9/11, Terrorism, and the Middle East: The way out

Jeff Halper

One of the most conspicuous features of the September 11 attack on the United States was the general inability to “get a handle” on what had happened. Thousands of responses filled our TV screens and newspapers.

Those of the victims’ families were predictably emotional. So were the responses of the-man-on-the-street, which ranged from shaken and disoriented to patriotic and vengeful.

Nor did the public get much perspective or clarity from the learned “experts,” political figures and apologetic voices from the Muslim world. While all this is understandable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a year later we still do not have that perspective, that “handle.”

The overriding reaction continues to be one of “war”—retaliation and victory—as if we are simply in a conventional battle with the “bad guys.”

A few voices have been raised, especially in Europe, questioning whether a “war on terrorism” will effectively solve the problem. “Terrorism” might be an accurate term for the September 11 attacks, but it becomes dangerously simplistic and self-serving when used by interested parties to characterize all forms of conflict, violence, and resistance to oppression. For that reason Amnesty International does not use the term, but speaks instead of “attacks against civilians.” The indiscriminate use of the term “terrorist” allows strong parties—especially states—to define who is or is not a “terrorist,” what is “legitimate” use of power and what isn’t, who is “with us” and who isn’t. It risks stigmatizing whole populations or religions. The by-products of such an approach—ever-escalating conflict in which the “nuclear option” has been mentioned, rising levels of personal insecurity, global xenophobia, and the setting aside of human rights in favor of ethnic “profiling” and other discriminatory practices—certainly outweigh the emotional satisfaction of taking revenge. And, in the end, it is almost a truism that combating what is essentially a political problem by military means is futile and self-defeating.

OK, say the military-minded realists (or “crackpot realists,” as the sociologist C. Wright Mills once called them), so what is your suggestion? If military operations will not solve the problem of terrorism, what will? Ironically, an effective approach was aired just the week before September 11—but the US was not listening because it had walked out of the World Conference Against Racism. In late August and early September 2001 some 15,000 representatives of governments, NGOs, and faith-based organizations met under UN auspices in Durban, South Africa to formulate a covenant that would address just those inequities and grievances that nurture terrorism, oppression, and conflict.

In the official Durban Declaration and Program of Action, government delegates reaffirmed the principles of equality and non-discrimination in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; expanded the notions of human rights and freedom from discrimination to include race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, and birth or other status; affirmed the fundamental importance for States to sign and ratify all relevant international human rights instruments; and welcomed the proclamation by the General Assembly of 2001-2010 as the Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for Children of the World. They called on states to enact legislative, judicial, and administrative measures to prevent and protect against racism, to ratify and effectively implement relevant international instruments on human rights, to promote human rights education in their societies, and to provide effective remedies at their own national levels.

The NGO Declaration was, as might be expected, sharper and more demanding in its tone. Whereas the government document confined itself to principles rather than to specific peoples and situations (with the exception of the Roma/Gypsies), the NGO Declaration spoke more unequivocally about colonialism and foreign occupation. Article 98 recognizes “that the Palestinian people are one such people currently enduring a colonialist, discriminatory military occupation that violates their fundamental human right of self-determination, including the illegal transfer of Israeli citizens into the occupied territories and establishment of a permanent illegal Israeli infrastructure.”

It affirms that “the Palestinian people have the clear right under international law to resist such occupation by any means provided under international law.” Article 99 argues that “a basic ‘root cause’ of Israel’s ongoing and systematic human rights violations, including its grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, is Israel’s brand of apartheid.”

In Durban, NGOs and governments sought to take another important step in the painful process of creating an international civil society that possesses the moral and legal means to stop violations of human rights and punish crimes against humanity—including terrorist atrocities such as those of September 11 and the sources of terrorism between Israelis and Palestinians.

The greatest enemies of such grassroots civil diplomacy are the world’s most powerful governments, led by the US, who are loath to relinquish one iota of their sovereignty. But here lies the only hope of truly coping with terrorism and its root causes while preserving the values of freedom and tolerance that are the very point of what we are struggling for.

Israel and the Palestinians, Terrorism and Resistance

Terrorism is a frightful and immoral thing. It takes innocent lives and by its nature violates the most fundamental human right of all: the right to life.

As Amnesty puts it: “A fundamental principle of international humanitarian law is that parties involved in a conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants, and between civilian objects and military objectives. It is not permitted to target civilians, that is, people who are not members of the armed forces of either side.

This ‘principle of distinction’ is codified in the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977. The principle of distinction is a fundamental rule of customary international humanitarian law, binding on all parties to armed conflicts, whether international or non-international.”

What happens, though, when one’s own life is controlled by an overwhelmingly superior power that denies you the basic conditions of life? What happens when the right to life of members of the oppressing society clash with the fundamental rights of the oppressed—the right to an identity, to a country, to self-determination, to well-being for oneself and one’s family, to a home, to property, to personal safety, to respect and, in the end, to life threatened by the violence of the dominant power? International law recognizes the right of oppressed people to resist. But are there forms of resistance that are illegitimate, like terrorism?

Amnesty and the Red Cross would give an unequivocal “yes.” In their recent report “Without Distinction” that deals with attacks on Israeli civilians by armed Palestinian groups, Amnesty asserts that “attacks on civilians are not permitted under any internationally recognized standard of law, whether they are committed in the context of a struggle against military occupation or any other context.

Not only are they considered murder under general principles of law in every national legal system, they are contrary to fundamental principles of humanity which are reflected in international humanitarian law.”

What the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows graphically is that the issue of terrorism cannot be divorced from its larger political and military context, nor can the demand that Palestinians end terrorism be separated from the demand that Israel do the same.

Holding Palestinians accountable to international humanitarian law is a double-edged sword, since it holds Israel accountable as well. If the Palestinians are forbidden to engage in terrorism, so too is Israel forbidden to employ the two forms of terror implicit in the Occupation and the measures required to maintain it: systematic and massive violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention protecting civilians living under occupation; and state terror embodied in Israel’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations.

If terrorism is “evil,” as Bush repeatedly states, then the equally illegal terrorism of the powerful cannot be dismissed as mere “collateral damage.” And if terrorism has no justification whatsoever, then that ban extends to all parties—Israel and the US included. Adherence to international law cannot be selective. The US and Israeli cannot oppose the International Criminal Court and still argue that terrorism (re: terrorism “from below”) is unacceptable.

The acts of terrorism most condemned by the US and other states are those of non-state actors, in which the legitimate resistance of oppressed peoples to their oppression gets tragically lumped with the loony and pointless terrorism of bin Laden, Carlos, and other “professional terrorists.”

Cruel as it is, this “terrorism from below” is small-scale when compared with the massive “terrorism from above” of states. Except for the year 2001, the former has claimed less than a thousand victims per year worldwide, while the killing of civilians by states reaches into the hundreds of thousands. This is why Bush, Sharon, Putin, Vajpayee, and other interested state actors frame their “war against terrorism” in solely moralistic terms (“axis of evil”) or as self-defense, rather than in terms of human rights. This constrains and condemns those who use illegitimate means to throw off oppression, while permitting oppressive regimes to employ equally illegitimate and infinitely more destructive means as long as they frame it appropriately.

The Palestinians’ need to resort to terrorism raises questions of fundamental fairness. One cannot expect a people to suffer oppression forever, to abrogate their own human rights in favor of those of others. One cannot deny the protection of international law to oppressed peoples while demanding that they comply with international law when it suits the purposes of their oppressors. Equality before the law and the universality of human rights (as well as obligations) must guide us all.

The international community may condemn Palestinian terrorism only if the legitimate avenues for throwing off the occupation and securing their rights to self-determination are made available. Israel and the United States refused to base the Oslo negotiations on international law, because they knew that every element of the occupation was illegal and that Israel would lose. Instead Oslo was based on power negotiations. Not only did they prejudice the outcome from the start, but they allowed Israel to strengthen its occupation, to continue its violation of international law, even as it was engaged in negotiations.

Accountability to international humanitarian law: The only way out

Since World War II more than 90% of the world’s conflicts have been tribal, national, ethnic, or religious in nature, rather than ideological. Power politics, armaments, and the use of the military in “solving” inter-state conflicts have gone unchecked. This is the conception, the “tradition,” the “reality,” behind the self-serving “war on terror” declared by the world’s powerful states after September 11.

Over the past half-century and more, an alternative has arisen, slowly, painfully, but steadily. Prodded by human rights organizations, other NGOs and faith-based groups, and assisted by the UN, the “club of nations” is grudgingly giving ground to an international civil society based on universal human rights and law.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the member states of the UN in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust, was the first international document to use the term “human rights.” This concept, together with “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” has gained increasing currency. Subsequent human rights conventions have coalesced into a comprehensive corpus of international humanitarian law.

Together with new instruments of enforcement (most recently the International Criminal Court), these new elements offer a way out of the injustice, arbitrariness, violence and power-dominated relations that characterize the world that led to the September attacks and their aftermath.

In a multicultural world in which inequalities are growing ever more stark and even the smallest groups are acquiring access to weapons of mass destruction, international humanitarian law, in contrast to military operations, actually offers a way out of conflict. Human rights have been defined over the years through a lengthy, participatory process of international consensus among peoples and cultures (which has by no means been completed).

The resulting conventions are truly universal, yet they set forth in great detail the rights that every person and community possesses, together with the acts that violate them. Under the agreed-upon definition of “crimes against humanity,” the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks could have been apprehended, charged, prosecuted, and sentenced without recourse to “holy wars” or the feeling that one part of the world is ganging up on another.

Similarly, the the Fourth Geneva Convention offers a blueprint for dismantling the Israeli occupation and granting Palestinians their independence while still ensuring Israel security and regional integration. International tribunals, working with the legal systems of individual countries, are capable of meting out justice and holding states accountable if only if the international community supports them. The United States, heralder of a New World Order, is ironically (or not) one of the major opponents to these international instruments of justice.

The human rights approach offers the best chance of avoiding future terrorist attacks, as well as bringing a just peace to our region of the world, the Middle East. But it requires states and their industrial-military interests to give up power and the possibility of dominating and exploiting. And that they will not do willingly. It is up to us, the international civil society, to bring a new, egalitarian and truly just world order into being. Durban, not Washington, offers us the way out.

Jeff Halper is coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. This article first appeared in the September 2002 issue of Peace Work.