Palestine: Legitimate Armed Resistance vs. Terrorism

Israeli police defuse a bomb in Jaffa. (Ronald de Hommel)

The Israeli, and pro-Israeli, media have made a great deal of noise about the recent Palestinian operations in the occupied Gaza Strip whereby eleven Israeli soldiers were killed in two separate attacks on armored personnel carriers. With very few exceptions in the Israeli and pro-Israeli media these operations have been deliberately misrepresented as some sort of “terrorist” attacks, a cynical propaganda ploy designed to discredit the Palestinian legal right to resist occupation.

While there is no universally accepted definition of precisely what constitutes “terrorism”, there are particular factors that are generally accepted in most definitions as constituent elements of “terrorism”. These factors provide us with a simple definition of what is, and is not, “terrorism”. To quote the Council on Foreign Relations discussion of terrorism:

“In another useful attempt to produce a definition, Paul Pillar, a former deputy chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, argues that there are four key elements of terrorism:
  • It is premeditated—planned in advance, rather than an impulsive act of rage.
  • It is political—not criminal, like the violence that groups such as the mafia use to get money, but designed to change the existing political order.
  • It is aimed at civilians—not at military targets or combat-ready troops.
  • It is carried out by sub-national groups—not by the army of a country.”(1)
  • That terrorism requires planning, forethought, and intent — is premeditated — is fairly universal in almost all definitions of terrorism; generally speaking there is no such thing as “accidental” terrorism.

    Regarding the political element, this is commonly employed largely to differentiate “terrorists” from organized crime, which frequently uses the same tactics though for different purposes. Nevertheless there is a degree of overlap, for example citing the “narco-terrorist” concept frequently employed when opponents are discussing the resistance movements in Colombia or the Albanian mafia gangs in Albania and Kosovo. In both these cases, drug trafficking and political ideology (Leftist popular in Colombia; ethno-nationalist in Albania/Kosovo) tend to blur in that political movements turn to organized crime to finance and maintain their operations. Nevertheless, there are conflicting interpretations in this respect.

    As for being aimed at civilians, this is generally accepted though with reservations. For example, the US State department, in its official definition of terrorism

    “The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant(*) targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.”

    clearly adds to civilians other “noncombatants”:

    ”(*) For purposes of this definition, the term noncombatant is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.” (2)

    And finally, the “sub-national” requirement is hotly debated around the world. Generally speaking, states that routinely use tactics that would otherwise be considered “terrorist” - such as the US and Israel - flatly reject the concept that a state is capable of “terrorism”, whereas most others, including most international humanitarian bodies, do recognize to varying degrees the concept of “state terrorism”, that is, terrorism as practiced by an official government. Thus, according to the US definition the Ton Ton Macoute of Haiti under the Duvaliers, the Nazi SS and Gestapo, or the ISI of Pakistan - all of whom used outright terrorist tactics for various purposes - were not “terrorists” because they were official state agencies, though most observers would, in fact, consider these groups and others like them around the world to be terrorist in nature.

    So, though there is no universal definition of terrorism, there are generally accepted constituent elements that differentiate terrorism from others acts of violence. And these constituent elements generally reflect what most people think of when they hear or use the term.

    Unlike terrorism which is universally deemed as criminal (no such thing as “legal terrorism”), other forms of political violence are not only acceptable, but are fully legal. This obviously includes military acts of self-defense (i.e. the right to resist an aggressor, defend ones territorial integrity, et cetera) as well as UN Security Council sanctioned Chapter VII actions (the war making powers of the UNSC, as employed in South Korea or in Bosnia-Herzegovina). However, among these legal forms of violence there is also the right to use force in the struggle for “liberation from colonial and foreign domination”. To quote United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978:

    “2. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle;” (3)

    This justification for legitimate armed resistance has been specifically applied to the Palestinian struggle repeatedly. To quote General Assembly Resolution A/RES/3246 (XXIX) of 29 November 1974:

    3. Reaffirms the legitimacy of the peoples’ struggle for liberation form colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation by all available means, including armed struggle; …
    7. Strongly condemns all Governments which do not recognize the right to self-determination and independence of peoples under colonial and foreign domination and alien subjugation, notably the peoples of Africa and the Palestinian people; (4)

    These two points — that people under colonial and foreign domination have the right to use armed struggle against their oppressors and that this specifically applies to the Palestinian people — has been repeatedly reaffirmed in a myriad of United Nations resolutions. These include UNGA Resolution A/RES/3246 (XXIX; 29 November 1974), UNGA Resolution A/RES/33/24 (29 November 1978), UNGA Resolution A/RES/34/44 (23 November 1979), UNGA Resolution A/RES/35/35 (14 November 1980), UNGA Resolution A/RES/36/9 (28 October 1981), and many others. While these resolutions, coming from the General Assembly do not carry the weight of law per se, they do reflect the views of the majority of the world’s sovereign states, which is the basis of customary international law. So although General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding in of themselves, when they address legal issues they do accurately reflect the customary international legal opinion among the majority of the world’s sovereign states.

    Of course like the other forms of legitimate military action, this right to legitimate armed resistance is subject to international humanitarian law and completely excludes terrorism. Contrary to some of the arguments promoted by supporters of the suicide bombers, such activity is not legal, nor justified. Therefore condemnations — such as those by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — of suicide bombings against civilians as “crimes against humanity” are correct. Nevertheless, these criminal actions in no way negate the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to armed resistance (even including suicide bombs if they are directed at legitimate military targets as opposed to civilian, or perhaps non-combatant, targets. A suicide bomb directed at civilians in occupied Al-Quds is a crime against humanity; a suicide bomb at a military checkpoint is a fully legal, though perhaps distasteful, act of armed resistance).

    However, as a part of Israel’s propaganda campaign against the Palestinian people and their legitimate cause, Israel absolutely refuses to differentiate between Palestinian terrorism and Palestinian legitimate armed resistance. This has been graphically illustrated by the reporting on the successful Palestinian attacks on the Israeli military targets in the Gaza Strip. In these particular instances there was a Palestinian attack on a fully armed military transport in the process of actively conducting a military operation manned exclusively by Israeli uniformed soldiers. In absolutely no conceivable respect can this be considered any sort of “terrorist” attack, quite the contrary; this is exactly the kind of Palestinian resistance action that is fully legal and fully justified. This failure to differentiate - to recognize the Palestinian people’s legitimate right to resist the occupation - renders most Israeli reports on “terrorism” extremely misleading because they intentionally and maliciously combine acts of legitimate armed resistance (such as these recent attacks in Gaza) as well as unarmed resistance (such as stone throwing) in with actual acts of terrorism and treat them as indistinguishable from each other.

    Contrary to the “conventional wisdom” being propagated by Israel and its supporters, not all violence is “terrorism” and the Palestinian people have - by weight of customary international law expressed in a myriad of United Nations resolutions - every right to militarily resist their occupation and subjugation by Israel as long as this resistance is properly conducted within the confines of existing international humanitarian law. The recent attacks on Israeli troops in Gaza, were not “terrorist” attacks in any way outside of the realm of Israeli propaganda and in fact represented fully legal acts of legitimate armed resistance.

    (1) Terrorism: An Introduction, from Terrorism: Questions and Answers, by the Council on Foreign Relation in cooperation with the Markle Foundation.
    EI adds: The idea that only ‘sub-national’ groups can be considered to be “terrorist” appears to be a convenient definition to exclude states who use violence against civilians from the definition. Students of Central and South American history will not be surprised by this addition in the official US definition of “terrorism” to the definition commonly understood by members of the public, which can be summarised as “violence directed at civilians for political ends”.

    (2) Patterns of Global Terrorism, by the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism

    (3) United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978

    (4) United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/3246 (XXIX) of 29 November 1974

    John Sigler is a writer and political activist from Denver, Colorado, involved with the Jewish Friends of Palestine project (, the Colorado Palestine Solidarity Campaign ( and the Association for One Democratic State in Palestine/Israel (