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Nothing in the Middle East is black and white

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” — this hoary old cliché is pulled out again and again to defend and justify the actions of terrorists.

So are the bogus self-serving parallels: “By the standards we are using to condemn Hamas, even Bhagat Singh would be called a terrorist.”


Some of this nonsense emerges from genuine confusion — the term ‘terrorist’ has been so misused in recent years that many people are no longer sure what exactly it means. But often, people who support murder and mayhem seek to deliberately muddy the waters and muddle the issue so that terrorists may escape moral condemnation.


   This has become clearer and clearer in the ongoing conflict in Israel and Gaza. There is no doubt that what Hamas did on 7 October was an act of terror. It is also true that Israel’s disproportionate response is akin to a war crime. But because so many of us want to take sides, we are either content to call Hamas terrorists and ignore what Israel has done or to defend Hamas and condemn Israel.


   Let’s first get our terms right. A terrorist act is not that hard to define. It is the deliberate use of violence for political ends by attacking civilians or civilian institutions. The 9/11 attacks were terrorism; so was 26/11. And so was the attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas in which hundreds died and many others were taken hostage.


   Two qualifications: This is a narrow and tight definition. If Hamas had attacked, say, a military camp or an army fuel depot, we would not necessarily call it terrorism. The same is true for assassinations. If a military or government figure is targeted, this may or may not be worthy of moral judgements, but it is not terrorism. Lee Harvey Oswald was not a terrorist when he killed John F Kennedy. Neither was Bhagat Singh when he killed a British police officer.


   Essential to the definition of terrorism is an attack on civilians or civilian targets. There is a difference between bombing a military camp and bombing a children’s school. A group that attacks a military camp may have the right to call themselves freedom fighters. A group that attacks residential houses or guests in hotels (as the Pakistani gunmen did on 26/11 in Mumbai) are terrorists.


   So, it is not a complicated distinction to make; and you can see why those who want to whitewash Hamas’s actions are eager to muddy the waters.


   It is also worth remembering that the way to define terrorism is by looking at the actions themselves, not at the individuals or groups. You judge terrorism by events: The bombing of Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester in 2017 was terrorism however you look at it. So was the bombing of the Kanishka aircraft in 1985. And so were the Malegaon blasts in 2006.


   The people who commit such actions are terrorists, even if some people have sympathy with their causes.


   Which leaves us with the second question: What are we to make of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack?


 "Our restrained response to 26/11 is a parallel that I used in these columns when the Israel-Hamas conflict began."

   I don’t think that there is any doubt that the response has been morally reprehensible and totally disproportionate due to the number of innocent civilians who are being killed in the strikes.


   You could even make a case for saying Israel’s actions amount to war crimes. Again, nobody wants to define a war crime too closely, so that nations can go about doing whatever they want.


   Fortunately, a definition already exists. During the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, they used a definition that included “murder, ill-treatment, or deportation to slave labour of civilian populations or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment, killing of hostages, plunder of property and wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages. Or devastation not justified by military necessity.”


   Some of this applies to the Israeli response. There has been “wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages and devastation”.  The key phrase in the definition is, of course, “not justified by military necessity”. Ironically even as the Allies were conducting the Nuremberg trials, they were unwilling to discuss whether the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituted “wanton destruction of cities”. Later, during the Vietnam War, the US bombed civilian targets in Vietnam and Cambodia in an apparent breach of the Nuremberg consensus.


   My guess is that Israel will claim that the deaths of Palestinian civilians were just collateral damage in a military operation.


   This is not convincing. The killing of thousands of innocents is hardly “a military necessity”.


   I can understand why Israel acted as it did. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply unpopular and his government’s failure to protect Israelis from the terrorist attacks hits at the root of his claim to be ‘Mr Security’. He hoped to win back some public support by showing that Israel was retaliating aggressively.


   But to kill innocent Palestinians as a response to terrorism is morally indefensible. Even Israel’s friends and allies have called the attacks disproportionate and vindictive, targeting civilians only because Israel is frustrated by its inability to predict or prevent the terror attacks and by the elusive nature of Hamas, its real enemy.


   And yet, such is the polarised and unbalanced nature of the world that countries that are either part of the West or are closely aligned to it can get away with bombing civilians. And so confused is the morality of so many of us in the so-called Global South  that terror groups like Hamas who commit unspeakable horrors are given a free pass and described as “freedom fighters”.


   Our restrained response to 26/11 is a parallel that I used in these columns when the Israel-Hamas conflict began. I doubt if much of the world remembers it. A few days ago, Thomas Friedman, writing in The New York Times, finally brought it up when he praised former PM Manmohan Singh for not giving in to public hysteria and resisting the temptation to launch retaliatory attacks on Pakistan. The PM knew that these would be counter-productive and that there was a risk of harming civilians. And proportionality has continued to be the key to India’s responses to terrorism. After the 2019 Pulwama massacre, India attacked only the headquarters of the terrorist group behind the attack. And we stopped at this before it escalated into a bloody conflict.


   So let’s accept that “freedom fighters” may use terrorism to achieve their ends. But the moment they do that, they become terrorists first and freedom fighters second. And let’s also accept that no matter how terrible the terror attacks, once a state responds by bombing innocent civilians, we are in morally indefensible territory.


   Nothing in the Middle East is black and white. No side is completely in the right. And both Israel and Hamas have committed wrongs. So let’s judge them on their actions, not where our loyalties lie. And if your loyalties are with Hamas, then I guess there is no basis for any kind of rational or logical discussion anyway.




  • Rao 04 Nov 2023

    Instead of reading popular media in the US, I heard Fareed Zakaria & Scott Galloway from NYU talk about the conflict & the repeated attempts to resolve the issue with a 2 state solution. I completely agree with both Fareed & Scott... there needs to be differentiation between the Palestinian Leadership in Gaza & the West Bank and the everyday Palestinian & Israeli people. The leadership has totally led them down. Arafat & Abbas walked away from the 2 deals that were offered. Less is on offer now.

Posted On: 02 Nov 2023 12:00 PM
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