A statement made by Hamas yesterday, indicating that 50 of those killed at the Gazan border on Monday were members of the organisation, was a gigantic gift for defenders of Israel.
It came at a time when even the country’s staunchest supporters were struggling to justify the killing of 60 protesters at the Gaza border on Monday. The actions of the IDF sparked almost universal condemnation.
For those grasping for an ideological lifeline, then, the Hamas statement changed the narrative completely. If Hamas is a terrorist organisation, and if the majority of those killed were Hamas members, then the victims of the attack were no longer civilians, but rather could all be labelled terrorists, and therefore deserving of their fate.
Human rights groups have been very clear in pointing out that whether the victims were members of a militant group is irrelevant if they were unarmed and did not pose an immediate threat to the lives of soldiers when they were shot.
But I would like to make a different point. This column does not seek to glorify Hamas, nor does it seek to deliberate over whether it is or isn’t a terrorist organisation. Rather, it’s to highlight the hypocrisy inherent in the West’s categorisation of what is and isn’t terrorism.
Terrorism’s simple dictionary definition is the “use of violence or threat of violence in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives”. Importantly, according to Wikipedia, “it can be committed by governments”. Yet since the tragic 9/11 attack, and the War on Terror that followed it, the word seems to be used almost exclusively to describe acts carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. This is symptomatic of an inability to see destructive acts committed by those on “our side” as being objectively as bad as those committed by those we have been taught are our enemies.
This hypocrisy is by no means perpetuated by the State of Israel only. Their closest ally, biggest funder and best friend, the US, is routinely taken to task over their refusal to label attacks carried out by right-wing American groups as terrorist ones. Despite The Nation Institute and Center for Investigative Reporting finding in 2017 that between 2008 and 2016 the majority of terrorist acts, and the most deaths, were perpetrated by right-wing American groups, for most Americans, “terrorist attacks” are only the ones perpetrated in the name of Islam.
White supremacist Dylann Roof, for example, who killed nine African-Americans, is labelled a ‘mass murderer’ on Wikipedia, while Boston Bombers Dzhokhar Anzorovich and Temerlan Tsarnaev are labelled terrorists, despite both attacks clearly fitting the definition of terrorism.
The fact that the ANC was considered a terrorist organisation under apartheid, not just by South Africa’s government but by much of the Western world, is helpful when trying to understand that whether an organisation is a terrorist or liberation one can depend on perspective.
The threat of Islamist terror is very real. In 2018 alone, there have been 10 separate incidents and more than 400 deaths, in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. This, coupled with the situation in Syria, where al-Assad’s brutal regime has created what is probably the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation, often leads Israel’s defenders to suggest that it is unfairly singled out and vilified due to anti-Semitism.
Those same defenders often call Israel “the only democracy in the middle East”. If Israel is indeed a democracy – in itself a contested claim – then it must be held up to the standards of a democracy, rather than the world’s most dangerous terror organisations and most repressive regimes. Simply put, “we aren’t as bad as Syria”, shows an extremely low level of moral accountability.
Ironically, considering the willingness to brand anyone opposing the occupation a terrorist, the years leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel saw several controversial Zionist organisations, widely considered to be terrorist movements both then and now, committing violent acts. Irgun are the most cited example.
Irgun was a militant right-wing group that was responsible for the King David Hotel Bombing, which targeted the British authorities who then controlled Mandatory Palestine. Ninety-one people were killed. Another of their operations, the Deir Yassin massacre, saw the deaths of 107 Arab villagers. Irgun was incorporated into the Israeli Defence Force at the start of the 1948 Arab-Israel war.
Acts that fit the definition of terrorism continued after Israel’s establishment. In 1953, Ariel Sharon led a unit of Israeli special forces in killing 69 civilians, two-thirds of whom were women and children, and reducing the entire village of Qibya to rubble in an entirely unprovoked attack. Sharon’s involvement in this controversial massacre did not affect his chances of eventually being elected Israel’s prime minister in 2001.
It is clear that no one race, religion or culture of human beings has a monopoly on perpetrating truly unconscionable acts. If you do not question your own side’s use of force as bodies pile up, any rhetoric about the threat of terrorism is meaningless.
Noam Chomsky makes this point, more simply and better than I could, when he says: “It’s only terrorism if they do it to us. When we do much worse to them, it’s not terrorism.”
We should all oppose terrorism, and we largely do. Sadly, though, this only seems to be the case when its victims are from our tribe.
The state-sanctioned killing of dozens of protesters at the Gaza border is an act that rightfully deserves to be met with shock, outrage and condemnation. In my opinion, it cannot in any way be justified.
But if you do feel you have to find an excuse, “they were terrorists” just isn’t good enough.