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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.2 (2004) 47-57

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Violence as Strategy:

The Palestinian Case

In the context of political or military competition between states or organized groups of people, strategy is ordinarily defined as the science and art of utilizing available assets to achieve the state's or group's objectives. Strategy identifies objectives, locates and quantifies the resources (military, economic, or political) that a state or group can utilize, and provides guidelines as to how those resources will actually be used.

There are several ways in which a strategy can be evaluated. Arguably, the most important is in terms of its effectiveness: whether it achieves its objectives or not. A strategy can also be evaluated in terms of its efficiency, that is to say, the costs it entails for the state or group in terms of casualties, economic damage, and destruction of public infrastructure. An inefficient strategy would be one that costs too much relative to the benefit that the state or group gains from having achieved its objectives. Neither approach, of course, makes value judgments about the appropriateness of the objectives themselves or about the morality of the tactics engendered by the strategy. For the purposes of evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the strategy of violence that the Palestinian movement has pursued against Israel, I assume in this essay that the violence is morally neutral and that the Palestinian objectives are both reasonable and appropriate.

There are at least two major obstacles to objectively evaluating Palestinian strategy qua strategy. One is that the strategy is, in some respects, implicit and must be inferred. There often have been differences between the public statements of Palestinian leaders and the actions that Palestinian activists have taken on the ground. For example, in recent years senior [End Page 47] Palestinian officials have publicly advocated nonviolence, even as extremist members of the movement attacked Israeli targets and provoked Israeli retaliation. In this essay I assume that regardless of what the movement's intended strategy may be, its actual strategy involves violence against noncombatant, civilian targets in Israel and in territory occupied or administered by Israel. This is the strategy that is being executed in the streets of the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel itself.

Despite the implicit nature of the strategy, there does appear to be a rough consensus that the primary Palestinian objectives are

  1. an independent homeland that is recognized as an independent state,
  2. satisfaction of the claims of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were driven from their homes during the 1948 and 1967 wars, and
  3. a general improvement in personal security and economic opportunity for the Palestinian people.

Although some extremist organizations may have more ambitious objectives (e.g., the establishment of a homeland that incorporates the entire territory of Israel proper), these three objectives are consistent with the public positions taken by most Palestinian representatives and are reasonable mileposts against which the success or failure of the strategy may be measured.

The second obstacle in objectively evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of the Palestinian strategy is the nature of the violence that the strategy generates, i.e., deliberate violence against "innocent" citizens. Such violence is, of course, ordinarily considered a crime, and it is often considered terrorism. The heinous nature of many of the violent acts that have occurred in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza makes it difficult to evaluate their effects independently of their morality.

Terrorism is defined generally as violence that creates fear among the general public in order to achieve a political purpose. In the context of the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians, the political purpose would be to secure the three Palestinian objectives (or more ambitious objectives). Because of the strong differences of opinion among its member states about the nature of the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the United Nations has been unable to formulate an internationally accepted definition of terrorism. The issue is ultimately whether the definition should or should [End Page 48] not include certain acts of violence perpetrated by Palestinian extremists. Many UN members believe that Palestinian violence...


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