With a new hard-line Israeli defense minister promising to strike at the
Palestinian "terrorists and their masters," it is more important than ever
to be clear about the politics of the term "terrorism." A bit of
contemporary history might help here.
On Dec. 7, 1987, the U.N. General Assembly voted 153-2 (with one
abstention) to approve a resolution that condemned international terrorism.
The two nations rejecting the resolution were the United States and Israel.
The story of those votes tells us much about the power of some states to
label the acts of others as terrorism while avoiding accountability for
their own terrorist acts.
General Assembly Resolution 42/159 concerned "measures to prevent
international terrorism," and was made up mostly of boilerplate phrases
that seem hard to contest: "deploring the continuation of all terrorist
acts," "deeply disturbed by the world-wide persistence of those acts," and
"convinced of the importance of expanding and improving international
The language seems uncontroversial, until one gets to the section that
reaffirms the legitimacy of the national liberation movements of "peoples
under colonial and racist regimes and other forms of alien domination;"
nothing in the resolution should be taken to deny "the right to
self-determination, freedom and independence."
The resolution also urges all states "to contribute to the progressive
elimination of the causes underlying international terrorism and to pay
special attention to all situations, including colonialism, racism and
situations involving mass and flagrant violations of human rights and
Now the no-votes by the United States and Israel, and their positions on
terrorism, become clearer. Both nations oppose terrorism, so long as we
have the definitions straight.
From the U.S./Israeli point of view, violence committed by Israel against
Palestinians is defensive. So, Israel's military occupation of the West
Bank and Gaza, routine use of torture, arbitrary demolition of homes, and
political assassinations are not examples of terrorism, but are simply
necessary for defense. Palestinian violence in resistance, though always at
a far lower level, is terrorism.
Similarly, when Israel occupied Lebanon throughout the 1980s and '90s in
violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the violence of that
occupation was defensive, and Hezbollah's resistance to that occupation was
The question is, of course, what is Israel defending? Its people, or its
program of conquest and expansion?
If we were to take seriously the moral call to end domination by colonial
regimes, certainly Israel's occupation of Palestine would be among the
first to be addressed. Everyone is aware of the complexity of the situation
in Israel/Palestine, but we all should be just as aware that Israel
occupies land conquered in war in violation of international law. That is
There is no doubt that both sides in the conflict have killed, and at times
killed civilians. The 1987 General Assembly resolution deplores any taking
of "innocent human lives," but it also acknowledges that the causes of
terrorism often lie in "misery, frustration, grievance and despair" that
leads people to seek radical change. Such sympathies for the victims of
occupation and repression, and hence the resolution expressing those
sympathies, were unacceptable to Israel and the United States.
So long as the Palestinians accept the narrow limits of what was until
recently called "the peace process," Israel is willing to grant them some
minimal rights, mostly the right to rule over their own impoverishment.
But Palestinians revert to the status of terrorists when they resist the
daily humiliations of checkpoints, closures and random violence against
them, or when they refuse to accept a subordinate status that allows Israel
to retain the best land and the water resources. If Palestinians demand a
state with true sovereignty and self-determination, the condemnations from
Israel begin once again.
If one abandons morality and considers only power, it is easy to see why
Israeli refused to vote to condemn terrorism. It's also easy to see why the
United States followed suit. For decades the United States has invested in
Israel as a strategic partner to help maintain U.S. dominance in the Middle
East. So long as policymakers see value in that strategy, the United States
is unlikely to put serious pressure on Israel to seek not just peace, but a
just peace, in the Middle East.
The likelihood of such pressure for justice for the Palestinians will
increase dramatically, however, if U.S. citizens understand better the
history of the region, realize the complicity of the United States, and
demand that U.S. policy support "the inalienable right to
self-determination and independence of all peoples" that the U.N.
resolution reminds us is the foundation of international law.
Robert Jensen is a professor in the Department of Journalism at the
University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.