Terrorists or freedom fighters?

Splitscreen: Palestinian with slingshot at demonstration and IDF soldier who shot dead a wounded terrorist in Hebron (photo credit: REUTERS)
Splitscreen: Palestinian with slingshot at demonstration and IDF soldier who shot dead a wounded terrorist in Hebron
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is the sort of cliché you might expect a BBC news producer or a Reuters global news editor to bandy about to justify a style guide that replaces “terrorist” with words such as “fighter” or “combatant.”
This editorial policy might even be relatively justifiable as a means of keeping reporters safe in parts of the world where “fighters” shoot children, blow up buses and trains or set fire to houses of worship, among other atrocities.
But you would not expect such blurring of distinctions coming from a member of parliament when referring to terrorist attacks directed against his own country.
That is why it was surprising to hear Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul declare that Palestinians who attack IDF soldiers with the intent to kill should not be considered terrorists.
“What can a Palestinian, suffocating under the yoke of occupation for 49 years, do in order regain his freedom?” the MK asked.
“The soldiers are, for him, a symbol of the occupation.
Before 1948 there was the British Mandate here. Etzel [the Irgun], Lehi [the Stern Group] and the other Jewish organizations went out to the street to fight British soldiers and build your state, which is an amazing state. Why are the Palestinians not allowed to do so?” Bahloul was doubling down on comments he had made Thursday on Army Radio regarding the Palestinians who stabbed a soldier in Hebron on March 24. “All those who struggle for their freedom and independence are considered terrorists by Israelis,” he said.
Admittedly, there is some dissent among scholars over the precise definition of terrorism. Many doubt whether it is possible to arrive at a focused, agreed-upon international definition that is not just descriptive but sets normative benchmarks for distinguishing terrorism from legitimate forms of political violence.
But just because there is no consensus on the definition of terrorism does not mean it is impossible to make distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters.
As Jonah Goldberg noted in his book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, claiming one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter “stream rolls through a fallacious comparison, confusing ends and means, in order to celebrate relativism and nihilism and elevate moral cowardice as an intellectual principle.”
Palestinians who use violence to end the “occupation” are terrorists because they are fighting to deny another people – the Jews – the right to self-determination while struggling to create yet another Arab state that denies basic human rights and equality to non-Muslims and women, and rejects freedom of expression and religion. Hamas is a terrorist organization not just because it systematically targets civilians, but because its goals are to destroy an internationally recognized state and create in its place a caliphate run in accordance with medieval Islamic law. Therefore, when Hamas or self-appointed Palestinian “freedom fighters” attack IDF soldiers they are engaging in terrorism.
Jews who fought against the British Mandate, in contrast, were not terrorists, because they were seeking to create a democratic national homeland for Jews that would incorporate a large Arab minority, alongside a Palestinian state.
The state they fought to create would uphold human rights and enable men such as Bahloul to be elected to the Knesset. On occasion, organizations such as the Irgun or the Stern Group committed acts of terrorism against Palestinian civilians. But those were desperate times: European Jewry was being destroyed and the British prevented European Jewry’s escape by blocking entry to Palestine.
Even then, terrorist tactics were strongly criticized by the majority of Jews living in Palestine.
This is not to say that Bahloul should be denied the right to voice his opinion. It is precisely for speech considered abhorrent by the Jewish-Israeli majority that the freedom of expression exists.
Bahloul’s comparison of contemporary Palestinian terrorists with pre-state Jewish fighters might anger Jewish Israelis. But silencing Bahloul will not make his views disappear.
Engaging with him and refuting his claims might not convince Bahloul and others who share his views, but it does help to clarify – at least for ourselves – important distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters.