from the second quote above sums up the view with which I would like to be able to approach this context in relation to the usage of the word terrorist, stating that their definition allows them to equally examine both sides as potential ‘terrorists’.

Using these three definitions (the first which is quick, swift and easy to work with, the second which is slightly more expansive yet more precise in terms of actual actions and also more permissive to the possible purposes of the ‘terrorist’ actions, and the last laying out the winding road that terrorism can head down) will allow us to help look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict closely. This will help determine, if either or both sides should be labeled ‘terrorists’, and if the term itself will prove useful. If through close analysis we find out that both groups have acted like ‘terrorists’ it will force us to look at the situation under a different light than that which it is presently being used. This may cause for some startling revelations and maybe create new avenues for peace. For when accountability and transparency can be returned to the region through the removal of the term ‘terrorist’ as a barricade and as a burden on negotiations, perhaps peaceful, civil and cordial relations can be worked out between the two groups. On the other hand, if we find evidence to suggest that one group and not the other was engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities, than either a confirmation of the present situation or a reconfiguration of the blame would be necessary. I suspect however, that the former will be a more likely possibility than the latter despite the evidence of recent years that might indicate one side, and only one being labeled as ‘terrorists’.

Before we can start the finger pointing and policy adjustments that come from throwing around the word ‘terrorist’, especially after an objective look at the conflict, first, we must know how the situation degraded to the extent that we know it today. If I was to fully elaborate on the conflict, I could write a 20 volume series about it, and still not cover the whole thing, so I will refer to some of the key points and issues from both sides of the conflict starting from the beginning. In my opinion, we shall start at the faux-beginning: May 14, 1948 the day of declaration of the State of Israel. Yes, there had been violence between the groups before this day and even the Zionist movement of the late 19th century with its forced migration of populations caused violence on both sides. The true violence, nevertheless, began in the years after the Israeli army of 1949 wiped out the majority of Palestinian residents and took control of 77% of what was then Palestine (Kapitan, 2004, p. 179). The Palestinian population during the 1950’s and 1960’s before the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 seemed rather passive in relation to the next fifty years of the people’s history. This passivity might be explained by the loss of not only a dynamic and longstanding culture but also the diaspora of their people both of which were not by choice. Following the war, not only did Israel take control of Palestine in its entirety, but it keeps a presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to “ensure its security in the absence of an overall peace settlement in the Middle East” (Kapitan, 2004, p. 181). In addition to this, as Kapitan notes “successive Israeli governments have embarked upon a massive transformation of these territories by progressively confiscating both public and private lands for the expansion of Jewish settlement (2004, p. 181)”. This continues to this day with or without the permission of the Palestinian landowners.

From the Palestinian perspective, after losing an enormous proportion of their original population through the diaspora following the establishment of the State of Israel, then losing the remaining 20% of the original land that they had, they have had to survive through many, many years of resource deprivation and antagonism from their colonizers. There were bright moments, though fleeting throughout the next fifty years since the faux-beginning. There was the ex- leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) that would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his inclusion in the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993: one Yasser Arafat. Showing progress in the face of the history that they endured, they even voted in their own democratically elected government. It turned out that their citizens had elected Hamas, a group labeled as a ‘terrorist’ organization. Things went downhill fast with the majority of the western media as well as the leaders of Israel and the United States steadfastly saying that they would not deal with Hamas in any form or fashion (BBC News, 2006). This was only the beginning because not only is the world and in particular the United States and its allies (including Israel) engaged in their ‘war on terror’, but this somehow seemed contradictory to the message of the United States and the Western World which was to encourage the transition to democracy in many states around the world. According to a briefing by Dr. Mohammed Samhouri of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University entitled “Looking Beyond the Numbers: The Palestinian Socioeconomic Crisis of 2006” the consequences of electing Hamas was a subsequent tumble into an empty economic well. As illustrated by this quote from Dr. Samhouri:

Three measures were particularly devastating: (1) the suspension by Israel of the monthly transfer of the value-added tax (VAT) and customs receipts, the so-called clearance revenues, that Israel collects on behalf of the PA in accordance with the economic protocol signed between the two sides in 1994; (2) the tightening of the existing restrictions on the movement of Palestinian people, labor, and goods, which Israel imposed on security grounds; and (3) the suspension by the donor community of all direct budgetary support to the newly constituted PA government, along with a significant reduction in the level of developmental aid… As a result of all this, by the end of September 2006 the Palestinian government had only 37.2% of the total financial inflows it had in 2005 (Samhouri, p. 4).

So much for trying to go the route of democracy some of the Palestinians in charge must have thought. I would imagine they would also ask themselves what is the purpose of electing our own officials if someone else will tell us that our choices are wrong and our chosen leaders need to be replaced? The chastising of the citizens’ choices came from the western world in the form of the drastic measures outlined above which were instituted immediately after the citizens of the country were finally able to extol the virtues of democracy in which they were able to choose their own representatives.

After first losing most of their land, then all of their land this destitute was to force to endure more. Next, they faced a military presence that looks stealthily and eerily like a colonizing presence (which will wait until you go to the store or to visit family and will come take the last of the land that you have left). Mind you in some cases this is land that has stayed in the same hands for hundreds of years, being passed down through generations of large extended families. These are the two brief histories of the two groups, who claim rights to the same small 10,000 mi2 piece of land. In this exploration of the usefulness of the word ‘terrorism’ in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and I have explicitly avoided bringing in religious claims to the land or religious reasons for actions; instead I have focused objectively on the main points in the modern histories of the two parties in this conflict.

The time since the ‘war on terror’ began in late 2001 and was cemented in early 2002, has been an era marked by a failed transition to democracy. This was followed swiftly by an intentional international freezing of the funds to the Palestinian Authority, suicide bombings in Gaza and the West Bank as well as much huff and bluster at any real attempt at a peace process.

What can be said about the usefulness of the usage of the word terrorism in reference to this particular conflict? Posit that this situation epitomizes one in which usage of the word terrorism is applicable. There are many ‘terrorist’ groups around the world abuzz about the abuses suffered by the people of Palestine; world leaders like Iran’s current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have voiced their distaste for not only the location but also the existence of the state of Israel many times in the past. So surely, the word terrorism must be useful in this context. Most of the world seems to have adopted this viewpoint when they look at this situation. On the other hand, I started off this paper with the contention and conjecture that only one side in this equation has had to deal with the cumbersome reputation and burden of being labeled a ‘terrorist’, while the other happens to be the largest recipient of foreign aid from the United States, the chief party demarcating who is and who is not a terrorist in this new ‘war on terror’. I’ll let you figure out which is which, but for now we must see if the word terrorist has any meaningful usage in either the analysis or the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In order to so, I will examine a few carefully selected actions from both sides of the conflict that to a neutral observer would be explicitly defined as ‘terrorism’.

Despite the numerous amounts of suicide bombings, and failed assassination attempts by many Palestinian rebels and liberation seekers, I have chosen to highlight what happened at the Munich Olympics in 1972 as a point of analysis for Palestinian ‘terrorism’.  That year at the Olympics, the Palestinians made their first gesture to the world indicating the struggles and hardships that their people were enduring on a day to day basis following the resolution of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. An organization functioning under the supervision of Fatah going by the name of Black September invaded the complex where the Israeli Olympians were staying and killed the coach and an Olympian, as well as taking nine athletes hostage.  In the end, all nine athletes were killed, and three of the original eight terrorists were captured with the other five being killed in the clashes with West German Police (Gordon and Lopez, 2000, p. 102).  This incident was the first major public relations victory for the people of Palestine; as opposed to the usual route of suicide bombings inflicting fear in the hearts of citizens, this incident was different.  I believe it was intended to shed some light on the situation in the West Bank and Gaza at a time when the world was not as aware as it is today of the troubles that were erupting on their ground every day.  This is not to belittle this incident of terrorism by glorifying its intention to help a distressed people.  As I stated before, the examples of terrorism on both sides of the conflict would be easily identifiable as such, and this case fits the bill.

Instead of focusing on one of the many heavy handed responses to the uprisings and attempts at liberation that the Palestinians have engaged in over the years, I will examine the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. As of 2004, when Tomis Kapitan published “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” there were already 308 settlements being built up in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem surrounding every major Palestinian population center (2004, p. 181). According to Kapitan, and a statement with which I agree “the settlements are weapons in a campaign of structural terrorism against the Palestinians, ultimately aimed at incorporating the territories, or large settlements thereof, into the Jewish state" (2004, p. 182). While most definitions of terrorism, including the three that I chose to help come up with a working definition for analyzing this conflict, focus on specific violent attacks against non combatants they do not explicitly rule out structural violence as terrorism. In fact, attacks against people whom Coady would deem as innocents that are intended to make their victims feel weak and vulnerable and come from structural terrorism have just a detrimental effect as those that come from traditional forms of terrorism.

Using these examples as expressions of terrorism from both parties involved in the conflict being analyzed, now we can begin to examine if a definition of terrorism is useful. In a perfect world, or at least an objectively analyzed one, the actions partaken by both sides of a conflict and the context in which they occurred would be taken into account. The world in which the ‘war on terror’ has been consummated is not an objectively analyzed and thought out one, and when you add the complex dynamics surrounding the situation in the Palestinian territories things get quite complicated. All of this is before incorporating the word ‘terrorism’ into the conversation, a word which casts aspersions about the behaviors of those being labeled. Instead the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ have been loosely applied to only one set of people and their actions involved in the conflict. Despite all indications that this is a biased and incorrect look at the situation the world still only sees the conflict in one way.

If ‘terrorism’ were to occur only from one party toward another sans reciprocation, then maybe the worldview on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be partially correct. It would only be correct if the Palestinian people were the only ones engaging in acts of ‘terrorism’. Sadly this is the common viewpoint nowadays (mainly thanks to the large amounts of lobbying efforts made by man Pro-Israeli groups) but as the settlement example I illustrated, as well as countless others documented elsewhere show – this is clearly not the case.

So where does this leave us in regards to the usage of the word ‘terrorism’ in regards to the moral dimensions of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis? Especially considering the fact that the evidence that has been presented shows that neither side is innocent in the matter and both in a fair and objective world would actually be called ‘terrorists’ in the correct sense of the word. Yet, we do not live in a fair and objective world; we live in a world where western governments have an agenda which includes specifically: a) maintaining their current ‘war on terror’ and b) supporting the existence of the State of Israel for which many have worked long and hard to maintain. If the word ‘terrorist’ did not carry the excess baggage that the ‘war on terror’ has helped give it, there would be a good chance that certain liberation and resistance fighters inside this conflict would not have to be ostracized from the world community and their actions shunned.

This leaves me with the only possible solution being that neither side should be allowed to apply the tag of ‘terrorist’ to the other, as all that this tag has proven to do is to reinforce the unequal ability to justify, morally and legally (under the laws of war) the exact same actions being committed on both sides of the conflict. The mud-slinging and serious repercussions that come with labeling an individual or a group of individuals as ‘terrorists’ has seriously caused many derailments along the road to a peaceful coexistence. If the blindfold put over the eyes of the world under the guise of ‘terrorism’ and threats of potential ‘terrorist’ attacks has allowed the struggles of the Palestinians to go as unnoticed and unchanged for as long as they have, then maybe the world should take a look at the vocabulary it is using and recognize that the truth is hiding inside a semantic issue, a very powerful semantic issue at that.

Despite the diaspora of the Palestinian people resulting in the loss of virtually all of the land that for centuries belonged to them, the ‘war on terror’ combined with the subsequent problems accompanying it have had an equally devastating impact. The use of the word ‘terrorist’ by the Israelis when referencing anything related to Palestine has caused a lower quality of life and limited possible civic participation in parts of society that Americans take for granted. The most heinous effect for these people, who are just human beings alike, is the loss of the possibility of living a free and fearless life. The chances that life will improve for the Palestinians in the near future, or the future at all hinges on the ability of both sides in the conflict, as well as the Western world to stop using the words ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ in reference to the situation between these two sides. It marginalizes their cultures and creates stereotypes and limitations for individuals of these backgrounds within the Western bias. Morality or following any philosophical tenets that could be considered moral are not on the agenda of the political leaders who have allowed these words to have the power they have gained from this situational conflict. The conflict has been and is being used as a tool of immorality.

It would seem that the use of the term terrorism becomes esoteric knowledge that lacks any sense of morality in a case where human lives are being traded for that which as citizens, we do not concretely know. I could speculate that the ‘war on terror’ is fueled by the desire for the gain of power over others, currency, goods— that which is tangible or can be expressed in a tangible way. No countries are fighting to be at the top of the list in the existing ‘war on terror’, but it is fair to say that most, if not all, of the countries on our globe would not profit from improved living conditions for their people if they were to gain or be granted, as it goes, more power, currency, or goods. It appears that when thinking of the well being of a large group, that individuals are forgotten. If morality was considered in this global affair, each human life, regardless of where he or she was born, what beliefs that person holds, or specifically whether he or she was Palestinian or Israeli, would be protected. It is fair to say that many Americans would not be able to distinguish between Israeli and Palestinian people merely by looking at them, except perhaps if the American had some knowledge of the religious backgrounds that may or may not influence the dress of the people in question. Because of a word that instills fear in people when they hear it: terrorism, the Western world leaders have chosen to keep civilians ignorant to their true intentions or aspirations. Power is hungry, like the people of Palestine left out of the distribution of American aid because that country was chosen, maybe by a coin toss, to be left behind, to be labeled a people of terrorists, to be thought of as having no morals. Thus, a country chosen to be out of the in-club by what seems to be mere whimsy, despite it being filled with human beings that have the same needs as their supposed enemies and all of us, is left without the option of upholding morals they may or may not have, just to survive.

BBC News (1/26/2006), “Hamas sweeps to election victory”, available from: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/4650788.stm>

Coady, C. (2004), “Terrorism and Innocence”, The Journal of Ethics Vol. 8, pp. 37-58.

Gordon and Lopez, (2000) “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” in A. Valls ed., “Ethics in International affairs: theories and cases”, (Lanham, MD and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield), pp. 99-112.

Kapitan, T. (2004), “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict” in I. Primoratz ed., Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues (Melbourne: MacMillan), pp. 175-191.

Samhouri, M. (2007), “Looking Beyond the Numbers: The Palestinian Socioeconomic Crisis of 2006”, Middle East Brief No. 17, Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

Teichman, J. (1989), “How to Define Terrorism”, Philosophy Vol. 64, pp. 505-517.

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