I realize I’ll get in trouble for writing this. I hope you can love me even when God puts it on my heart to advocate for people whose existence has been delegitimized with the label of “terrorism.” And I hope you understand that my advocacy does not connote moral approval of very evil things that have been done and are being done. I used to be a youth pastor to kids who society had written off on account of their being “gang-bangers” and “illegal aliens,” and I discovered they were beautiful children of God who needed someone to tell them that. Jesus’ ministry was defined by associating with people whose existence had been delegitimized with a label, whether it was “sinner” or “tax collector” or “prostitute.” Thus it seems like not an inappropriate emulation of Christ to try to understand and even defend the human dignity of “terrorists” in Gaza whether they’re labeled that way because of their own sinful deeds or because they share the same ethnicity, neighborhood, or even household with people who have engaged in acts of violence that create terror.
There are two ways of defining terrorism that I can think of: 1) to intentionally kill civilians, 2) to terrorize a population of people through violence as a means of accomplishing political objectives. Suicide bombers do both. They not only kill civilians but they also create a culture of terror for the surrounding population. But what about fighter pilots? Can they be called terrorists if their bombs kill civilians and terrorize a population? Could it be that the primary difference between suicide bombers and fighter pilots is the technological capability to pinpoint a precise military target?
I realize that these questions are taboo and offensive. But here’s what needs to be named. We often don’t define terrorism according to the two ways I described above, but according to whether a group of people has the technological resources, nation-state affiliation, and organization to be considered an “official” military. If a paramilitary group plants a roadside bomb that blows up a military vehicle filled with people who are on a mission to kill members of that paramilitary group, is that terrorism or self-defense?
We tend to say it’s terrorism, because we know soldiers who have been killed and wounded by IED’s whereas we don’t have any first-hand exposure to those who are killed by the bombs that we drop from our planes, which makes the bombs seem “clean” in a way that the IED’s are “dirty.” But if our definition of terrorism is strictly killing civilians and terrorizing a population as a political strategy, then we can’t say that IED’s which target military are terrorism, as nasty as they are.
When the British fought in the revolutionary war, they marched in straight lines across the battlefield while the colonists hid in trees and picked them off. If the word terrorism had existed in the 1770’s, the British would certainly label guerrilla warfare tactics as terrorism, saying why don’t you come out in the field and face us like gentlemen? When you have an armed conflict between two radically mismatched sides, the side that has the technological disadvantage cannot engage in conventional warfare tactics or they would get decimated very quickly. If Hamas lined up in a field with all their weapons across from Israel’s military with all their weapons, Israel would win in six seconds rather than six days. Hamas doesn’t have the intel or the technology to engage in surgical strikes against Israeli airfields even if they wanted to. All they can do to retaliate if Israel assassinates their leaders is launch rockets which cannot be aimed with any precision.
This is not to say anything about Hamas’ moral culpability in either suicide bombings or rocket attacks, but merely to point out that we often conflate technological superiority with moral superiority. If you have the capability to engage in “surgical” strikes, then you don’t have to worry about killing civilians because you can say it was an “accident.” This is precisely what Israeli prime minister Netanyahu does rhetorically in the following quote: “The moment we draw symmetry between the victims of terror and the unintended casualties that result from legitimate military action against the terrorists, the minute that false symmetry is drawn, the terrorists win.”
Netanyahu’s quote makes Palestinian civilian life less valuable than Israeli civilian life because Israel can show that their technology makes their bombings “legitimate military action.” No matter how many civilians die, they can always be labeled “unintended casualties” or “human shields,” not because any assessment of “intent” has occurred but because the Israeli military spokesperson can point to the technological precision of their weapons. But the question of whether the Israeli military has engaged in terrorism needs to be answered according to our two definitions. Have they intentionally targeted civilians or used violence deliberately as a means of terrorizing Palestinian civilians to put pressure on Hamas?
One of the greatest sources of Palestinian casualties has been the deliberate Israeli targeting of households in which a member of Hamas allegedly lives. In Arab culture, many households include large extended families. The Israeli military says that it calls the house or drops leaflets ahead of time to warn people that it’s about to bombed. Whether this lets them off the hook for deliberately targeting residences where civilians live can be determined by answering the following question: if Hamas had the technological and intelligence capability to only launch rockets at the houses of Israeli military engaged in operations against Hamas in Gaza, then would it be “legitimate military action” and not “terrorism” as long as they robocalled the homes in advance? If you can’t answer yes to that question, then you have to concede that killing the families of Hamas members is indeed terrorism.
The question of whether Israel is deliberately creating an environment of terror in Gaza for the sake of political pressure can be answered by looking at what buildings are targeted and how Israeli officials describe their objectives. Israeli ministers have referred to their operation into Gaza as “cutting the grass,” meaning that Hamas cannot be eliminated without the genocide of 1.5 million people (which would be “uprooting the grass”), but their power can be suppressed and cut back periodically. Judging by Israel’s choice of targets which have included government buildings, media facilities, hospitals, and schools, it seems that “cutting the grass” means causing enough general infrastructural damage to Gaza that Hamas will change their cost-benefit analysis.
The other thing that Israel has been doing to Gaza is to enforce a blockade of goods entering and leaving Gaza that was established in 2007 in response to Hamas winning the democratic elections in Palestine. Supposedly, this blockade exists to prevent weapons from entering Gaza, but the banned items include food items like pasta, lentils, and tomato paste, musical instruments, and notebooks. According to an Israeli official, the objective of the blockade has been to put Gazan residents “on a diet.” An Israeli human rights organization discovered that government officials were calculating the minimal calorie intake needed to keep Gaza’s people just above mass starvation in deciding upon the food restrictions for the blockade. The other aspect of the blockade is that Gazan companies are not allowed to export their goods, which has nothing to do with whether weapons enter the country or not, but attempts to pressure Hamas through destroying the Gazan economy and creating massively high unemployment. This is an extraordinarily imbecilic strategy by the way: who do you think unemployed 20 year olds in Gaza are going to ask for work?
Is it terrorism to deliberately impoverish a group of people to punish them for their electoral choices? What if kids in Gaza die as a result of malnourishment even if they’re not literally starving to death but are more vulnerable to diseases like dysentery? Is that different than killing them with rockets or suicide bombs? Based on how Israeli officials describe the objectives of the blockade and military action as putting Gaza on a diet and cutting the grass, I think it’s fair to say that their goal is to create an environment of desperation and terror among Gazan civilians in order to put pressure on Hamas.
If we strictly follow the two definitions of terrorism that I started out with, instead of allowing ourselves to moralize technological, then Israel is committing terrorism against Gaza in both senses. If the US government were not wrapped around Benjamin Netanyahu’s pinky finger, then Israel would be a pariah state. The only reason our allies defend Israel’s actions is because of the US’s ferocious advocacy. Does this justify Hamas’s rockets? By no means! But it’s clear that the blockade of Gaza has done nothing to stop Hamas from acquiring weapons, so it’s ludicrous to argue that the blockade serves any purpose other than to terrorize the local population which is not only evil but terrible strategy since it pushes people into terrorism who would otherwise be invested in having a peaceful, stable society. So it’s time for Israel to drop the blockade and stop targeting Hamas’ members’ families and destroying Gazan buildings for the purpose of doing infrastructural damage. Otherwise, they need to go on the same list with Iran.