Condemn Terror and Get Beyond the Moral Vacuum

There are tens of thousands of more terrorists operating in the world today than there were in September 2001 when the global war on terror was launched. Something is not working here.

I have been in the United States this week since the attack against Israeli civilians in a Tel Aviv food market Wednesday evening, and have been fascinated by American media coverage of this incident within the larger pattern of media coverage of other conflicts in the Middle East. The conflicts I refer to are the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts that have been active effectively since the 1930s, and the American-led global war on terror that started in the late 1990s against Al-Qaeda, and has lasted a quarter of a century against a widening circle of terrorist groups.

The mainstream American media emphasize how strong and innocent countries that have been attacked without provocation—i.e., Israel and the United States—must apply tough military and punitive measures to achieve the security they deserve. I accept the definition of terrorism as the deliberate use of violence against civilians for a political purpose. So the attack in Tel Aviv Wednesday clearly was an act of terror against civilians that cannot be justified, and must be clearly and unambiguously condemned. There should be no moral or political hesitation there.

The area that is ambiguous, however, and does require profound and continuous discussions concerns two related matters: the wider context of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation in which this terror attack occurred, and the nature of the Israeli and pre-state Zionist responses that have sought for three quarters of a century to punish these sorts of attacks and prevent them from recurring—but always spectacularly unsuccessfully.

The Israeli state response to the terror attack includes sending two more battalions of troops to the occupied Palestinian territories that Israel controls and continues to colonize with Jewish settlements, sending hundreds of additional policemen into the streets of Jerusalem, revoking travel permits for Palestinians to enter Israel to work and visit family, declaring the Hebron area village of the two Palestinian gunmen a closed military zone, arresting many people, and rescinding Israeli work permits for 204 relatives of the two gunmen.

I am fascinated by this because I have been watching this kind of tough military and security response from Israel for the past half a century or so, and this strategy clearly does not work. The basic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians only persists and worsens in some aspects, especially the nature of violence that both sides use against each other. The most recent war in Gaza, for example, saw massively disproportionate Israeli attacks against Palestinian communities that wiped out the homes of tens of thousands of Palestinians, a show of force that Israelis assumed would make the Palestinians acquiesce in the status quo and never challenge Israel again.

That has not happened, but seems only to have sparked a new form of retaliatory action by Palestinians. Since last October, Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank, and inside Israel, have expressed their hatred for Israel’s occupation and colonization policies by attacking individual Israelis with knives or cars. A total of 28 Israelis have been killed since October; in the same period Israelis have killed 205 Palestinians, including Palestinians who attacked Israelis.

The parallel with the American-led global war on terror is relevant because the same principles seem to apply. The more force the United States and others use against terrorists from groups like Al-Qaeda or “Islamic State” (Daesh), the more these groups seem to continue growing in different countries around the world. How do we explain this puzzle? How should we respond to it?

Clearly, any country or community that is attacked by terrorists has the right to respond and protect itself. But if a country repeatedly uses massive force to retaliate against terrorist attackers, yet does not stop the attacks from happening again and again, at what point does it stop and ask itself if perhaps it needs to find a more effective strategy that actually stops all the violence by both sides? There are tens of thousands of more terrorists operating in the world today than there were in September 2001 when the global war on terror was launched. Something is not working here, it seems.

The situation between Israelis and Palestinians is very similar. This week’s Tel Aviv attack absolutely should be condemned as an unacceptable act of terror—but that would likely turn out to be another isolated moral act in a geographical and temporal vacuum, if it is detached from the wider and older war that continues to rage between Arabism and Zionism, and between Palestinians and Israelis. Every vocal condemnation of the Tel Aviv attack has a better chance of being politically useful if it also comes to terms with the past nine months of violence that has killed 205 Palestinians and 28 Israelis.

To be morally outraged and to respond with tough-guy militarism are both understandable reactions, but modern history has shown them to be ineffective if they ignore the full underlying causes of the conflict of which they are a part.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Follow him on Twitter @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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