At a reunion of fellow veterans in the Irgun underground last summer, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reminisced about the days 50 years ago when they planted bombs in Palestinian markets, shops and movie theaters in retaliation for attacks on Jews.
“We struck vigorously at Arab rioters who murdered Jews on the roads and in the streets. We struck them on the black days of retaliatory operations carried out simultaneously, and with thunderous mines placed in the midst of the murderers,” Shamir said, glossing over the fact that the Irgun victims often were chosen just as randomly as the Jews he said he was avenging.
Since the United States and several European countries started a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization after it renounced terrorism last year, Israeli officials have been lobbying those countries, charging that the PLO always has been and always will be a terrorist organization. But diplomats are arguing back just as strongly, using the long-avoided comparison between Palestinian actions now and Jewish actions then.
British officials, in particular, defending talks with the PLO, have reminded Israel that many of its leaders, including Shamir, were considered terrorists by the British, and even by their own government.
“Just as many of the founding fathers of Israel--including indeed the present prime minister of Israel--were in their time involved in what we at the time described as terrorism, but . . . (made) the move away from the gun and toward the institutions of peace, so they should have confidence that there are people on the Palestinian side who can take the same courageous step,” William Waldegrave, the diplomat in charge of Middle East policy in the British Foreign office, said.
Attacks on Palestinians
Shamir joined the Irgun in 1937 as it began a series of attacks on movie theaters, markets, houses, telephone booths and coffee houses in which hundreds of Palestinians died. In July of that year, a bomb placed by the Irgun in a crowded Arab vegetable market in Haifa killed up to 55 people. Shamir went on to become chief of operations of the Stern Gang, an even more radical splinter group that specialized in attacks on the British.
The Irgun’s bombs were in retaliation for Arab attacks on Jews, including the massacre of 13 men, women and children in Tiberius, which in a vicious circle of violence was itself described by Palestinians as retribution for Jewish attacks during the 1936-1939 Arab uprising against Jewish immigration and British rule in Palestine. In the three years of fighting there were 6,768 casualties, of whom 2,394 were Jews, 610 British and 3,764 Arabs, according to “A History of Israel” by Howard M. Sachar.
The question of what constitutes terrorism was raised again last month when Shamir charged that the PLO had broken its pledge to renounce terrorism by sponsoring a guerrilla attack on Israel. Shamir demanded that the United States stop its dialogue with the PLO after Israeli troops intercepted and killed five Palestinian guerrillas in Israel’s self-proclaimed security zone in southern Lebanon.
Before the PLO renounced terrorism in December to the satisfaction of the United States, the Israeli view that all PLO operations were terrorist in nature had gone largely unchallenged.
But now the United States says it will decide, case by case, whether PLO operations are guerrilla attacks on legitimate targets or are terrorist in nature.
The definition of terrorism often “depends on which side you’re on,” Bruce Hoffman, a specialist on Middle Eastern terrorism at RAND Corp., said in a recent interview.
Both the British and Israeli governments considered Shamir and the Stern Gang terrorists after they assassinated the United Nations mediator in Jerusalem, the Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, shortly after Israel’s independence in 1948, he said. The Stern Gang was infuriated by Bernadotte’s position on Jerusalem, which he said should be an international city, in accordance with U.N. policy.
Whether the foiled PLO attempt to attack Israel last month would have been a terrorist attack depends in part on its target, according to Hoffman and some academic experts here. If it attacked Israeli military units, as its members claimed they intended to do, it would be a guerrilla attack, Hoffman said. If the PLO attacked civilians in settlements on the border, as Israel said it planned and as the PLO has in the past, it would be terrorism, he said.
Israeli soldiers found weapons and bombs on the bodies of the Palestinian guerrillas they killed, and Israeli officials said the clash proved that the PLO still practices terrorism.
Some of the attackers, according to the Jerusalem Post, were wearing military uniforms, another distinguishing characteristic between military actions and terrorist attacks. But Israeli officials maintain that all such cross-border raids are terrorist attacks, regardless of the target.
Israel View on Uprising
Shamir and other Israeli officials also consider the intifada --the Palestinian uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip--to be terrorism, an assertion the United States already has rejected.
And although the State Department said it took the attempted PLO raid seriously and raised the matter with PLO officials in Tunisia, its own recently issued definition of terrorism excludes attacks on military targets.
“Terrorism is premeditated, politically motivated, violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents, usually to influence an audience,” the State Department says in a report on the world’s terrorist groups.
Most of the violence that Shamir and his group were involved in after 1940 was targeted killings of British soldiers or officials in an attempt to persuade the British to leave Palestine, said Hoffman, who is now writing a book on that period. If this was terrorism, it was of a much different sort than the Palestinian bombings of airplanes in more modern times, he said.
But the random killings of Arabs by the Irgun in the late 1930s “wasn’t any different than what the PLO was doing,” he said.