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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 12-23

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Reflections and Reports

Is Terrorism a Useful Term in Understanding the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict?

Joel Beinin

The Middle East is commonly considered a region especially vulnerable to terrorism and the chief exporter of terrorism to other parts of the world. Some have argued that Islam, unlike Christianity or Judaism, has a special propensity to violence against nonbelievers. Moreover, Israel, the United States, and "the West" are often portrayed as the primary victims of terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several of the contributors to his edited volume, Terrorism: How the West Can Win—a text that captures the ethos of the first American "war on terrorism" proclaimed by Ronald Reagan—advance these propositions.

According to the "Jerusalem definition" espoused by Netanyahu, "terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends." 1 While this definition begs the questions of who is innocent and what constitutes innocence in conflictual situations, it is provisionally serviceable if applied to both states and nonstate actors, which Netanyahu does not do. This condition offers the only possibility of rescuing the term terrorism from its predominantly propagandistic usage in current political discourse. In that case, terrorism has been going on in the Middle East throughout the modern era.

Politically motivated violence directed against civilian populations in the Middle East can be classified into eight types. The first consists of atrocities committed [End Page 12] by European states in the course of imperial expeditions. For example, the French conquest of Algeria (1830-47) featured burning civilians alive in caves. 2 The adventures of the Egyptian pasha Mehmed Ali in Sudan and Syria also involved violent excesses against noncombatants. A second type comprises atrocities committed in the course of repressing anticolonial rebellions, such as the French torture of combatants of the National Liberation Front (NLF) during the Algerian war of independence (1954-62) and the British use of poison gas against Iraqi rebels in 1920. 3 A third type consists of riots against European settler populations, such as those against Europeans in Alexandria in 1882, which served as the pretext for a British occupation that lasted until 1956, and the clashes between Arabs and Zionists in Palestine during the period of British colonial rule (1917-48). Organized violence by nationalist politico-military organizations directed at either civilian settlers or civilians in the apparatus of colonial rule, such as the urban terror during the Battle of Algiers (1956-57) and of both Jewish and Arab groups in British-ruled Palestine, constitute a fourth category. A fifth type is composed of counterattacks by colonial settlers, such as the actions of the Algerian Secret Army Organization during the war of independence and attacks on Palestinians by Zionist militias before 1948 and by militant Israeli settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, especially since the 1980s. A sixth type includes acts of states against foreign enemies, such as the bombing campaign in Egypt organized by Israeli military intelligence in 1954, or Israel's hijacking of a Syrian civilian airliner in 1954 in order to obtain hostages to trade for captured spies. A seventh category consists of acts of states against those perceived as internal enemies, such as the mass murder of Ottoman Armenians in 1915-16, Israel's massacre of forty-eight Arab citizens at the village Kafr Qasim on the eve of its attack against Egypt on October 29, 1956, Syria's devastation of Hama in 1982 in response to an Islamic insurgency, Iraq's gassing of its Kurdish citizens at Halabja in 1987, and Turkey's repression of its Kurdish minority during most of the twentieth century. Finally, in the last two or three decades, the United States and European states have been targeted by Arab nationalists or political Islamists opposed to the role of the United States and Europe in the Middle East. In the same period, Islamist radicals have assassinated political figures, civilians, and...


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pp. 12-23
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Archived 2004
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