The United States, Israel and the ‘war on terrorism’


With George Bush, Tony Blair and all of the other leaders of the free world declaring “war on terrorism”, it more important than ever to be clear about the politics of the term “terrorism”. A bit of contemporary history might help here. On December 7, 1987, the United Nations General Assembly voted 153-2 (with one abstention) to approve a resolution that condemned “international terrorism”. The two nations that rejected the resolution were the United States and Israel. The result of that particular vote in the General Assembly tells us much about the power of certain states to label the acts of others as terrorism while avoiding accountability for their own terrorist acts.

General Assembly resolution 42/159 concerns “measures to prevent international terrorism,” and mostly consists of phrases that seem hard to contest: “deploring the continuation of all terrorist acts,” “deeply disturbed by the world-wide persistence of those acts,” and “convinced of the importance of expanding and improving international co-operation.”

The language seems uncontroversial, until one gets to the section that reaffirms the legitimacy of the national liberation movements of “peoples under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination,” noting that nothing in the resolution should be taken to deny “the right to self-determination, freedom and independence.” The resolution also urges all states “to contribute to the progressive elimination of the causes underlying international terrorism and to pay special attention to all situations, including colonialism, racism and situations involving mass and flagrant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

It is the message of this particular section that explains why the United States and Israel opposed this seemingly innocuous resolution. Both nations oppose terrorism, as long as its definition is acceptable to them. For the United States and Israel, terrorism becomes only that political violence that is carried out against people they do not like, for reasons they do not agree with

(and, of course, neither of the states themselves � or their citizens � can ever be involved in terrorism itself).

For example, from the U.S./Israeli point of view, violence committed by Israel against Palestinians is only ever defensive. So, Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, routine use of torture and political assassinations, and arbitrary demolition of homes, are never examples of terrorism, but simply acts of self-defence. On the other hand, Palestinian violence in resistance to the Israeli occupation � which personifies the “right to self-determination, freedom and independence” mentioned in the above resolution � is only ever referred to as “terrorism”.

In fact, Israeli apologists have actually argued that terrorism is a term that does not include political violence carried out by states, only that carried out by groups or individuals. They are well supported by their allies in the U.S. State Department, which defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”. Yet even this narrow definition of terrorism � based on the identity of its perpetrator rather than on the action and motive of the perpetrator � fails to get Israel off the hook. After all, it is no secret that Zionist militias, like the Irgun and the Stern Gang, played a pioneering role in the use of political terrorism in the Middle East, and were the first to introduce many contemporary terrorist tactics into the conflict over Palestine.

A classic example is the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, by the Irgun, which killed 91 people and wounded 46. Among the casualties were 17 Jews. The mastermind behind the attack was Menachem Begin, the future Prime Minister of Israel. In the blurb for his book, Oh Jerusalem, the French author Dominique Lapierre described the event as “the first massive terrorist political action of modern history”.

As for the United States, it has an even shorter memory than Israel when it comes to support for terrorist groups. Successive American presidents throughout the Cold War used the cause of anticommunism to breed savage terrorist groups throughout Asia, Africa and, especially, Latin America. No better example of this particular American strategy can be found than in that of Nicaragua, during the 1970s and 1980s.

According to a study by Oxfam, between 1981 and 1985, a U.S.-sponsored terrorist army, the Contras (trained, armed and funded by the CIA), murdered 3,346 Nicaraguan children and teenagers and killed one or both parents of 6,236 children. Such was the depth of his antipathy towards the socialist Sandanista regime in Nicaragua that Ronald Reagan referred to these terrorist Contras as “freedom fighters” and bizarrely described them as “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers”. In 1986, the World Court condemned the United States for its “unlawful use of force” and illegal economic warfare against Nicaragua. Undeterred, American representatives on the United Nations Security Council immediately vetoed a resolution calling on all governments to observe international law.

Returning to the present, I would hasten to add that the recent attacks on the United States were indeed horrible acts of terrorism, in which suicide-hijackers were directly responsible for killing thousands of innocent American civilians. The 1987 General Assembly resolution deplores any taking of “innocent human lives”, but it also acknowledges that the causes of terrorism often lie in “misery, frustration, grievance and despair”, that leads people to seek radical change. Such sympathies for the victims of occupation, repression and state terrorism, and a U.N. resolution expressing those sympathies, were (and still are) unacceptable to both Israel and the United States. In the long run, it seems likely that it is they will suffer most from this obstinate, arrogant and short-sighted attitude.

Today we are being bombarded with talk of a “war on terrorism”; frighteningly reminiscent of the “war on drugs” that has been waged with such ferocity, and with such little success, by successive U.S. administrations. The U.S. and Israel, though, need to address the causes of terrorism if they are to achieve the security they so urgently seek.