If only one man's terrorist was another man's terrorist

With over 100 different definitions of terrorism worldwide, we can never truly collaborate effectively in fighting it.

Isaiah 24:17  370 (photo credit: Amit Bar Yosef)
Isaiah 24:17 370
(photo credit: Amit Bar Yosef)
Following the murder of Private Eden Atias on a bus in Afula, Hamas spokesperson Fawzy Barhoom issued a statement praising the "heroic act of resistance" and calling on young Palestinians to fight Israeli "oppression and terror."
How can a terrorist call his victims "terrorists"?
He can, because the expression "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," makes them interchangeable, as merely a matter of perspective and agenda.
As Israelis, we tend to oppose this aphorism, but sadly, I believe it is true on the international level. The world has no agreed-upon differentiation between good and bad, or even what should be considered absolute evil.
Dr. Boaz Ganor is Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT). I first met him in 2003, at an international workshop on counter terrorism, where he expressed his visionary views on the need to adopt an international definition for terrorism.
I have since witnessed the development of combined international efforts, from information sharing to collaborative operations, but hardly any progress has been made on the issue of definition.
When I recently met Dr. Ganor to discuss this topic, I found him still vehemently promoting it.
With over 100 different definitions worldwide, we can never truly collaborate effectively - politically, legally and operationally.
Many international forums, such as the Geneva Conventions, point to specific forbidden actions, rather than address the ideological motivation behind them. The Hague Hijacking Convention, for instance, outlaws hijacking civilian planes, calling it an "offence", not terrorism.
Various international bodies have adopted wide definitions which have never been unanimously accepted. General Assembly resolution 49/60 from 1994 on "measures to eliminate international terrorism" states:
"Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them."
Not bad – but too long, and ambiguous.
United Nations Security Council resolution 1269, from 1999, took a relatively strong position on acts of terrorism and pushed for better international collaboration, but did not define what terrorism is.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 1566, from 2004, condemned terrorist acts with a description so long, that one ends up feeling that almost any form of violence and aggression is considered terrorism.
The Arab League, in their 1998 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism, put forth a relatively robust definition, but excluded acts carried out by people who felt they were struggling for liberation and self-determination.
So basically, killing Israelis is OK.
I recently posted a question on terror definition on facebook, and received a range of suggestions, from philosophical to practical, and from narrow to wide and vague. This experiment demonstrated that even internally we are not in agreement on such a fundamental issue in Israeli life.
Two of my friends posted a link to the Wikipedia definition, which begins with: "Terrorism is the systematic use of violence as a means of coercion for political purposes." This, of course, describes what all armies do.
On the national level, governments are reluctant to define terror, for they would lose the flexibly that vagueness currently enables.
The Taliban, for example, turned from US backed freedom-fighters against the Soviet Union, to despicable terrorists, but this mutability of terms can be found in many conflicts around the world.
The United States calls its enemies terrorists, but pushes Israel to release terrorists, conveniently calling them "prisoners".
If the world were truly united in its definition of terrorism, there would be international condemnation of the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, who continues to praise and glorify the murderers of woman and children.
It is a difficult task, but the world must unite behind one definition. The narrower we make it - the wider acceptance we can hope for.
Here is what Dr. Ganor suggests: "Terrorism is the intentional use of violence against civilians, or civilian targets, in order to attain political aims."
It is short, clear, and most importantly – limiting in scope and detached from political agenda. We can all agree to this – do not target civilians!
"Intentional" - because civilians suffer from collateral damage, even when armies are extremely careful and act proportionally, and are sometimes deliberately placed in harm's way when used by terrorists as human shields.
I spoke with Adv. Ido Rosenzweig, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and Chairman of the Association for the Promotion of International Humanitarian Law (ALMA), who explained that a short definition will not eliminate complex debates on scope and applicability in the international arena.
We will still struggle with issues like state sponsored terrorism and terror funding organizations, such as Hamas' Dawa socio-economic network.
This is not merely an academic debate but bears practical ramifications. We tend to think that terrorists will always feel free to act without adherence to laws or moral compasses. You can't reason with terrorists, right?
Wrong. They can be influenced.
If, today, attacking a school bus and a military installation are both referred to as terrorism, why not attack the easier target and achieve a better media impact? It seems the logical outcome of a simple cost-benefit analysis.
But if the world were to say: "When you attack soldiers, you are legitimate freedom fighters, but if you kill children, you are despicable, repulsive, and evil terrorists," maybe they would reconsider.
But rhetoric is not enough. Choosing terror should come with a heavy price.
Freedom fighters and guerilla operatives should be held as prisoners of war, to be released during a prisoner exchange deal or peace process. A terrorist, on the other hand, should serve his full sentence, never being eligible for parole or exchange deals.
Israel is perceived as spearheading the fight against terror, yet we are the ones eroding the basic elements needed to succeed. By releasing terrorists, we contribute to the perception that terrorism is a legitimate way of promoting political goals.
The problem is that many perceive all forms of violence as being on one scale, terror simply being on the extreme right. Our objective should be to take terror off the scale completely.
Former Shin Bet director, Yuval Diskin recently referred to "Price Tag" acts as terrorism. At first I strongly opposed this broad interpretation, but after much consideration, I'm not so sure anymore.
A unified definition does not serve Israeli convenience as others are forced to change. Israelis will have to change too, and pay a heavy ideological and perceptional price.
As much as it is hard to say this, attacking an IDF patrol on the border would no longer be considered terrorism, while extreme "Price Tag" actions against civilians, would.The writer is a former IAF pilot, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and International Project Manager at [email protected]