In 1995, Victor LeVine of Washington University in St. Louis penned an article in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence on the "logomachy" of terrorism.1 A logomachy is a "dispute about or concerning words", and no word has sparked more dispute in recent years than "terrorism". The definitional debate has only increased in the years after the September 11, 2001 attacks, as the field of terrorism studies has grown. Yet, an unanimously agreed-upon, meaningful, and universal definition of the act remains elusive.
One element of this debate derives from the question of whether it is important to classify terror as coming from above or below.2 This traces back to a theory articulated in 1964 by Thomas Perry Thornton, which states that one must distinguish between enforcement terror (launched by those in power) and agitational terror (carried out by those who aspire to power).3
The logomachy continues in academia, in the U.S. government, and in capitals around the world. Yet, nowhere is the debate over enforcement terror and agitational terror more pronounced than in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Israeli definition of terrorism, perhaps not surprisingly, clashes with that of the terrorist organization Hamas, but also the more pragmatic Palestinian Authority. The United States definition tracks with that of Israel, which has tipped the balance in Israel's favor. However, the debate is far from settled.
ISRAEL'S DEFINITION OF TERRORISM
Israel, a country founded in 1948 against the objection of the entire Arab world, has suffered from terrorist attacks since its founding. For more than 70 years, the Israelis have had to endure this challenge and have adapted to [End Page 52] the problem on a military and even societal level. Children from a young age are sensitized to suspicious packages, the location of the nearest bomb shelter, and emergency procedures in the event of a terrorist attack. The Jewish state conscripts every able-bodied man and woman into the Israel Defense Force, which over the years has evolved to fight terrorism as much as traditional military threats. As my colleague Clifford May, the president and founder of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, often says, Israel is the best place to study the problem of terrorism. "If you want to study tornadoes, go to Kansas. If you want to study tropical diseases, go to Central Africa. If you want to study terrorism, go to Israel."
After years of fending off Palestinian terrorist attacks, both at home and abroad, the Israelis have pioneered new methods to counter terrorism, from advanced drone and urban warfare strategies to high-tech anti-rocket and anti-commando tunnel solutions. The Israelis have even included cyber in their arsenal of counter-terrorism tools. Yet, the Israeli definition of terrorism lacks a similar cutting edge.
Israeli law is cumbersome in this regard. It defines a "terrorist action" as an action: driven by a political, religious, or ideological motive; carried out with the goal of instilling in the public fear or anxiety, or of forcing the Israeli government or another government from taking certain actions; or an actual act or a real threat to inflict severe harm. Harm is defined as impact on: a person's body or liberty; public security or health; property, including religious sites, burial places, and religious paraphernalia; or infrastructure, public systems, or essential services, or the state economy or environment.4
Israeli law allows the Minister of Defense to declare an association as a "terrorist organization" if it is: perpetrating or intentionally promoting the perpetration of terrorist acts; conducting training or providing guidance for executing terrorist acts; engaging in a transaction involving a weapon with the goal of perpetrating terrorist acts; or assisting or acting with the goal of advancing the activities of such a group.5
Thus, Israel has adopted a definition of terrorism that targets agitational terrorism. This is no surprise, given the terrorist threats that it faces. Its challenge, apart from combating terrorism, is fighting those in the public domain who seek to legitimize the terrorist groups that attack the Jewish state. The definition of terrorism in this context is often another...