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Get definition straight on Palestinian "terrorism"

By Robert Jensen, Houston Chronicle, March 9, 2001, p. 35-A.

With a new hard-line Israeli defense minister promising to strike at the Palestinian "terrorists and their masters," it is more important than ever to be clear about the politics of the term "terrorism." A bit of contemporary history might help here.

On Dec. 7, 1987, the U.N. General Assembly voted 153-2 (with one abstention) to approve a resolution that condemned international terrorism.

The two nations rejecting the resolution were the United States and Israel.

The story of those votes tells us much about the power of some states to label the acts of others as terrorism while avoiding accountability for their own terrorist acts.

General Assembly Resolution 42/159 concerned "measures to prevent international terrorism," and was made up mostly of boilerplate phrases that seem hard to contest: "deploring the continuation of all terrorist acts," "deeply disturbed by the world-wide persistence of those acts," and "convinced of the importance of expanding and improving international co-operation."

The language seems uncontroversial, until one gets to the section that reaffirms the legitimacy of the national liberation movements of "peoples under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination;" nothing in the resolution should be taken to deny "the right to self-determination, freedom and independence."

The resolution also urges all states "to contribute to the progressive elimination of the causes underlying international terrorism and to pay special attention to all situations, including colonialism, racism and situations involving mass and flagrant violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Now the no-votes by the United States and Israel, and their positions on terrorism, become clearer. Both nations oppose terrorism, so long as we have the definitions straight.

From the U.S./Israeli point of view, violence committed by Israel against Palestinians is defensive. So, Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, routine use of torture, arbitrary demolition of homes,and political assassinations are not examples of terrorism, but are simply necessary for defense. Palestinian violence in resistance, though always at a far lower level, is terrorism.

Similarly, when Israel occupied Lebanon throughout the 1980s and '90s in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the violence of that occupation was defensive, and Hezbollah's resistance to that occupation was labeled terrorism.

The question is, of course, what is Israel defending? Its people, or its program of conquest and expansion?

If we were to take seriously the moral call to end domination by colonial regimes, certainly Israel's occupation of Palestine would be among the first to be addressed. Everyone is aware of the complexity of the situation in Israel/Palestine, but we all should be just as aware that Israel occupies land conquered in war in violation of international law. That is colonialism.

There is no doubt that both sides in the conflict have killed, and at times killed civilians. The 1987 General Assembly resolution deplores any taking of "innocent human lives," but it also acknowledges that the causes of terrorism often lie in "misery, frustration, grievance and despair" that leads people to seek radical change. Such sympathies for the victims of occupation and repression, and hence the resolution expressing those sympathies, were unacceptable to Israel and the United States.

So long as the Palestinians accept the narrow limits of what was until recently called "the peace process," Israel is willing to grant them some minimal rights, mostly the right to rule over their own impoverishment.

But Palestinians revert to the status of terrorists when they resist the daily humiliations of checkpoints, closures and random violence against them,or when they refuse to accept a subordinate status that allows Israel to retain the best land and the water resources. If Palestinians demand a state with true sovereignty and self-determination, the condemnations from Israel begin once again.

If one abandons morality and considers only power, it is easy to see why Israeli refused to vote to condemn terrorism. It's also easy to see why the United States followed suit. For decades the United States has invested in Israel as a strategic partner to help maintain U.S. dominance in the Middle East. So long as policymakers see value in that strategy, the United States is unlikely to put serious pressure on Israel to seek not just peace, but a just peace, in the Middle East.

The likelihood of such pressure for justice for the Palestinians will increase dramatically, however, if U.S. citizens understand better the history oft he region, realize the complicity of the United States, and demand that U.S. policy support "the inalienable right to self-determination and independence of all peoples" that the U.N. resolution reminds us is the foundation of international law.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at (

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