Zuhair Bahloul, a member of the Knesset from the Labor Party, reignited an old controversy this week, claiming that Palestinians who attack Israeli soldiers are not terrorists. “Those who attack families in their sleep cannot be considered terrorists if they attack an army base,” maintained Bahloul on Army Radio. Alluding to the recent attack on soldiers in Hebron, he insisted that the stabber was “a [would-be] murderer, but…not a terrorist,” arguing that “in Israelis’ eyes, anyone who fights for his freedom and independence is a terrorist” and that using this loaded term “turns every Palestinian into [a terrorist].”
The attempt to define terrorism as violence against only civilians, rather than combatants, and hence to distinguish it from guerrilla warfare, is well worn. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a clichéd adage. Indeed, when a proposed United Nations comprehensive convention against international terrorism made no distinction between targeting combatants and non-combatants, the Organization of the Islamic Conference specifically sought to add that “the activities of the parties during…foreign occupation” would not be governed by the convention in order to permit such attacks on (Israeli) soldiers.
A narrow definition of terrorism, however, fails to grasp its modern dynamics. Certainly in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the use of political violence against soldiers operates on an identical logic to the use of such violence against civilians – with all the attendant moral implications.
The essence of terrorism is the use of mass violence, or threat thereof, to force political change, through exacting a psychological toll on a country’s citizenry. Terrorism differs from hate crimes because of the emphasis on coercing political change. Terrorist violence is generally indiscriminate, because terrorists care more about broadcasting a message through the violence, in order to force concessions, than about inflicting pain on the immediate victims themselves. Terrorism also differs from acts of war because of the psychological factor: acts of war attempt to force political change, but primarily through inflicting material or military damage. Terrorism also differs from guerrilla warfare, which tries to inflict conventional (material) damage on troops using unconventional, unregulated means.
Much terrorism is indeed aimed at civilians, because mass violence against civilians is more likely to arouse terror in the populace and provoke leaders to overreact than attacks on military targets – but to the extent that attacks on troops are also designed to scare the population, the very same logic is employed. Palestinian terrorists, for example, do not seriously expect to achieve their goals by inflicting material damage on the IDF: lone-wolf stabbing attacks are not going to dent Israel’s troop levels. Instead, their intention is still achieve change by terrorizing the Israeli populace, in which – owing to conscription – virtually every Jewish and Druze family contains a soldier, and so every household becomes a target. If anyone’s son or daughter could be killed by a knife-wielding assailant, the public fear is no less if that son or daughter is not wearing military uniform.
In an essay in The Guardian, the historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote last year that states are hyper-sensitive to terrorist provocations “because the legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence.” As such, the logic of terrorism is to subvert the very legitimacy of the state by presenting it with an “impossible challenge… to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, anytime.” Harari argued that “the terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.”
Crucially, there is no distinction between civilians and soldiers in the logic of sowing panic in order to provoke an ill-judged response. Insofar as the state promises to protect all citizens, including young men and women conscripted into the army, attacks on soldiers and civilians operate on the exact same logic. Indeed, there is clear evidence that Israel’s so-called “lone wolf” intifada is not entirely spontaneous, but driven largely by a campaign of incitement by fanatical religious and political figures, hoping to draw Israel into a confrontation or commit fatal miscalculations.
One might concede that the logic behind attacking soldiers is the same as for civilians, but that soldiers are by definition legitimate targets. But that constitutes topsy-turvy moral logic. The background assumption of international law, argues legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron, is that the gloves come off during warfare – and that civilians have to be “argued out” of a “default position… that you can kill anyone you like in wartime.” But killing is ordinarily considered murder. To seriously address the “legitimate taking of human life in time of war,” therefore, we need to turn the usual logic on its head. The burden is to explain who may be targeted, not who must be spared.
The taking of specific, individual human lives requires specific justification. Citing someone’s membership of the military as a proxy case for justifying killing them is a lazy substitution for moral argumentation. Arguing instead that killing soldiers is justified because provoking the opponent state into overreaction will beget chaos, which will beget favorable outcomes, is a terrible moral argument too. If indeed morality does not automatically permit open season on soldiers, then the moral distinction between attacking civilians and soldiers is blurred. And if this is the case, that soldiers are not automatically legitimate targets, then one cannot use this as the grounds for arguing that violence against them does not constitute terrorism.
Political violence against soldiers is not unique to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Britons were shocked in 2013, when fusilier Lee Rigby was hacked to death on the streets of London by Islamist fanatics. Three days later, private first class Cédric Cordier was stabbed in Paris by another Muslim extremist. Both incidents were denounced as acts of terrorism by the respective governments. In the fight against international terrorism, liberal democracies must stand their ground: terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, whether or not the victim wears a uniform.
Eylon Aslan-Levy is a British-Israeli political commentator and writer. He is a graduate of Oxford and Cambridge, and a veteran lone soldier in the IDF. Twitter: @EylonALevy
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