It is my long held belief that there is no moral justification for terrorism, none whatsoever. So, you lost your home and loved ones in a time of war, were forced to run and hide and wound up in a refugee camp. That doesn’t entitle you to turn anyone you perceive or imagine to be your enemy into a target. Ask those old Jews who lost everything before they joined partisan groups in the forests of Poland and Belarus in the darkest days of the Holocaust. They didn’t roam the countryside to hunt down peasants who may or may not have been Nazi collaborators; they made camp in the woods and fought like men against German Army patrols. That’s the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists.
Dealing with terror is one of humanity’s biggest challenges, but it seems that any attempt to understand where it’s coming from gets misinterpreted as justification for terrorism. If someone with liberal tendencies tries to figure out what sets off a suicide bomber that doesn’t necessarily make him a terrorist sympathizer or a traitor. Conversely, if a hawkish politician ignores the root causes of terrorism and calls for unrestrained bombing, and civilians be damned, that doesn’t make him a realist or a patriot.
In Israel, Left-wing support for Palestinian statehood is often branded as collusion with terrorism. Most Israeli Leftists, though, are sickened by terrorism and very openly condemn it. Right-wing opposition to any form of dialogue or territorial compromise with the Palestinians is perceived by the Left and Center as a prescription for endless terrorism. Yet supporters of the current government see their elected Prime Minister, and those who are further to the Right, as the forerunners of anti-terrorism.
Political affiliations notwithstanding, all accounts of terrorism merit careful scrutiny. But in spite of all the internal debate, with each side claiming that it has solutions, terrorism is only getting stronger. The terrorists of the world aren’t waiting for the politicians to react to them. Terror has its own dynamic: We have to put a finger on its pulse in order to pull the plug on the respirator that gives it life.
The story goes that just after the Six Day War, George Habash, the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said to PLO chief Yasser Arafat: “this is the end,” to which Arafat, probably with that despicable smile on his face, replied: “this is only the beginning.” The rest is history: Terror increased many times over as the PLO grew into a force to be reckoned with. Did the occupation have something to do with spiraling terrorism? Did the settlement movement? It depends on one’s political perspective.
According to the Israeli nationalist camp, the real incentive for terrorism came with the Oslo Agreement. But a close examination of Oslo reveals an altogether different picture: Terror was held in check whenever there was a flurry of diplomatic activity (under Rabin and Peres) or even a pretense of a political process (under Netanyahu and Barak): the Sharm el Sheik Conference in 1996 prompted Arafat to crack down on terror for an extended period; the signing of Oslo 1 and Oslo 2, the Hebron Agreement, Wye Plantation Conference and Camp David talks all took place during periods of relative calm.
In contrast, terror always raised its ugly head following events that were construed by the Palestinians as provocations: The Hebron massacre at the hands of one frenzied Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, which set off the first wave of suicide bombings; the killing of terrorist mastermind Yihye Ayyash, which delivered a big blow to the jihadists but in turn instigated more carnage and bloodshed; Netanyahu’s ill-timed opening of the Western Wall tunnel, which incited riots that were placated by a three-way summit conference in Washington; Arik Sharon’s inflammatory march under heavy armed guard on the Temple Mount, and the subsequent riots there and in Wadi Ara that launched the Second Intifada.
Since the Hamas takeover in Gaza the terror dynamic has become more complex, as now any attempt at diplomatic activity presages a possible terrorist response. This doesn’t negate the point that a political process leading to a resolution of the conflict is the last thing the terrorists want. In point of fact, the Oslo Agreement was the last thing that Baruch Goldstein wanted, which explains why he derailed it. Jewish terrorism may not be as widespread as Palestinian terrorism, but it is just as disastrous for both sides.
The best explanation of the terror dynamic was presented by Menachem Begin in his chronicle of the Irgun, “The Revolt.” Begin wrote that the Irgun couldn’t have carried out its terrorist activities without support from the local population in the pre-state yishuv. This from a man who gave orders to open fire and set off bombs in crowded Arab markets; this from the most wanted terrorist in Palestine who was forced into hiding by the British Mandate authorities and protected by like-minded Jews.
The underlying principle for solving the terror problem can also be learned from Begin, who started changing his terrorist ways when Ben Gurion ordered the disbandment of the Irgun following the tragic Altalena incident in the War of Independence. Begin understood that the dynamic that had kept the Irgun running, general or tacit support, was dwarfed by nationwide support for the IDF. And like Ben Gurion, Begin realized that a country fighting for its independence could not sustain rival armies.
Many years later, Begin achieved his real life’s work when he constructed a viable political settlement with another reformed terrorist (and former Nazi collaborator), Anwar Sadat.
Do the Palestinians have a front-runner with the stature of a Sadat? Do the Israelis have a leader on the horizon with Begin’s foresight? Did those terrorists-turned-statesmen shape the events that made history, or were they just responding to changing realities? One thing is clear: once a serious political process is underway, without undue distractions from the fanatics on both sides, support for terrorists and the dynamic of terror will fall into decline.