Remi Brulin Dissertations

Compartmentalization, contexts of speech and the Israeli origins of the American discourse on " terrorism "

This essay documents how, in the early decades of the Cold War, American presidents barely ever u... more This essay documents how, in the early decades of the Cold War, American presidents barely ever used the concept of “terrorism” and, when using it, referred to a very broad type of acts and actors. The term was essentially absent from the discourse, and undefined. An analysis of United Nations debates, Congressional hearings and mainstream media discussions then illustrates how, throughout the 1970s, “terrorism” remained a fully contested, un-defined concept that countless actors, at the international level and in the United States, understood as encompassing political violence by all kinds of actors and, crucially, by States just as much as groups or individuals. In a context where major geopolitical events such as the decolonization movement and various Cold War conflicts loomed large, determining which forms of political violence were and were not legitimate was, unsurprisingly, a highly contentious process. If “terrorism” was a form of violence aimed at civilian populations in order to achieve political purposes, then, many argued, it was a method used by “national liberation movements” in order to achieve self-determination, but also by the military forces of countless States around the world. Said differently, as late as the mid-1970s there existed many different narratives about the nature of “terrorism” around the world. The term was used to refer to non-state actors, notably pro-Palestinian groups such as Black September, but also to describe countries like Portugal (still holding to its colonies in Africa), South Africa (and its Apartheid regime), Israel (for its practices as an occupying power) or the United States (because of its bombing campaigns in Vietnam). Against this historical backdrop, the analysis turns, finally, to the Reagan years, highlighting the central role played by Israel in shaping the American discourse on “terrorism,” notably through the organizations of the 1979 and 1984 conferences described by Kumar. It illustrates how a very specific, narrow and ideologically driven understanding of “terrorism” came to dominate the American discourse, while other possible narratives about legitimate and illegitimate political violence were discarded, simply disappearing from the public debate. This study then argues that actual Israeli and American rhetorical and political practices in the early 1980s did in fact contradict many of the central tenets of the new discourse. In the real world, both States repeatedly used the term “terrorism” to condemn any and all uses of force by their enemies and not, as the discourse claims, solely to condemn attacks against civilian targets. Meanwhile, specific Israeli practices in Lebanon, and American policies in Central America or Afghanistan, clearly demonstrated a readiness on both countries’ part to give support to actors whose methods did undoubtedly fit their own definition of “terrorism.” In fact, Congressional debates show that, throughout the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans repeatedly failed to agree on a clear definition of “terrorism” whenever they attempted to do so in contexts other than the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. When debating US policies in Nicaragua, in El Salvador or in South Africa, Democrats and Republicans were in complete disagreement as to who the “terrorists” were. Just as importantly, in these contexts they developed arguments about the (il)legitimacy of the use of force by state and non-state actors fundamentally different from, and incompatible with, the positions they defended when talking about “terrorism” in the context of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite its repeated claims to linguistic as well as moral clarity, the discourse on “terrorism” is thus full of contradictions, and inconsistencies. It is, at heart, the result of a deeply political and ideological process of meaning production, one in which specific political actors, from American neoconservative political operatives to Israeli officials to, as will be suggested in conclusion, the mainstream media, played a central role. Since it burst onto the American political scene some 3 decades ago, this discourse’s central aim has been to de-humanize, de-politicize and de-legitimize the “enemy of the day,” while legitimizing any and all uses of political violence against it. It is, in its contemporary expression, a dangerous, a-historical and anti-intellectual discourse, which should be deconstructed and, ultimately, discarded.


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The Israeli discourse on “terrorism” has a long history, one in which Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister, played a central role.

Thirty years ago, at a major conference on “international terrorism” in Washington, D.C., Netanyahu insisted that “without a clear understanding of terrorism, the problem cannot be tackled” and proposed a clear, simple definition: “Terrorism is the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends.”

The discourse draws its normative, rhetorical power from a simple, central claim: what separates “us” from “the terrorists” is a fundamentally different, irreconcilable conception of the value of innocent, civilian life.

However, a historical survey of the years immediately preceding the Washington conference shows that the Israeli discourse never followed such a definition of “terrorism” and was, from the very start, fundamentally ideological.

In the real world, Israel repeatedly accused its enemies of “terrorism” for attacks against civilians but also against military targets; meanwhile, it never used the term to refer to violence against civilians by its allies.

The June 24-27, 1984 conference was organized by the Jonathan Institute, named after Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother, a member of the Israeli Special Forces killed in 1976 during the famous raid at Entebbe.

The participants represented a veritable who’s who of Israeli and American politicians, academics and commentators, making the conference (later published into an extremely successful book by Netanyahu) a landmark event in the history of the Israeli and American discourses on “terrorism.”

The purpose of the Institute, through such conferences (the first took place in Jerusalem in 1979), was to convince the governments of the “free world” that the “battle against terrorism” Israel had been waging for years was in fact “part of a much larger struggle, one between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism.”

“Terrorism” was said to be intimately linked to “totalitarianism” as well as to Islam. Moscow, along with the PLO and its Arab allies, were repeatedly described as the central actors in a veritable “international terrorist network.”

In his introductory comments Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted that the fight against “terrorism” required “moral clarity.” Having presented the definition cited above, he argued that “terrorism” has a “pernicious effect” because it “blurs the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, the central tenet of the laws of war.” This was why “guerillas” and “terrorists” were different: the former waged war on armed combatants while the latter attacked “defenseless civilians.”

In the real world however, Israeli officials used the word “terrorism” in ways fundamentally incompatible with Netanyahu’s claim to “moral clarity.”

By the time the conference took place, Israel had been involved in Lebanon for two years.

Repeatedly, Prime Minister Menachem Begin insisted that the invasion came in response to the “terrorism” of the PLO, and that its main objective was to combat the “terrorist threat” posed by the organization’s presence in Lebanon.

Throughout the conflict, Israeli elected officials used the term “terrorist” incessantly, almost obsessively, to refer to all members of the PLO and, often, to all Palestinians living in besieged Beirut.

The same was true, to a great extent, of the Israeli media. As Robert Fisk notes in “Pity the Nation,” the Jerusalem Post changed all AP reports from Beirut and modified every reference to “guerrilla” into “terrorists” until the AP “told the paper’s editor to stop.”

And so, when a pick-up truck crammed with explosives smashed into the headquarters of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in Tyre on November 4 1983, Israel immediately denounced it as an act of “terrorism” and, in response, bombed Syrian and Palestinian targets.

John Hughes, spokesman for the US State Department, called the Israeli bombings “understandable wrath” and condemned “the tragic bombing by terrorists of the Israeli army building in Tyre.”

At least one Israeli journalist took issue with his government’s discourse at the time. On November 13, Michael Elkins wrote in the Jerusalem Post that “by the criteria we ourselves have demanded […] what happened in Tyre may not be dismissed as terrorism, but was instead a guerrilla action.” Such a distinction was important because “by calling the action in Tyre ‘terrorist,’ we are demonstrating yet again our stubborn and increasingly pervasive refusal to see any slightest core of legitimacy in the Palestinian and Arab side of the conflict between us.”

In practice, Israel’s definition of “terrorism” was much broader than Netanyahu’s. It was also much narrower, since Israeli officials never applied the term to violence against civilians coming from their allies.

Around 6 pm on September 16, 1982, the Phalangists, a Christian militia, entered the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. A day and a half later, they had massacred hundreds of men, women and children.

If “terrorism” is “the deliberate, systematic murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear in order to gain political ends,” then surely these men were “terrorists.”

On February 9, 1983, the Kahan Commission of Inquiry issued its report, famously concluding that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for what happened in the camps.

The word “terrorist” appears 45 times. At first, it is preceded by the qualifier “Palestinian.” Then, in the expression “the terrorists,” it is repeated over and over again.

Commission members appear to have worked from two clear, and related, assumptions. First: “terrorist” is the obvious, appropriate terminology to refer to anyone related to the PLO, Israel’s enemy in Lebanon. Second, and just as obviously: the word cannot refer to Israel’s allies, even when they massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians.

In fact, Israeli officials and the Commission itself saw the Phalangists as valued allies in the fight against “the terrorists.”

Thus, Brigadier General Yaron explained that, upon learning that the Israeli forces had sent the Phalangists into the camps, he was “pleased because it was clear to him that this camp contained many terrorists.”

The Commission agreed. Israel had wanted to “take advantage of the Phalangists’ professional service and their skills in identifying terrorists and in discovering arms caches.” They were, after all, “more expert than the I.D.F. in uncovering and identifying terrorists.”

This remained the Commission’s analysis even though the report cites a Phalangist who, asked about the killing of civilians, had explained: “The pregnant women will give birth to terrorists and children will grow up to be terrorists.”

At the Washington conference, Netanyahu did not refer to the Christian militias allied with Israel as “terrorists.” And yet, he illustrated his claim that the decision to harm civilians was “where the terrorist parts company with humanity” as follows: “A baby is fair game; he may, after all, grow up a soldier. So is the baby’s mother; she gave birth to this future soldier.”

The discourse on “terrorism” draws its rhetorical power from its claim to stand for a clear, principled opposition to all political violence against innocent, civilian life.

In the real world however, Israel’s discursive practices have repeatedly, in fact systematically, contradicted this claim. They have never reflected the definition of “terrorism” put forward by Netanyahu some 30 years ago.

The Israeli discourse, far from being driven by “moral clarity,” has been fundamentally ideological. It has been the discourse of de-legitimization, and of de-humanization.

From Lebanon to Gaza, it has all too often been used to rationalize and justify precisely the kind of political violence against civilian life that it claims to abhor. As historian Avi Shlaim rightly argues: “A new narrative is urgently needed, one based on the real facts of this tragic conflict, international law, and human decency.”

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