The slaughter of four worshippers at a Har Nof synagogue in Jerusalem, November 18, by two Palestinian terrorists – with an Israeli policeman subsequently killed in the shoot-out with the terrorists – was a shocking act of inhumanity.
I have cousins who live in the primarily Orthodox neighbourhood and have visited it often. I have heard Yiddish spoken on the balconies and watched children playing in the stairwells of the multi-story apartment buildings nestled into the Jerusalem hills. I have celebrated Purim there dressed as Luke Skywalker and eaten matzo there at midnight during a Passover seder. Today, my heart breaks for the blood-drenched area.
In addition to sadness and outrage, there are at least two main issues to consider when thinking about terrorism, which we can define as violence targeting non-combatants for political ends. First is the ethics. While I have read at least one scholarly essay defending terrorism as ethical under certain circumstances, my understanding of what is just and unjust when it comes to political violence dictates that terrorism is distinctly unethical. Civilians should never be targeted. Neither should uniformed soldiers who are not in a combat role.
The second issue is strategic: does terrorism work? On this question, political scientist Robert Pape’s research has been widely cited. Using a large database of suicide campaigns, Pape concludes that suicide terrorism is effective in achieving the group’s goals in a majority of cases. And, while subsequent studies have cast doubt on the overall effectiveness of terrorism, Pape’s article, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (American Political Science Review, August 2003),” has some fascinating things to say about how the Israeli leadership responded to Palestinian terrorism in the mid-1990s.
Consider this quote, from then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, on April 13, 1994:
“I can’t recall in the past any suicidal terror acts by the PLO. We have seen by now at least six acts of this type by Hamas and Islamic Jihad … The only response to them and to the enemies of peace on the part of Israel is to accelerate the negotiations.”
And, in 1995, an interviewer asked Rabin, “What is the logic of withdrawing from towns and villages, when you know that terror might continue to strike at us from there?”
Rabin’s answer: “What is the alternative, to have double the amount of terror? … Some 119 Israelis … have been killed or murdered since January 1, 1994 – 77 of them in suicide bombings perpetrated by Islamic radical fanatics… All the bombers were Palestinians who came from areas under our control.”
It’s difficult to imagine Benjamin Netanyahu, today’s Israeli prime minister, conveying a similar sentiment. In the wake of the Har Nof attack, Netanyahu drew a straight line between the murders and both Hamas and the PA: “The human animals who perpetrated this slaughter were full of hatred and incitement … Hamas, the Islamic Movement and the Palestinian Authority are disseminating countless lies and falsehoods against the State of Israel.”
Meanwhile, the Shin Bet chief contradicted the prime minister’s claim that Abbas is involved in incitement.
“Abbas is not interested in terror and is not inciting to terror. He’s not even doing so behind closed doors,” Ynet News reported Yoram Cohen telling a Knesset committee.
And while it’s difficult to know on whom to pin the attack (relatives of the attackers claim they were not part of any organization, while Hamas praised it), this kind of situation suggests a strategic crossroads. There is an opportunity to take the path that Rabin tried to take when he differentiated Hamas from the PLO: try to show the public that these are lone-wolf attackers, not backed by the Palestinian Authority. But there is also a temptation: for those who believe there is no partner for peace, and that the Palestinians are at base full of hate and nothing more, this heinous act will only confirm their world view.
One last point: observers will note that, after the withdrawals that Rabin initiated, terrorism did not cease. Neither did Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza lead to peace. It’s important to remember, though, that those initial withdrawals have not led to a peace treaty. The two treaties that Israel has signed – with Egypt and Jordan – have both held. Israel still controls the overall security situation in the West Bank, and re-enters evacuated towns at will. In Gaza, Israel still controls land, air, and sea access, as well as the population registry. It’s unlikely that political violence will end until the Palestinians achieve sovereignty. Still, in today’s climate, the Jerusalem bloodshed will likely only serve to harden hearts further.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.