Stop splitting hairs on “Terrorism”

Tharwa Editorial / Daily Star

Many people around the world today seek to differentiate between what they call “freedom fighters” and those described as terrorists. They argue that such differentiation, which is most often applied to Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is necessary in order to grant legitimacy to those fighting for their freedom or the independence of their homeland against an oppressor or a foreign occupier, especially when the reality of occupation is recognized internationally, perhaps through relevant UN resolutions. 

The problem with this argument, however, is that it tends to grant blind sanction for any acts perpetrated by the so-called freedom fighters, even when these are directed against civilian targets, or when they reveal callous disregard for the possibility of provoking civilian casualties.

Historically, freedom fighters have never been overly sensitive to the possibility that their actions might kill or wound civilians. However, public concern for civilian victims, especially when incurred as a result of guerrilla warfare or suicide bombings, has grown immensely during the last 15-20 years as a result of progress in media coverage and the highly sensationalist nature of the visual media. Although, one can make a case that media coverage is often biased in this regard, the point remains the same: Current world opinion has little tolerance or sympathy for acts that are increasingly perceived as terrorist in nature.

However, what room for maneuver does this leave for true freedom fighters in the world? It all depends on their intended audience really.

If the goal of a particular group is to generate enough international sympathy for its cause, in the hope that this will translate into increasing pressure on occupiers to end their occupation, then, obviously a change in tactics becomes necessary if the audience confuses legitimate resistance and terrorism. Indeed, nonviolence is today the only viable alternative for groups that still defer to world opinion, and who still think that international support is necessary for the achievement of their objectives.

If, on the other hand, their purpose is to exact some sort of retribution or achieve a balance of terror with the perceived oppressor (or garner public support within certain groups where a show of brutality is seen as a justification of one’s faith and a source of empowerment), then maximizing the number of civilian casualties on the other side is the real obsession of so-called freedom fighters. In that context, recourse to the use of weapons of mass destruction, if they are available, becomes all too real.

That’s why groups like Al-Qaeda and those engaged in the Iraqi insurgency, for instance, seem to have made their choice. But the issue remains unresolved when it comes to considering many, if not most, of the liberation struggles around the world.

Take Palestinian militant groups for instance. The Palestine Liberation Organization’s support for attacks against Israeli targets has waxed and waned since the beginning of the post-Madrid peace process, depending on the perceived progress, or lack thereof, in the ongoing negotiations with Israel. The PLO’s policy in this regard, therefore, is no longer purely ideological, as it was prior to the Oslo Accords; it is, in fact, more pragmatic in nature – even if we have to place moral considerations aside for a moment to say this.

However, so long as groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad continue to dictate the nature of the current intifada, and so long as the validity of their methods is not seriously and publicly challenged by Palestinian officials and intellectuals, Palestinian popular opinion will continue to be in favor of the Islamists, especially now that Yasser Arafat’s long era as the national symbol of Palestinian liberation has finally come to an end.

Unless a shift in the resistance paradigm is implemented by whatever new Palestinian leaders emerge in the coming months, the Palestinians are bound to lose whatever little international support and sympathy they have managed to acquire over the years. Add to this the fact that George W. Bush’s re-election will likely mark a continuation of the adamant American support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s policies, perhaps for years to come.

Earlier this week, while on a visit to Beirut, the new PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas announced that the Palestinians had put an end to their armed struggle. It remains to be seen what comes of this. However, if the Palestinians were to continue to rely on suicide attacks in their struggle for independence, this would be tantamount to national suicide. Such an option, which was always ill advised and reprehensible, is now also no longer viable.

The passing of Arafat, whose attitude toward suicide bombings was always pragmatic (and amoral) anyway, should be taken advantage of to permanently mark the end of the violence option and the beginning of a nonviolent, all-inclusive national struggle for independence. A new Palestinian approach requires engagement between all the concerned parties and it leaves no room for the disastrous unilateral policies of a few.

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.