How do you define terrorism

Following the tragic events in Paris last Friday, we look back at an article on terrorism that Mary wrote in 2006.

How do you define terrorism

July 20th, 2006

I once spent five hours being shelled by the Israeli Defence Forces. It was during the mid-1990s and, unlike most of the Lebanese population during the past week, I felt relatively safe. I had the protection of Unifil, the UN peace-keeping force in south Lebanon, and was sheltering in one of the bunkers of the Irish battalion.

What had happened was part of everyday life in south Lebanon, which had been repeatedly invaded and occupied by Israel over the previous decades. I was there to film for RTÉ the impact on the ground of Unifil and the Irish Army. We were due to observe the routine protection given to local farmers tending their crops. Without this, farmers were regularly attacked and killed by either Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) or their surrogates in the region. That morning, the Irish patrol and our film crew were due to meet the farmers at 5:30am. At 5am, the IDF began its attack, extensively bombing a wide area which included our farmers’ fields. While we sat safe in our bunker, people were being killed and maimed during that five hours of indiscriminate shelling of ordinary Lebanese all around us.

The excuse provided by the Israelis was as familiar then as it is now. They had a right to defend themselves against Hizbullah rocket attacks and would do whatever it took to fight for their own security. The concept of disproportionate response was equally familiar. During one six-month period in the 1990s, for instance, the UN recorded over 16,000 artillery, mortar and tank rounds fired by the Israelis in Lebanon, a number of which were targeted directly at villages, killing and mutilating scores of local people. Over the same period, Hizbullah mounted 87 attacks, overwhelmingly against the military target of the Israeli forces. Irish battalion figures showed that, for a similar six-month period in 1995 – neither better nor worse than most during the 1990s – Irish troops, as part of Unifil, came under direct Israeli attack on 61 occasions. This compared with six attacks mounted by Hizbullah against northern Israel during the same period.

The importance of the Irish and UN presence in Lebanon was as much to bear witness to atrocity as to secure any particular military objective. While the UN mandate specified as its aim the withdrawal of the Israeli occupying forces from south Lebanon, everyone knew that this was simply unrealistic. Much as it is now similarly unrealistic to expect the Lebanese army to swoop on Hizbullah and disarm them. Unifil was keenly aware that its main usefulness was in attempting to prevent Israel from enlarging its area of occupation. Through trying to contain Israel, the hope was that the Lebanese civilians might be provided with some degree of safety. The mission was often hopelessly ineffectual, as people continued to be killed and the IDF drove straight through Unifil on a number of occasions. But the mission did represent an important statement by the international community that bullying, aggression, unlawful occupation and the bombing of civilians was wrong. And this is perhaps one of the more disturbing aspects of the current slaughter by Israel of Lebanese people – the unwillingness, perhaps the inability, of that same international community to recognise any more actions that are simply wrong and to condemn them as such. It is, of course, equally wrong that any group, be it Hizbullah of Hamas, should target and kill Israeli citizens. We have no difficulty condemning this in unequivocal and unambiguous terms as terrorism.

But terrorism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted”, a description which neatly sums up Israeli activity in both Lebanon and Gaza. Bombing civilian populations back to the Middle Ages, to a condition where they have no electricity, no water, no sewerage, no fuel, no roads, no vehicles and are running out of food certainly qualifies as an act of state terrorism. Part of the reason why the international community, led by the US, has such difficulty in recognising this was provided by an analysis of Israeli and Jewish power within the US administration. Undertaken by two leading American academics earlier this year, it identified the power and wealth of the Israel lobby at the heart of US politics. The authors, Prof Stephen Walt, dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Prof John Mearsheimer, of the University of Chicago, were roundly attacked for daring to raise such a taboo subject. As with anyone who has the temerity to criticise Israel, they were accused of bigotry and anti-Semitism. For their part, they had pointed to the de facto control by Israel of US public opinion. Media commentary on the Middle East, they contended, was starkly unbalanced in overwhelmingly favouring Israel.

In Europe, we do not have the excuse that the powers that be keep us in ignorance of the atrocious reality of Israel’s activities in Lebanon and Gaza. Each one of us has an obligation to speak out in the face of such palpable wrong.


This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.

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