When terrorism lets Netanyahu off the hook

These are particularly dark days in Israel and the Occupied Territories. First there was Thursday night’s deadly stabbing at Jerusalem’s annual Pride parade, perpetrated by a man just released from prison for committing the same crime a decade earlier. Then, on Friday we woke to the unspeakable news that an 18-month-old child had burned to death in his bed. That his parents and brother were now in hospital with severe burns, fighting for their lives. On Monday, the cycle of violence continued with a firebomb thrown at an Israeli car in Beit Hanina.

In the first two incidents, the attackers were Jews with a hateful ideology, and Israelis had no one to blame but themselves. Politicians from across the spectrum rushed to make public condemnations. Something that united statements on the arson in the West Bank village of Douma was that the word terrorism was used to describe it. In his first statement on Ali Saad Dawabshe’s death, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it as “a reprehensible and horrific act of terrorism in every respect.” The Israel Defense Forces also quickly described it as terrorism.

“Terror,””terrorism” and “terrorist” are loaded terms. Their nuance and definitions change depending on user and context (see this great The Guardian piece on how vague the definitions are). They are so loaded that they are judgment calls of sorts. In Israel certainly, “terror” and its derivatives are part of an “us and them” rhetoric. We, the good, rational guys, who only use violence when we really have to, who always try to minimize harm to civilians, and them, they are the bad guys, the terrorists. The guys you can’t negotiate or reason with.

Netanyahu’s use of the term was by no means automatic, and it was highly significant. In Israeli reporting of violence between Jews and Arabs, Arab perpetrators are more often than not labeled terrorists, while Jews, less so. The label has practical implications for the perpetrators. It affects the kind of sentence they might face and the use of administrative detention against them. In the case of Palestinians labelled terrorists, Israeli security forces are given legitimacy to shoot, and often to kill, to stop them. Their family homes can also be destroyed as punishment under a law dating back to the British Mandate.

In the case of the horror in Douma, the “terrorism” label is important because the attack should be treated as terrorism, which – we can probably agree – can be loosely defined as an organized attempt to use violence against civilians for political ends.

But declaring the act terrorism also gives Netanyahu a way to distance himself from something he bears direct responsibility for. And it gives him the veneer of taking responsibility, when anything he does now is already too little, too late. The same goes for Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He stood on the roof of an illegally constructed building in Beit El one week, and was condemning Jewish terrorism the next.

Netanyahu was probably truly horrified by the murder of little Ali Saad Dawabshe, and his use of the term “terrorism” seems sincere. But during his six years as PM, he has done close to nothing to reign in the growing danger of violent Jewish extremism among the settler fringes. Churches and mosques have been torched, and, as reported in Haaretz, there have been a number of attempts to set Palestinian homes on fire with the intent of killing inhabitants. A manifesto has surfaced for an extremist ideology that justifies using violence to tear down the state and establish another where Jewish law is king.

For Netanyahu, who cares about his own backside and his voters in the settlements, the terrorism label, in a way, helps him shirk responsibility. After all, terrorism is monstrous. Ergo terrorists are monsters. Ergo, this is out of his and the whole defence establishment’s hands. But as many people have written in these dark days, all Israelis bear responsibility for this. For the violence of Jewish extremists, for the increased strength of the extreme right in the political mainstream, and for the violence of the occupation. The Douma arson was, after all, a symptom of that monstrosity.

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