An Israeli member of parliament (MK) triggered a torrent of criticism from fellow politicians in recent days when he refused to label a Palestinian who had stabbed an Israeli soldier as a terrorist. Palestinians could be expected to violently resist foreign military rule just as armed Zionist organizations did when they rose up against the British Mandate prior to Israeli independence, Zouheir Bahloul, the Zionist Union’s only Arab MK (member of Knesset) said.
“The (Irgun), the Lehi, the Haganah – all of these Jewish organizations went out onto the streets to fight against the British Mandate and its soldiers, to make your state – which has become an incredible state – a reality. Why can't the Palestinians do the same?” Bahloul asked during a cultural event held in the historical city of Acre.
Bahloul’s comments came in the context of a discussion regarding Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, 21, a Palestinian who, along with an accomplice, stabbed a soldier in the contested city of Hebron. Sharif was shot during the attack and then subsequently (several minutes later) shot in the head by another soldier as he lay on the ground bleeding. The second soldier, who remains unidentified due to a gag order, is now facing manslaughter charges. Since al-Sharif's was an attack on a military individual, it did not constitute a terrorist act, the Zionist Union MK argued.
He contrasted that with attacks against civilians, including Jewish civilians living in the West Bank. “Anyone who murders someone, cuts short the life of an innocent person or ambushes a family coming home from work, is a terrorist,” Bahloul later said in an interview with Army Radio.
Criticism of Bahloul's comments has been wide-ranging, including from within Bahloul’s own party.
“The Zionist Union’s position is that a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, and it does not matter if he intended to kill Jews or Arabs,” Isaac Herzog, the party’s chairman and head of the opposition wrote on Facebook.
MK Nava Boker, from the ruling Likud party, asked that the Knesset Ethics committee suspend Bahloul, accusing him of labelling Israeli soldiers as targets and approving the spilling of their blood.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also joined in the condemnation, describing Bahloul’s comments as “shameful.”
“(Israeli) soldiers protect us with their bodies from bloodthirsty murderers, I expect every citizen of Israel, and especially MKs, to give them full support,” Netanyahu said via Facebook.
Yet despite the considerable criticism from Israeli politicians of every hue, no MK has publically disputed Bahloul’s argument that the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi conducted a violent campaign against the British military and that therefore Palestinians could be expected to use similar tactics. Instead, criticism of the Arab MK has focused on his ‘legitimization of terrorism.’
Bahloul’s point that a distinction should be made between attacks on civilians and attacks on military personnel challenges the current status quo whereby any act of violence against the Israeli army or police is automatically condemned as terrorism.
In the past, however, that distinction was made.
“The terrorists choose to attack weak and defenseless civilians: old people, women, etc – essentially anyone, except soldiers…Guerilla fighters are not terrorists. They are irregular soldiers who fight against regular army forces and not civilians,” Binyamin Netanyahu wrote in his 1986 book, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.
This is not to say that Palestinian attackers have not targeted civilians, and at times continue to do so. But during the violence of the past six months, there are signs that some ‘lone-wolf’ attackers have chosen to target Israeli police or army personnel rather than softer targets, most notably in the frequent attacks carried out at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, a well-known hotspot flooded with Israeli security personnel.
But if some Palestinian attackers (and it’s by no means all) discriminate between violence against civilians and military personnel, it is not a distinction being made much of by the Israeli media. Most of the country's leading newspapers and TV presenters describe any Palestinian accused of using violence as a terrorist.
Violence was a tool employed by the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi to reach a political goal. The three organizations shared a similar goal, the creation of a Jewish state, but differed in their approach. More radical than the Haganah, the Irgun, whose members advocated attacking the British Mandate forces, became an independent entity in 1931. The even more radical Lehi (derogatorily referred to as the Stern Gang by the British at the time) in turn separated from the Irgun in 1940. Its members disagreed with the Irgun leadership who wished to pause hostilities against the British while the latter fought Nazi Germany.
“The Haganah was very much a mainstream organization that was not particularly keen on attacking civilian targets, even members of the British civil administration,” Ben Mendales, a researcher with the Moshe Dayan Center, told The Media Line. Evidence for this can be seen in the way the Haganah distanced itself from the other two movements after the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun – an attack which killed 91 people, the majority of whom civilians – Mendales said.
Although the actions of the Irgun and Lehi were more radical, Mendales stopped short of designating them terrorists. “I wouldn’t be comfortable saying they were terrorists because it’s a very politically charged and complex issue… it’s a debate which is still being voiced today,” he explained.
The United Nations (UN), the United States and the British government regarded the Irgun as a terrorist organization. Lehi members even referred to themselves as terrorists, publishing in August 1943, “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes.” The assassination of Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat sent to the region by the UN to mediate between the Arabs and Zionists, and the massacre at Deir Yassin, were seen as two of the more radical actions taken by the Zionists in their struggle for independence.
Yet despite such actions, these organizations were very much accepted into mainstream society in Israel, their commanders even becoming state leaders. Menachem Begin of the Irgun and Yitzhak Shamir of Lehi both became prime ministers of Israel. And here it could be argued that double standards are being applied.
“The British regarded (Yitzhak Shamir) as a terrorist the same way that we claim every Arab who stabs a soldier is a terrorist,” Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, told The Media Line. A desire to conduct military operations without incurring a single casualty is causing Israelis to make “hysterical generalizations,” the historian argued.
“Every Palestinian who tries to attack a civilian or a soldier is an enemy, but there are different kinds of enemies: if he attacks a civilian he is a terrorist; if he attacks soldiers he is an adversary on the battlefield,” Gelber concluded.