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Israel's decades-long effort to turn the word 'terrorism' into an ideological weapon

By       Message Remi Brulin     Permalink
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The Israeli discourse on "terrorism" has a long history, one in which Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's current Prime Minister, played a central role.

Thirty years ago, at a major conference on "international terrorism" in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu insisted that "without a clear understanding of terrorism, the problem cannot be tackled" and proposed a clear, simple definition: "Terrorism is the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends."

The discourse draws its normative, rhetorical power from a simple, central claim: what separates "us" from "the terrorists" is a fundamentally different, irreconcilable conception of the value of innocent, civilian life.

However, a historical survey of the years immediately preceding the Washington conference shows that the Israeli discourse never followed such a definition of "terrorism" and was, from the very start, fundamentally ideological.

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In the real world, Israel repeatedly accused its enemies of "terrorism" for attacks against civilians but also against military targets; meanwhile, it never used the term to refer to violence against civilians by its allies.

The June 24-27, 1984 conference was organized by the Jonathan Institute, named after Benjamin Netanyahu's older brother, a member of the Israeli Special Forces killed in 1976 during the famous raid at Entebbe.

The participants represented a veritable who's who of Israeli and American politicians, academics and commentators, making the conference (later published into an extremely successful book by Netanyahu) a landmark event in the history of the Israeli and American discourses on "terrorism."

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The purpose of the Institute, through such conferences (the first took place in Jerusalem in 1979), was to convince the governments of the "free world" that the "battle against terrorism" Israel had been waging for years was in fact "part of a much larger struggle, one between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism."

"Terrorism" was said to be intimately linked to "totalitarianism" as well as to Islam. Moscow, along with the PLO and its Arab allies, were repeatedly described as the central actors in a veritable "international terrorist network."

In his introductory comments Netanyahu, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that the fight against "terrorism" required "moral clarity." Having presented the definition cited above, he argued that "terrorism" has a "pernicious effect" because it "blurs the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the central tenet of the laws of war." This was why "guerillas" and "terrorists" were different: the former waged war on armed combatants while the latter attacked "defenseless civilians."

In the real world however, Israeli officials used the word "terrorism" in ways fundamentally incompatible with Netanyahu's claim to "moral clarity."

By the time the conference took place, Israel had been involved in Lebanon for two years.

Repeatedly, Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted that the invasion came in response to the "terrorism" of the PLO, and that its main objective was to combat the "terrorist threat" posed by the organization's presence in Lebanon.

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Throughout the conflict, Israeli elected officials used the term "terrorist" incessantly, almost obsessively, to refer to all members of the PLO and, often, to all Palestinians living in besieged Beirut.

The same was true, to a great extent, of the Israeli media. As Robert Fisk notes in "Pity the Nation," the Jerusalem Post changed all AP reports from Beirut and modified every reference to "guerrilla" into "terrorists" until the AP "told the paper's editor to stop."

And so, when a pick-up truck crammed with explosives smashed into the headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Tyre on November 4 1983, Israel immediately denounced it as an act of "terrorism" and, in response, bombed Syrian and Palestinian targets.

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Research fellow, New York University. Former Shapiro teaching fellow, George Washington University. PhD from La Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris (2011). My dissertation, a history of the American discourse on "terrorism," is available online here: (more...)

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Israel's decades-long effort to turn the word 'terrorism' into an ideological weapon