In 1995, Victor LeVine of Washington University in St. Louis penned an article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence on the "logomachy" of terrorism. A logomachy is a "dispute about or concerning words", and no word has sparked more dispute in recent years than "terrorism". The definitional debate has only increased in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as the field of terrorism studies has grown. Yet, an unanimously agreed-upon, meaningful, and universal definition of the act remains elusive.
One element of this debate derives from the question of whether it is important to classify terror as coming from above or below. This traces back to a theory articulated in 1964 by Thomas Perry Thornton, which states that one must distinguish between enforcement terror (launched by those in power) and agitational terror (carried out by those who aspire to power).
The logomachy continues in academia, in the U.S. government, and in capitals around the world. Yet, nowhere is the debate over enforcement terror and agitational terror more pronounced than in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Israeli definition of terrorism, perhaps not surprisingly, clashes with that of the terrorist organization Hamas, but also the more pragmatic Palestinian Authority. The United States definition tracks with that of Israel, which has tipped the balance in Israel's favor. However, the debate is far from settled.
ISRAEL'S DEFINITION OF TERRORISM
Israel, a country founded in 1948 against the objection of the entire Arab world, has suffered from terrorist attacks since its founding. For more than 70 years, the Israelis have had to endure this challenge and have adapted to the problem on a military and even societal level. Children from a young age are sensitized to suspicious packages, the location of the nearest bomb shelter, and emergency procedures in the event of a terrorist attack. The Jewish state conscripts every able-bodied man and woman into the Israel Defense Force, which over the years has evolved to fight terrorism as much as traditional military threats. As my colleague Clifford May, the president and founder of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, often says, Israel is the best place to study the problem of terrorism. "If you want to study tornadoes, go to Kansas. If you want to study tropical diseases, go to Central Africa. If you want to study terrorism, go to Israel."
After years of fending off Palestinian terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad, the Israelis have pioneered new methods to counter terrorism, from advanced drone and urban warfare strategies to high-tech anti-rocket and anti-commando tunnel solutions. The Israelis have even included cyber in their arsenal of counter-terrorism tools. Yet, the Israeli definition of terrorism lacks a similar cutting edge.
Israeli law is cumbersome in this regard. It defines a "terrorist action" as an action: driven by a political, religious, or ideological motive; carried out with the goal of instilling in the public fear or anxiety, or of forcing the Israeli government or another government from taking certain actions; or an actual act or a real threat to inflict severe harm. Harm is defined as impact on: a person's body or liberty; public security or health; property, including religious sites, burial places, and religious paraphernalia; or infrastructure, public systems, or essential services, or the state economy or environment.
Israeli law allows the Minister of Defense to declare an association as a "terrorist organization" if it is: perpetrating or intentionally promoting the perpetration of terrorist acts; conducting training or providing guidance for executing terrorist acts; engaging in a transaction involving a weapon with the goal of perpetrating terrorist acts; or assisting or acting with the goal of advancing the activities of such a group.
Thus, Israel has adopted a definition of terrorism that targets agitational terrorism. This is no surprise, given the terrorist threats that it faces. Its challenge, apart from combating terrorism, is fighting those in the public domain who seek to legitimize the terrorist groups that attack the Jewish state. The definition of terrorism in this context is often another element of the debate.
PALESTINIAN DEFINITION OF TERRORISM
The Palestinian Authority, the provisional Palestinian government operating in the disputed territory of the West Bank, lacks a definition of terrorism. This is not entirely surprising, given that the PA is an institution born of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which first emerged in the 1960s as a terrorist organization. The core of the PLO, the Fatah faction, was similarly founded as a terrorist organization in the 1950s by Yasser Arafat. As noted in a Council on Foreign Relations report, "During the 1960s and 1970s, the PLO waged a terrorist war against Israeli targets around the world, hijacking aircraft, bombing hotels, restaurants and military bases, and targeting for assassination any politician thought to be conducting unauthorized contacts with the enemy."
The PA emerged in 1994 as a byproduct of an interim peace agreement with Israel. While that peace agreement has unraveled, the governing structure lives on. It fulfills many of the functions expected of a state, including policing and security. Part of that mandate also includes countering terrorist organizations. Yet, there are legal challenges associated with this mandate.
The U.S. Department of State notes that the PA has never passed laws that are "specifically tailored to counterterrorism". Still, PA forces conducting counterterrorism activities have traditionally done so based on a combination of existing laws, including the PLO Revolutionary Penal Code of 1979, and a set of existing Jordanian penal codes. But since his election in 2005, and especially after the 2006 elections and civil war with Hamas in 2007, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has governed almost exclusively by decrees that often target activity vaguely described as "harming public security". In fact, in 2007, Abbas effectively outlawed terrorist groups by issuing a decree that stated, "armed militias and military formations ... are banned in all their forms."
Fighting terrorism by decree is not optimal, however. Legislation passed by the Palestinian Authority parliament would carry greater weight and authority. However, the Palestinian civil war between the PLO and Hamas since 2007 has rendered the parliament defunct for more than a decade. With the two most powerful Palestinian factions in a state of political gridlock, exacerbated by the fact that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are now territories belonging to two separate Palestinian regimes, passing new laws has become impossible. Thus, Abbas' decrees provide the PA security forces with a broad mandate for arresting terror cells plotting attacks against both Israel and the PA.
The Palestinian security forces are somewhat surprisingly effective in combatting terrorism. This is thanks to a security cooperation architecture with Israel created during the Oslo Peace Process, and commitment from the United States to support the mission. That security cooperation continues to this day (although its longevity is now in doubt thanks to new American legislation that may defund it), and Palestinian security forces continue to target terrorist groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, despite the fact that the government it represents lacks an official definition of terrorism.
However, the counterterrorism operations carried out by the PA, most of which target terrorist cells belonging to the rival Hamas faction, do not often match the rhetoric of the Palestinian leadership. Admittedly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has eschewed direct confrontation with Israel as a national strategy since ascending to power in 2005, and he further condemns certain acts of terror. So did his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, on occasion. Yet, those condemnations have been qualified and equivocal. Arafat, for example, was famous for stating that he and his people "stand firmly against all kinds of terrorism, whether it is by states, groups or individuals." Abbas adopted the same formulation, condemning "all forms of terrorism" in response to terrorist attacks against Israel.
In short, the Palestinian leadership condemns agitational terrorism against Israel, usually under duress, but takes the opportunity to accuse Israel of enforcement terrorism, owing largely to Israel's continued control of the disputed Palestinian territories. Saeb Erekat, the longtime peace negotiation for the PLO, somewhat famously quipped, "There is no difference between the terrorism practiced by the [Islamic State] group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Israel's terrorism." Or as a spokesman for the Fatah party said in response to a terrorist attack in France, "Our people, who have endured all forms of state terrorisms at the hand of a violent foreign occupation for decades now, feel the pain of the French people as they stand firm in the face of the sinister forces of evil which must be fought."
Such charges attempt to frame as terrorism Israel's military control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, born of a conflict instigated by the Palestinians and the Arab states in 1948. Similarly, they would seem to imply that Israeli military responses to ongoing Palestinian terrorism and military provocation are terrorism, as well. This interpretation has gained resonance among Arab states and a number of like-minded terrorist groups. Nevertheless, the notion of Israeli enforcement terrorism has generally failed to gain traction.
IN THE ONGOING MAINSTREAM DEFINITIONAL DEBATE
HAMAS AND TERRORISM
While the PA seeks to promote a dual definition of terrorism, the rival Hamas faction does not bother. Hamas has carried out acts of terrorism since its inception in 1987. Tactics originally included shootings, stabbings, and crude bombings. During the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, the group carried out a string of suicide bombings. In recent years, the group has shifted tactics to firing rockets blindly into civilian areas, the use of commando tunnels to carry out assaults, and more recently, flying incendiary devices into Israeli airspace, with the intent to commit arson.
Not surprisingly, the group has neglected to issue a formal legal definition of what it constitutes as terrorism, but its 1988 charter makes it clear that the group justifies using violence. The charter explicitly states, "When an enemy occupies some of the Muslim lands, Jihad [Holy War in the name of Islam] becomes obligatory for every Muslim. In the struggle against the Jewish occupation of Palestine, the banner of Jihad must be raised." In fact, the charter defines such violence as an obligation: "Fighting the enemy becomes the individual obligation of every Muslim man and woman."
In 2007, when the group took over the Gaza Strip by force from the Palestinian Authority, it assumed the role of a government – a role that it maintains today. Its supporters argue that it is a legitimate government, having won elections in 2006, but with the Palestinian Authority refusing to acknowledge the results. Its detractors argue that the group's decision to break the impasse a year later with a military putsch in the Gaza Strip only reaffirmed the group's status as a terrorist group. For a decade, the group has sought to balance between governance in Gaza and terrorism against Israel. The result has been a rather miserable existence for the people of Gaza, who endure new rounds of violence every few years.
In 2017, under duress from some of its own supporters, the Hamas leadership released a document that issued new guidance on the group's ideology. Hamas did not intend to replace or supersede its existing charter, but rather it attempted to cast the organization in a new light. The document uses the term "resistance" to describe its violence against the Jewish state, but it also uses the word jihad again, although some have tried to define down this word as merely a "struggle".
The 2017 document asserts that, "Active resistance and jihad are the Palestinian's legitimate right in their struggle to liberate Palestine." It further states that, "Resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance ..."
"Legitimate" or "popular" resistance is now a common refrain among both Hamas and the PLO. Such resistance includes violent demonstrations, stone throwing, and even stabbings. Lately, it has also come to include flying incendiary devices that have set fire to Israeli fields. This definition of terrorism has also rationalized attacks on Israeli settlers living in the disputed territories as well as Israeli soldiers, even if they are not engaging in combat.
The Hamas perspective, often echoed in the statements of other terrorist groups like Hezbollah or al-Qaeda, gets at another important angle of the logomachy. Can some non-state violence be legitimate?
On 31 May 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan devoted an entire radio address to this question. In it, he noted, "There are innumerable groups and organizations with grievances, some justified, some not. Only a tiny fraction has been ruthless enough to try to achieve their ends through vicious and cowardly acts of violence upon unarmed victims." Reagan specifically debunked the notion that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". As he stated, "Freedom fighters do not need to terrorize a population into submission. Freedom fighters target the military forces and the organized instruments of repression keeping dictatorial regimes in power. Freedom fighters struggle to liberate their citizens from oppression and to establish a form of government that reflects the will of the people."
Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Act in 1987, designed to combat Palestinian terrorism, noting that it "accounted for 60 percent of total international terrorism in 1985," and that the PLO had "been implicated in the murders of dozens of American citizens abroad". Thus, Congress determined that the "PLO and its affiliates are a terrorist organization and a threat to the interests of the United States, its allies, and to international law and should not benefit from operating in the United States."
The U.S. government's policy on the more recent iterations of Palestinian terror groups, such as Hamas, have been remarkably consistent with this approach. Indeed, the question of "legitimate resistance", at least in the case of the Palestinians, has not resonated in Washington.
THE WAR ON TERROR
As the United States government began to formalize its approach to combatting terrorism, the U.S. Department of State began to issue its formal list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Among the first Palestinian groups to appear on the list were Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and PFLP-General Command (PFLP-GC). The list later grew to include the Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (AAMB), which was active during the second Intifada. In short, the majority of significant terrorist organizations targeting Israel were, in turn, targeted by the State Department.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. Treasury issued its own list, pursuant to Executive Order 13324, in an effort to combat terrorism finance. That list soon expanded to include a range of Palestinian terrorist organizations, as well as their leaders and even some charities. This became an increasingly important tool for the Bush administration in the so-called "War on Terror".
With the declaration of this war, the U.S. joined the logomachy. Washington effectively declared war on a tactic, but one that was ill defined by the bureaucracy. The U.S., in fact, has at least two official definitions of terrorism – perhaps more. One, Title 18 U.S. Code Sec. 2331, describes terrorism as something said to (A) Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life, or (B) Appear to be intended – (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; or (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion. Another, Title 22 U.S. Code Sec. 2656f (d)2, describes terrorism as "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
The U.S. does not explicitly engage in the debate over agitational and enforcement terror. It does, however, sanction and deploy other measures to isolate rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, through its list of State Sponsors of Terror. In the meantime, Washington includes Palestinian terror groups on the same lists as some of America's most vicious terrorist enemies, including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Indeed, Washington's official policy has been to view terrorist groups in the same light, no matter their motivation.
CAN TERROR GROUPS EVOLVE?
Perhaps the last frontier in the definitional debate is whether groups that embrace terrorism can effectively evolve into legitimate actors. As one Council on Foreign Relations report noted in 2006, "Some groups widely shunned as terrorists by the international community have managed to beat a well-worn path to negotiations, political legitimacy, and even sovereign power." The implication is that the terrorism label need not be permanent. There is some merit to this argument in some cases, such as the African National Congress (ANC), which unequivocally eschewed violence and became a wholly nonviolent actor in South Africa's political system. This shift was attributable almost entirely to the personage and political philosophy of Nelson Mandela.
However, such arguments are far more challenging to make on behalf of Hamas, or even the PLO. Both groups have evolved in the sense that they now serve as political and governing bodies. Yet, both continue to either engage in terrorism, as is the case with Hamas, or support it financially, as is the case with the PLO. The U.S. government has removed the PLO's terror designation, but the U.S. Congress continues to seek ways to punish the PLO for engaging in this practice, including most recently the Taylor Force Act – named after an American murdered by a Palestinian assailant who now receives a stipend from the PLO while he sits in an Israeli jail.
As the United States weighs more stringent counterterrorism policies, those adopted by various European governments have muddied the waters by trying to distinguish between the military actors and the politicians in terrorist groups like Hezbollah. This is an opening other terror groups would like to exploit, even if their structures do not quite mirror this description.
In the continued battle for legitimacy and justification for their tactics, the Palestinian Authority, PLO, and Hamas continue to look for ways to divide the West. Among other things, this will include challenges to the U.S. definition of terrorism. Thus, the logomachy surrounding the definition of terrorism continues, fueled in no small part by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
(Footnoted version available at original source)