I am aware that this article is likely to elicit strong emotions from many. So before we begin, I will take the opportunity to clarify that I have nothing but the utmost respect for our soldiers, border patrolmen and other security service members for their dedicated service to our country. I am aware that it is their ongoing vigilance and sacrifice that keeps myself and my family safe at night. I am pained at the loss of our bravest and most dedicated youth, and wish only comfort to their families.
Yesterday, a headline on Ynet reported that “The Terrorist Who Killed Golani Combat Soldier Amit Ben Ygal has been Captured” by IDF special forces. SFC Ben Ygal, 21, was killed last month during a routine IDF operation in Yaabed when he was struck by a concrete block thrown by a Palestinian from a nearby roof.
The news of the killer’s capture was met with solemn satisfaction in Israel, and accolades for the IDF. Additional headlines carried by Ynet referred again to the killer, Nazmi Abu Bachar, as a terrorist, and discussed government promises to raze the home of his family – a controversial deterrent measure that Israel has employed intermittently against terrorists. Walla News and Maariv ran with similar headlines labeling Abu Bachar a terrorist.
Nazmi Abu Bachar is not a terrorist.
He could, perhaps, be described as a militant; an insurgent; a resistance fighter, guerilla or irregular. While there is no uniformly accepted international definition of a “terrorist,” and the term is brandished cavalierly by those wishing to advance various political agendas, it can nonetheless be distinguished from all of the aforesaid terms based on at least one material distinct criterion: Terrorists target civilians. Other fighters, whatever you may choose to call them, do not.
This is not to say that Abu Bachar played by the rules when he attacked an IDF soldier in his village. He was not wearing the uniform or emblem of any army, for starters, which is problematic from both a formal and material standpoint. On the other hand, it is no secret that the conventions of international law have fallen long behind the modern reality of asymmetrical warfare, and are perhaps partially responsible for much of modern-day terrorism by failing to adequately recognize and distinguish legitimate forms of resistance or national liberation movements from the illicit. It is hardly reasonable, then, to fault all engaged combatants in an insurgency as “terrorists” and to treat them accordingly, without any clear conditions for how such resistance should be waged legitimately.
One could mistake my argument herein for one based on principles of altruism or “fairness.” Let me be clear: While the laconic state of international treaties may grant us the liberty to make use of whatever terms we wish, it is nonetheless in the express and vital self-interest of the State of Israel to draw clear distinctions between Palestinian insurgents who target civilians and those who do not. There are many reasons why this is true, among them:
Deterrence of attacks on civilians. Attacking armed IDF troops is, obviously, much more difficult than kidnapping and murdering civilians. Under circumstances where Palestinian insurgents are treated as criminal terrorists and subject to the same reprisals regardless of the targets they pursue, there is little incentive for resistance fighters to invest additional means (if they even possess such means) to successfully target military personnel and installations. This intuitively will result in more attacks on civilians.
Legitimacy of reprisal measures. When measures taken against all Palestinian insurgents are similar, all such measures, legitimate or not, are too easily framed as a mere extension of the acts of oppression that gave rise to Palestinian grievances in the first place. This forces the Palestinian authorities to stand behind all attacks on Israelis, even attacks against civilians, and denounce any countermeasures employed by Israel, even those that are objectively justified.
In theory, this is how we would expect legitimate freedom fighters to react to any attack that targeted civilians. But because we draw no distinction ourselves in this regard, we effectively legitimize all means but the most barbaric in the eyes of the Palestinian public.
Legitimacy of negotiating positions. By uniformly villainizing all forms of Palestinian resistance, we place both our own government and the Palestinian Authority in an impossible negotiating position. For our part, if all Palestinian prisoners are terrorists, then we commit a moral injustice against the Israeli nation by agreeing to release any of them, raising the stakes for any Israeli leader wishing to make use of the leverage these prisoners provide or to break through on this central issue. As for the Palestinians, by labeling all resistance fighters as terrorists, we force the Palestinian factions to stand behind prisoners indiscriminately and demand to release them all, or risk alienating their constituents by abandoning their heroes. Thus, we force the Palestinian leadership to make demands, and simultaneously force our own leaders to reject them. This is a recipe for an indefinite impasse and may explain why, six years later, we have been unable to obtain the release of the bodies of our soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Shaul Oren, as well as Avera Mengistu. Simply by employing inflammatory, vilifying and imprecise terms, we have created a needless stumbling block for negotiations.
Historical legitimacy of the Zionist movement. It bears mentioning that, if you ask most Israelis why the early Zionist resistance movements that fought the British Mandate were not terrorists, all will answer that these movements targeted police officers and soldiers, rather than civilians (civilians killed collaterally notwithstanding). Yet, by the standards we use to describe Palestinian resistance fighters, our own forebearers would have been terrorists as well. This undermines the legitimacy of our own national liberation movement in the eyes of allies and enemies alike. If we are unable to express any parameters within which the Palestinian liberation movement may be waged legitimately, we implicitly condemn the Zionist movement that gave rise to our state as a similarly invalid and criminal enterprise. This is utterly self-destructive for a country that still struggles, to this day, to win the respect of its neighbors in the community of nations.
There comes a certain point at which we must acknowledge that these attacks we have become so accustomed to are not random acts of violence, nor the plottings of some genocidal conspiracy; that a national liberation movement exists alongside our own, one that is no less legitimate than any other. We must distinguish those Palestinians resistance fighters who target our soldiers, our bases and our military infrastructure from the terrorists who murder indiscriminately, and recognize these as the representatives of a real and legitimate adversary – even as these attacks tear at our hearts and bereave us of our children. This is the nature of war, and to call things by their true names can only further our understanding that it is the state of attrition, and not some imaginary subhuman nation of criminals, that continues to rob us of our loved ones.
Our media publications and politicians are complicit in propagating this pernicious dialogue, but they are, truthfully, only responding to the prevailing attitudes of their constituencies. It is upon us, the citizens of Israel, to demand a higher level of awareness and nuance in our media and from our leaders, with the implicit understanding that these words and their definitions matter; that they have a tangible impact on the way that we view this conflict, the way that our adversaries view us, and the avenues at our disposal for moving forward.
I feel no love for the man who killed Amit Ben Ygal — but neither do I hate him. He is an enemy combatant who targeted our soldiers and, uncomfortable though it may be to admit, had I lived in the days of the British Mandate, had I thought it necessary to free my people from the oppression of foreign rule – perhaps I would have done the same. I hope that he will be treated as a prisoner of war, with all that that entails, and that this will send a message to the Palestinians that we see their struggle and are prepared to engage with them as equals.
Above all, I hope it brings us closer to resolving this destructive conflict between us, so that no more of our soldiers will go to their deaths in a battle of wills that can never be won.