Terrorism and Nationalism

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

ISRAELI PRIME Minister Ariel Sharon has insisted that his army's offensive in the West Bank has been aimed at uprooting the infrastructure of Palestinian terrorism, in the same way that the United States has used military force to drive al Qaeda from Afghanistan. That seems a worthy goal, and to some a valid comparison -- and yet it doesn't explain why Israeli troops would have raided and deliberately destroyed the civilian ministries of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. At the Ministry of Higher Education, the Israelis stripped all the computers of their hard drives, then piled them together and blew them up. They also destroyed Palestinian television studios, knocked down radio antennas and looted Palestinian banks. Perhaps some of these acts were carried out by undisciplined troops. But the pattern of destruction also suggests a crucial distinction between Israel's campaign and that of the United States. Both invasions are aimed at crushing terrorist organizations that have carried out savage attacks on innocent civilians. But Israel also has another target: the Palestinian national movement, which aims at ending the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and creating a Palestinian state in its place.

The problem with equating Israel's campaign against terrorism with that of the United States, as Mr. Sharon and some of his American supporters do, is that it overlooks this contest for territory and sovereignty underlying the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed. Though it has been contaminated by suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism, the Palestinian national cause and its goals are recognized as legitimate by the Bush administration and the United Nations, and they were tacitly accepted by Israel when it signed the Oslo accords of 1993. Mr. Sharon and most of the rest of his government, however, have never accepted Oslo; on the contrary, they have devoted most of their lives to the dream of permanently establishing Israel's control over most, if not all, of the territories it occupied during the 1967 Six Day War. Few outside of Israel support that plan, but Mr. Sharon and his allies have for decades argued that Israeli occupation and settlement of the Arab lands were necessary to control the Palestinian threat to Israel.

The disastrous decision of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat not to accept a negotiated settlement of Palestinian claims and his subsequent encouragement of a violent uprising against the Israeli occupation have justified an Israeli response. But they have also given Mr. Sharon and other Israeli nationalists the cover to pursue their own unacceptable ambitions. In the name of uprooting terrorism, they have systematically destroyed the institutions and infrastructure of Palestinian self-government. To back the Israeli invasion, as the Bush administration has mostly done, is not just to back the cause of counterterrorism; it is also to abet Mr. Sharon's drive to suppress Palestinian national rights.

The Bush administration's uncompromising opposition to terrorism following Sept. 11 is politically and morally powerful and has yielded impressive results, both in Afghanistan and in many other parts of the world. Nevertheless, if counterterrorism is to remain an effective cause, the administration must discriminate between terrorism and the sometimes legitimate political causes it is used for; and it must also differentiate between legitimate defenses against terrorism and attempts to use counterterrorism to justify unacceptable aims. The Israeli writer Amos Oz has observed that Israel is engaged in two separate campaigns against the Palestinians -- a legitimate war against terrorism and an "unjust and futile" bid for control of the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush administration needs a policy that can tell the difference between the two.

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