Intifada—legitimate resistance or terrorism?

By Dina Khreino

THE STRUGGLE between Palestinians and Israel has always been asymmetric, since Palestinians have never had a state of their own and, at least since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, have not had allied conventional armies at their side either.

On Dec. 4, 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared: “A war has been forced upon us. A war of terror. Their aim is to bring us to total despair, a loss of hope, and a loss of national vision which leads us—a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Israel. Arafat has chosen the path of terrorism. We know who is guilty, we know who is responsible.” Contrary to what Sharon believes, the fact remains that Israel's failures to abide by international law, as a belligerent occupant, amounts to a fundamental denial of the right to self-determination and, more generally, of respect for the framework of belligerent occupation, giving rise to a legally protected right of Palestinian resistance and armed struggle in the occupied territories.

Today, the word “terrorist” has almost become synonymous with Palestinian armed struggle. This close identification of terrorism with Palestinians has clouded all reasonable discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Since the American Revolution relied upon armed struggle to achieve self-determination about a century and a third before the principle of self-determination was used in the post-World War I peace settlement, it is not surprising that the UN General Assembly specifies it as a permissible method today. Its permissibility is legally significant, as is the authoritative assembly's assertion that armed struggle for self-determination is consistent with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. In a situation such as Palestine is in, where the people has been denied the right to self-determination by armed force, the right to regain it by armed struggle is considered permissible under Article 51 of the Charter concerning self-defence.

How can one differentiate legitimate armed struggle from terrorism? The Geneva Declaration on Terrorism states: “As repeatedly recognised by the United Nations General Assembly, peoples who are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination have the right to use force to accomplish their objectives within the framework of international humanitarian law. Such lawful uses of force must not be confused with acts of international terrorism.”

As recently as Oct. 7, 2000, UN Security Council Resolution 1322, adopted by a 14-0 vote, with the US abstaining, the UN called upon Israel to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and its responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Why were the Contras and the Mujahedeen called freedom fighters? If terrorism is defined as armed attacks against non-combatants, then most of the Western states would top the list of terrorism-exporting states.

There is the charged, symbolic significance of armed struggle in the history of Palestinian resistance. The strategy of “protracted people's war” adopted by the Palestinian resistance in the wake of the June `67 defeat, may have achieved little towards its expressed goal of liberating Palestine and creating a democratic secular state for Palestinians and Jews.

Various UN resolutions have reaffirmed the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for liberation from colonial domination and alien subjection, “by all available means including armed struggle”. Israel, like apartheid-era South Africa, grants rights to individuals based not on their citizenship, but rather on their membership in a specific ethnic group. Israel classifies people at birth according to their ethnicity, and their rights and responsibilities towards the state vary based on this classification. In apartheid-era South Africa, only whites had full rights. In Israel, Palestinian citizens enjoy some rights, such as the ability to vote and be elected, but only Jews have full rights allowing them to obtain land, to receive the benefits of military veteran status and to benefit from the “law of return”.

The Palestinians are not asking for more than what all people have and deserve—their ambition is not to blow themselves up and kill innocent civilians; this happens because there is nothing promising or worth living for, because the only life they know is under military occupation. I can confidently say that 99.9 percent of them just want what the Israelis want: to live in peace and security. And for that, the Palestinians need their freedom and independence.

The writer is a researcher on international law and Middle East conflicts and issues in Paris.