Palestinian mourners attend the funeral of four fighters in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 13 March 2008, after undercover Israeli commandos drove into the city the previous evening and assassinated the four. (Luay Sababa/MaanImages)
Few other words shut down critical thought as completely as the word “terrorist.” Few other labels are so morally loaded, so totalizing, so antithetical to reasoned, measured debate. Almost no other term evokes such facile, muddled thinking.
Thus, when a local leader of Islamic Jihad and three other Palestinian “terrorists” were killed by Israeli special forces in Bethlehem on Wednesday night, 12 March, few outside of Palestine will mourn their deaths.
In the eyes of many in Israel, Europe and North America, another menace has been eliminated. Mohammad Shehadah, Issa Marzouq, Imad al-Kamel, and Ahmad Balboul will likely be remembered as murderous scum.
In Palestine, however, and in Bethlehem in particular, these men, and the event of their deaths, will be remembered differently.
I had just sat down at a restaurant down the street from my Bethlehem office when the shooting took place. My phone began to ring; friends, some with voices trembling, calling in the news. They described shattered glass, a pool of blood in the street, and a car that appeared to have been “showered with bullets.” After scribbling notes on a napkin, I dropped the menu and rushed backed to my office. Grown men were shouting, on the edge of weeping, while I frenziedly typed.
Bethlehem was eerily deserted the following Thursday and Friday, the result of a general strike called in honor of the dead. The faded green doors of the shops were shuttered. Earlier on Thursday, tens of thousands had stood shoulder to shoulder in Manger Square, under the midday sun, for the funeral.
The assassinations had resulted in a moment of terror, and then sadness. Shehadah and his comrades had visited my office hours before they were killed. Their cousins are my coworkers. After speaking to those who knew them, my impression is that they were decent people, activists who, their tactics aside, took extraordinary risks to fight for the ideal of freedom.
Three of the men were members of Islamic Jihad, and one, Ahmad Balboul, was an activist with the armed wing of Fatah, the al-Aqsa Brigades.
No “civilians” were killed, making the attack, by some accounts, a pinpoint assassination. Indeed, if all four were members of “terrorist” organizations, what is so bad about their deaths?
First, there are the circumstances of the attack. These men were fighters, but they were not in a combat situation at the time. They were sitting in a car, waiting for their dinner. The Israeli special forces drove up, disguised as Palestinian civilians, and opened fire without warning.
They did not even have the chance to move. Their bullet-ridden bodies were still sitting upright when passersby pulled them from the car.
It was the moral equivalent of a team of Palestinians, disguised as Israelis, driving an Israeli car into Tel Aviv and gunning down four off-duty Israeli soldiers.
But even straightforward statements of equivalence such as this have limitations. While a Palestinian attempting such an attack in Israel would surely face death, the Israeli commandos were ferried safely out of Bethlehem by their military forces. Israel, with its powerful conventional army, is still occupying Palestinian land. Palestinians have splintered, ragtag bands of armed men defending their territory.
One could argue that with acts of “terrorism,” there is no clearly defined battlefield, and that Israel’s only choice is to assassinate Palestinian fighters whenever it has the chance.
This argument, however, is weak, and is predicated on a lack of respect for the rule of law. If there is a criminal case against a group of terrorists, they ought to be arrested and tried, not murdered in the street. At best, the killings were an act of extrajudicial assassination, illegal under Article Three of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Then there is the political context. Israel chose to kill these four men at the precise moment when the violence was beginning to ease. Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, judging by the information that has leaked out of the meetings, were on the verge of reaching a ceasefire. The rocket attacks from Gaza had all but stopped. Hours before the assassination, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh had once again extended his offer for a truce.
Israel responded, apparently deciding to speak with bullets.
By striking deep in the territory supposedly ruled by the Palestinian Authority, the assassination was yet another reminder that Palestinian self-rule is an illusion. More importantly, for Palestinians, the attack resulted in a moral sense of violation, of one’s home being invaded, one’s family murdered.
Aside from the moral and political ramifications of assassination, there is the effect that Wednesday night’s attack had outside of all ethical calculus.
The attack had the same effect in Bethlehem that “acts of terrorism” have in Israel, indeed in any country. At the moment that undercover Israeli forces opened fire in a busy street in Bethlehem, the attack affected terror. In general, the shooting generated a sense of unease, anxiety and fear.
Sirens screamed and phones lit up as families checked on their loved ones. The four men were fathers, brothers, sons and neighbors. Whether they are labeled resistance fighters or terrorists, their deaths are an undeniable trauma for the community in which they were embedded through an unavoidable web of relationships. A colleague, a journalist who covered Shehadah’s activities for years, told me, “It is like a novelist losing one of the biggest heroes in his story.”
Rather than stop attacks against Israel, the Bethlehem shooting has already caused the opposite. The momentary lull in violence is over. Islamic Jihad responded by launching a barrage of projectiles on the areas around the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire talks appear to be moot, and Israel is back on war footing. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will come under even more pressure to withdraw from negotiations with Israel, for the sake of credibility among his own people.
Assassinations will not end “terrorism.” Such killings will only deepen feelings of distrust and anger among Palestinians towards Israel. It is my belief that only a negotiated political agreement, in accordance with international law, will resolve this conflict. It is just such an agreement that, I fear, became an even more distant possibility after that Wednesday night.
JR Malsin is a Jewish American Journalist. He is an editor at the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency in Bethlehem.