When is terrorism justified?

Jul 4, 2024
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When does politically-motivated violence, or terrorism if you prefer the bastardised term, become legitimate resistance to oppression, occupation and savagery?

It’s an unavoidable question because with the exception of pacifists, everyone justifies the use of violence for some political cause – normally because they cast their advocacy as “defensive” and therefore legitimate.

Even if your answer is “never”, do you still remain opposed to:

  • how the resistance targeted the Nazis in occupied Europe
  • what the Irgun did to the British at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem
  • how the FLN expelled the French from Algeria and the Vietnamese defeated the US in Vietnam
  • the attacks mounted by uMkhonto we Sizwe against the apartheid regime in South Africa
  • how Fretilin targeted Indonesian forces in East Timor, etc, etc

In every case, innocent civilians were slaughtered, either inadvertently or deliberately. Your stand is principled, meaning consistently not selectively applied, though you are supporting the status quo which, in many cases, is the maintenance of a cruel and violent oppression.

Interestingly, in almost every one of these cases, history has absolved the perpetrators who were demonised as “terrorists” at the time by their adversaries. This is because their broader political struggle was ultimately victorious and legitimacy was retrospectively conferred. This is always a political judgement, not a moral statement.

If your answer is “sometimes”, all you are displaying is your support for, or opposition to, a specific political outcome. In other words, you believe the cause – whether it be a free and independent Palestine or Kurdistan – to take just two contemporary examples – is just even if you may be troubled by the means employed by militant forces to pursuit it.

But why support one cause here, another there, and oppose others elsewhere? It comes down to an individual’s political convictions. If you ask people whether the Polisario can legitimately use violence to oppose Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara, most would probably shrug their shoulders in ignorance about the conflict. Then they would try to figure out who they think the good and bad guys are. Which side comes closest to supporting my interests or values?

Despite efforts to codify rights and protect civilians in international law, there are no precise rules to follow if the cause, whether it be decolonisation, resistance to occupation, opposition to the permanent imposition of imperial boundaries, or national self-determination, cannot be successfully pursued through negotiation and diplomacy. Politics will trump international law on almost every occasion.

In the case of Hamas, it is possible to understand why the 7 October 2023 attacks took place, providing you have a knowledge of the pre-7 October history, even if you strongly oppose the violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians. Nothing really changed on that day with one exception: the prisoners of Gaza successfully revolted against their captors for a few hours. In response, a genocidal slaughter by Israel, supported and funded by the West, ensued.

If you support the cause but oppose the violence you are obliged to explain what other means were available to those opposing Israel’s occupation of Gaza which had not already been pursued over the years, or violently crushed. Again, you can only reject the violence and terror components of a cause if you consistently oppose it in all other conflicts. Otherwise you are merely cheerleading for your team in their struggle.

Despite its initial sponsorship by successive Israeli governments as an alternative to the “peace threat” posed by the secular PLO, Hamas has been comprehensively stigmatised as a group of fanatical religious extremists who pose an existential threat to the state of Israel. They cannot be reasoned or negotiated with because they do not share the same moral plane as their interlocutors. They must be exterminated.

Although this is a trite and grossly misleading characterisation of a complex organisation which functions in a range of non-violent ways, it is a common method for delegitimising an unwelcome or threatening political cause. It comes from an old, tattered playbook which states regularly drag out to justify their comparative advantage in violence. The pattern is well established, from Indochina to Latin and South America, from northern Africa to Central Asia and across the Middle East.

It is worth pondering the question of how Hamas will be seen in the future if Palestine does become an independent sovereign state. Will they transition from “terrorists” to “freedom fighters” and conventional politicians, following the pathways their “terrorist” predecessors, such as the the ANC and IRA, have followed? I suspect they will, but everything ultimately depends on their political success.

Given by frequency and the scale of human suffering and destruction, state terrorism dwarfs anything carried out by private-retail terrorists, it is important to apply the same test to governments. When is their violence legitimate self-defence, and when is it a pretext for the destruction of another people or deployed to maintain an illegal occupation – for which there is no right to self-defence?

These questions should be posed to our friends and ourselves before we climb the moral high ground to judge our enemies who cannot apparently rise to our lofty ethical standards.

Israel’s slaughter of Palestinian civilians and the political and material backing it has received from the United States, the United Kingdom and other states, has caused irreparable reputational damage to the West.

A yawning gap has grown between political elites in these countries and their populations over support for what the ICJ describes as a plausible genocide. Open hostility to international law, threats made against judges of the ICC, and dismissal of their own ‘rules-based international order’, has undermined the credibility of liberal democracies who like to lecture others about the rule of law. How can they criticise Russia’s attacks on Ukraine whilst absolving Israel of its murderous rampage in Gaza and the West Bank?

States have very few enforceable rights in international law – for example despite claims to the contrary they have no ‘right to exist’ – so the bar should be set at a high level. It is only by convention that they have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Because states have a long record of inflicting death and destruction on innocent humans, and an unmatchable capacity to keep doing so, scrutiny of their actions should always be much greater than that which is applied to sub-state actors.

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