Every Israeli murder of a Palestinian is called a retaliation. But every Palestinian act of resistance is retaliation. Retaliation for 60 years of occupation and dispossession.
Hamas has been targeted since it was elected
Again the Israelis bomb the starving and imprisoned population of Gaza. The world watches the plight of 1.5 million Gazans live, on television. The western media justifies it. Even some Arab outlets equate the Palestinian resistance with the might of the Israeli military machine. None of this is a surprise. The Israelis just concluded a round-the-world public relations campaign to gather support for their assault, gaining the collaboration of Arab states like Egypt. The international community is guilty for this latest massacre. Will it remain immune from the wrath of a desperate people?
An American journal once asked me to contribute an essay to a discussion on whether terrorism or attacks against civilians could ever be justified. My answer was that an American journal should not be asking this question: this is a question for the weak - for the Native American in the past, for the Jews in Nazi Germany, for the Palestinian today - to ask. Terrorism is an empty word that means everything and nothing. It describes what the Other does, not what We do.
The powerful - whether Israel, America, Russia or China - will always describe their victims' struggles as terrorism. The destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, these will never be called terrorism. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used as if a neutral court produced them instead of oppressors. This excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them.
Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day. The Palestinian people are being eradicated day after day. They must respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel. Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity, then they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can take. Every Israeli murder of a Palestinian is called a retaliation. But every Palestinian act of resistance is retaliation. Retaliation for 60 years of occupation and dispossession.
Not long ago, 19-year-old Qassem al Mughrabi, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem, drove his car into a group of soldiers at an intersection. "The terrorist," as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called him, was shot and killed. In two separate incidents last July, Palestinians from Jerusalem also used vehicles to attack Israelis. The attackers were not part of an organisation. Although those Palestinian men were also killed, senior Israeli officials called for their homes to be demolished. In a separate incident, Haaretz wrote that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she threw acid in his face. "The terrorist was arrested by security forces," the paper said. A citizen attacks an occupying soldier, and she is the terrorist?
Just as the traditional American cowboy film presented white Americans under siege with the Indians as the aggressors - the opposite of reality - so too have Palestinians become the aggressors and not the victims. Beginning in 1948, 750,000 Palestinians have been expelled from their homes; hundreds of their villages destroyed and their land settled by colonists. Every day, more of Palestine is stolen, more Palestinians are killed.
It is not that Palestinians have the right to use any means necessary to resist, but they are weak. The weak have much less power than the strong, and can do much less damage. The Palestinians would not bomb cafes or use home-made missiles if they had tanks and planes. It is only in the current context that their actions are justified, and there are obvious limits. Israeli elections are coming up and as usual they are accompanied by war to bolster the candidates. You cannot be prime minister of Israel without enough Arab blood on your hands. An Israeli general has threatened to set Gaza back decades, just as others threatened to set Lebanon back decades in 2006. As if strangling Gaza and denying its people fuel, power or food has not set it back decades already.
Hamas was targeted for destruction from the day it won democratic elections in 2006. The world told the Palestinians that they cannot have democracy, as if the goal was to radicalise them further, as if that will not have a consequence. Land expropriation and separation barriers have long since made a two-state solution impossible. There can be only one state in historic Palestine. In coming decades, Israelis will be confronted with two options. Will they peacefully move towards an equal society, where Palestinians are given the same rights, a la post-apartheid South Africa? Or will they continue to view democracy as a threat? Colonialism has only worked when most of the natives have been exterminated. But often, as in Algeria, it is the settlers who flee. Eventually the Palestinians will not be willing to compromise and seek one state for both people. Does the world want to further radicalise them?
Nir Rosen is a fellow at the Centre on Law and Security at NYU and the author of The Triumph of the Martyrs: A Reporter's Journey into Occupied Iraq.