Legal limits on manipulations of language

A terrorist by any other name is still a terrorist

Palestinians hold a flag in the West Bank 370 (photo credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)
Palestinians hold a flag in the West Bank 370
(photo credit: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman)
From the standpoint of binding international law, there is no merit to applauding linguistic transformations of murder. No matter how hard they may try, those who would identify the willful maiming and execution of noncombatants in the name of an abstract ideal, any ideal, are defiling law and justice. When Palestinian insurgents insistently claim the legal right to use "any means necessary" against an alleged "occupation," their claim is disingenuous and contrived. 
Even if their indignant calls for "national self-determination" were actually grounded in law, there would still remain very serious evidence of wrongdoing. Under international law, all insurgents, even those with supportable "just cause," must meet firm jurisprudential limits on (1) permissible targets, and on (2) permissible levels of violence.
Following a vote by the UN General Assembly, “Palestine” is now properly authorized to call itself a “nonmember observer state.” Although such a designation essentially by-passes the critical expectations of  legal rules on statehood, especially the Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1934), most of the world is prepared to accept the reality of  Palestinian sovereignty. Nonetheless, any illegal uses of insurgent force approved by “Palestine” would still be terrorism.
The limited rights of insurgency under international law can never include the planned targeting of civilians, or the intentional use of force to cause gratuitous pain and suffering. As an example, it is always terrorism when Palestinian insurgents murder Israeli families in their homes or automobiles by stabbing and shooting. Similarly, it is always terrorism when these "militants" place nail-filled bombs dipped in rat poison on Israeli buses. 
Even under even their most generous definitions in jurisprudence, these rights to use armed force can never supplant the settled or “peremptory” rules of humanitarian international law. Such rules are also properly known as the law of armed conflict. 
Supporters of Palestinian terror-violence against Israelis still argue passionately that the ends (Palestinian "independence") justify the means (deliberate attacks upon defenseless civilians). Leaving aside the everyday and ordinary ethical standards by which any such argument is manifestly indecent, the ends can never justify the means under international law, whether conventional (treaty-based) or customary. In fact, for more than two thousand years, unassailable and unambiguous legal principles have stipulated that unleashing intentional violence against the innocent is always prohibited. 
International law is not self-evident or self-explanatory. As in the case of any formal body of disciplined knowledge, some industrious study is required. A layperson is no more suited to offer snap judgments on what is permissible under complex international law, than he or she would be qualified to evaluate the theory of relativity, or alternative techniques of brain surgery.
From the standpoint of authoritative international law, one man's (or woman's) terrorist, can never be another man's (or woman's) freedom-fighter. Although fashionable to repeat at cocktail parties, and certain universities, this facile expression is merely an empty witticism, a propagandistic device devoid of any ascertainable meaning. It is true, of course, that certain insurgencies can sometimes be judged lawful (that judgment  is, after all, a plainly founding principle of the United States, found in the  Declaration of Independence), but these fully allowable resorts to force must always still conform to the laws of war.
Wherever an insurgent group resorts to openly unjust means, its actions are always terrorism. Even if the ritualistic Palestinian claims of a hostile "occupation" were reasonable rather than fabricated, corollary claims of entitlement to use "any means necessary" would remain false.
Always, international law has a precise and determinable form and content. It cannot be casually invented and reinvented by terror groups or “nonmember observer states” in order to satisfy particular interests. This is especially the case where terror violence purposely targets a country’s most fragile and vulnerable civilian populations.
National liberation movements that fail to meet the test of “just means” are never protected as lawful or legitimate. Even if we were to accept the spurious argument that Hamas and its sister groups could somehow meet the criteria of "national liberation," it is still clear that they do not meet the equally relevant legal standards of discrimination, proportionality, and military necessity. These critical standards have been applied to insurgent organizations by the common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, and also by the two Protocols to these Conventions of 1977. 
They are also binding upon all combatants by virtue of broader customary and conventional international law, including Article 1 of the Preamble to the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. This rule, called the "Martens Clause," makes all persons responsible for the "laws of humanity," and for the associated "dictates of public conscience."
Under international law, even at the hands of a “nonmember observer state,” the ends can never justify the means. As in the case of war between states, every use of force by insurgents must always be judged twice, once with regard to the justness of the objective (in this case, a Palestinian state to be built explicitly upon the charred ruins of a pre-existing Jewish state), and once with regard to the justness of the means used to reach that objective. Murderers of young children, who take unhidden and literal delight in the suffering of their victims, are never "freedom fighters." If they were ever entitled to such a laudatory designation, we would then have to concede that international law itself was little more than a nicely-veneered authorization for the unbounded commission of evil.
American and European supporters of a Palestinian State continue to presume that this entity will become part of a "two-state solution." For these persistent believers in "peace," a 23rd Arab state, somehow, will obediently coexist with an extant Jewish State. Significantly, this kindly presumption is dismissed everywhere in the Arab/Islamic world itself. 
On such matters, at least, this world does not lie. Cartographically, the "Map of Palestine" at the official website of the Palestinian National Authority, and of Hamas (The Islamic Resistance Movement, now tied closely to Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood), still includes all of Israel.
Only one state is depicted on this map. That state is not the State of Israel.
Terrorist crimes mandate universal cooperation in apprehension and punishment. As punishers of "grave breaches" under international law, all states are expected to search out and prosecute, or extradite, individual terrorists. In no circumstances, are states permitted to characterize terrorists as "freedom fighters." 
This is emphatically true for the United States, which incorporates all international law as the "supreme law of the land" at Article 6 of the Constitution, and which was expressly formed by the Founding Fathers according to the timeless principles of  Natural Law. In this connection, although widely unrecognized, core legal authority for the new country in the eighteenth—century was founded upon and openly derived from Blackstone’s Commentaries.
As people concerned about terrorism, we have a genuine and historic obligation to avoid linguistic manipulations of law. Whether in New York, London, or Tel-Aviv, authentic "freedom fighters" do not make war against office workers, nursery school children, city buses, or family ice-cream parlors. Until we can finally accept this utterly elementary human understanding for the Middle East, we will continue to encourage insidious "public wrongs," and to smugly transform ghoulish gangs into governments.
The writer was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism and international law. Dr. Beres, Professor of International Law at Purdue, was born in Zürich, Switzerland in 1945.