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The ‘terrorist’ smear: a settler-colonial ploy

“This is all about a brutal regime attempting to nullify any attempt by its subject population to resist military occupation”

Middle EastHuman Rights

Palestinian youth advance towards Israeli soldiers during clashes outside Ofer Military Prison, West Bank, 2012. Photo courtesy ActiveStills Collective/LensCulture.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the longest lasting disputes in the world. Not surprisingly, the two sides have very different views of the situation, expressed in fundamentally different narratives.

Israel and its supporters see the establishment of a Jewish state as the fulfillment of the desire to create a refuge in which Jews from around the world can live safely, free from the scourge of the antisemitism they have experienced elsewhere in the world. For Palestinians, the creation of a state that privileges the status of Jews on the lands Palestinian Arabs have inhabited for hundreds of years is a manifestation of the same kind of colonialism that has afflicted other countries, including South Africa, Ireland and Canada.

The clash between the people who embrace these narratives has not been confined to Israel-Palestine. Increasingly, proponents of the two views have attempted to enlist people around the world to their respective positions. In Canada, organizations like the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai Brith Canada play a key role in providing unquestioning support for Israel and attacking its critics.

Recently these pro-Israel lobby groups launched a campaign demanding the federal government deprive Vancouver-based Palestinian activist Khaled Barakat of his Canadian citizenship and strip Samidoun, the prisoner solidarity network in Canada that his wife Charlotte Kates heads, of its non-profit status.

The ostensible reason for the lobby’s campaign? They claim Barakat is a leader of the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is on the Canadian government’s list of “terrorist” organizations. The lobby groups fed the story, based on information provided by the Israeli government, to obliging right-wing National Post columnist Terry Glavin, who questioned why Canada’s government has sat on the information. But no evidence to back the accusations is offered beyond Israel’s say-so.

The real reason for this and other attacks on pro-Palestinian activists? Israel and its lobby appear determined to “change the channel.” They have good reason to be concerned. Over the past year, Israel has been at the receiving end of devastating condemnation internationally, with the term “apartheid” being deployed to describe its treatment of Palestinians by no fewer than four highly-esteemed sources: the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and by Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967. Lynk is a respected Canadian law professor—all the more reason for the Israel lobby to mount an effort in Canada to distract attention from his report.

This is all about a brutal regime attempting to nullify any attempt by its subject population to resist its military occupation and push back against the country’s institutionalized discrimination. Besides the day-to-day humiliations and violent suppression of resistance, one of the most effective weapons in the regime’s arsenal is the application of the label “terrorist” to as many forms of resistance as possible.

Next to “antisemitic,” the term “terrorist” is one of the most potent accusations that can be used against an individual or organization. If Israel and its lobby had used the terms “fervent Palestinian human rights defender,” or “Palestinian militant,” or even “anti-Israel campaigner,” to describe their activities, people like Barakat might be afforded the benefit of the doubt. But their use of the term “terrorist” is designed to totally discredit, if not criminalize, the targeted individual or organization.

To be perfectly clear, we, as well as our organization, Independent Jewish Voices, do not endorse violence, whether perpetrated by Israelis or Palestinians. We champion the use of non-violent methods of protest and popular resistance, such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). Having said that, several points need to be stressed in the context of this discussion.

First, International law clearly protects the right to armed resistance by populations under occupation. United Nations resolution 37/43, dated December 3, 1982, “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, including armed struggle.”

Moreover, the resolution’s preamble makes clear that it refers not to a hypothetical situation, but specifically to the rights of Palestinians. It refers to “…the denial of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, sovereignty, independence and return to Palestine and the repeated acts of aggression by Israel against the peoples of the region constitute a serious threat to international peace and security.’”

While Israel rejects the accusation that it is illegally occupying Palestinian territory, the overwhelming international consensus is that Israel is doing precisely that.

Second, Israel indiscriminately labels Palestinian resistance organizations as “terrorist.” Recently it used this specious accusation to attack six organizations, including the well-respected human rights organization Al-Haq, the Addameer prisoners’ rights group, Defence for Children International-Palestine (DCIP), the Bisan Center for Research and Development, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees. Israel’s wielding of the terrorist designation against of these organizations has been widely rejected as baseless by the world community.

Israel and the pro-Israel lobby attempt to label even non-violent resistance campaigns as nefarious. Hence they falsely claim that BDS aims to end the presence of Jews in the Holy Land.

Third, Israel’s use of the label “terrorist” is frequently based on “guilt by association.” The process goes like this: get Palestinian human rights organizations listed as “terrorist,” first by Israel, then by other states, as well. Once thus designated, anybody who has anything to do with them is also guilty, by implication; there is no need to provide evidence of crimes or wrongdoings. Indeed, anyone (like the authors of this article) who defends the rights of the accused or demands they be considered innocent until proven guilty is also guilty by inference.

Fourth, the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association has condemned the wanton use of the term “terrorist” as anti-Palestinian racism: “defaming Palestinians and their allies with slander such as being inherently antisemitic, a terrorist threat/sympathizer or opposed to democratic values.”

Cartoon by Carlos Latuff

The PFLP is frequently targeted for this guilt by association treatment. Khalida Jarrar, who stands accused of PFLP membership, is a deputy in the Palestinian Legislative Council and Palestinian representative on the Council of Europe. Designated as a member of a “terrorist” organization, she has spent long periods in Israeli prisons. She has been held without charge under Israeli administrative detention and charged with “incitement to violence” for condemning the Israeli occupation. Jarrar is barred by Israel from traveling outside of the occupied Palestinian territories. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz described her treatment as “A Kafkaesque Perversion of Military Law.”

Indeed, Israeli authorities used allegations of tenuous links to the PFLP as the basis for having designated the six aforementioned human rights organizations as “terrorist.”

There is a particular conceit among oppressive states and their supporters that only their non-state opponents can be deemed terrorist, and that states such as Israel that regularly kill and injure innocent civilians cannot have the label applied to themselves. But according to DCIP, “…investigations and evidence collected by DCIP regularly suggest that Israeli forces use lethal force against Palestinian children in circumstances that may amount to extrajudicial or willful killings.” It is no coincidence that DCIP was recently accused of being a “terrorist” organization by the Israeli government.

The last 100 years have seen many resistance struggles against European imperialism, many of which eventually succeeded. Those struggles included the use of both armed and unarmed tactics. In nearly every case, the regimes tried to defend themselves by attempting to focus the world’s attention solely on the violent aspects of the struggles against their rule, ignoring the reasons for such resistance.

For example, when the international movement against South African apartheid began gaining international support in the 1960s and 70s, officials of the apartheid regime officials accused its opponents of championing violence. The African National Congress, headed by the now-beloved Nelson Mandela, did engage in violent sabotage. But in the end, the international community did not allow this accusation to discredit Mandela or distract attention from the task of dismantling South African apartheid.

Something similar happened in Ireland and later Northern Ireland, both seemingly intractable conflicts, where those resisting British occupation were labeled terrorists. Today Sinn Fein, the political wing of the “terrorist” Irish Republican Army, stands poised to become the ruling party in Northern Ireland.

Israel’s condemnation of “terrorism” reeks of hypocrisy. Prior to its establishment in 1948, armed militias like the Irgun and the Stern Gang (Lehi) regularly engaged in indiscriminate violence against both the Palestinian population and the British occupation forces in Mandate Palestine. Prominent leaders of these groups included future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. As Israeli observer Yossi Sarid observed: “From the end of 1937 until the middle of 1939, in less than two years, the terrorist activities of the Irgun and Lehi claimed 232 victims with another 370 wounded—men, women and children.” In July 1946 the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 137 and wounding British soldiers, Jews and Arabs. In April 1948 Irgun along with Lehi conducted the Deir Yassin massacre, killing and injuring some 150 unarmed Palestinians. With the gaining of statehood, these renegade gangs were subsumed within the Israeli armed forces and their leaders became politicians.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) originally engaged in armed struggle. Yet even after it renounced violent resistance, recognized the State of Israel and, through the Palestinian Authority, now helps Israel police other Palestinians engaged in resistance, Israeli spokespeople continue to deem it terrorist. Last October Israeli PM Naftali Bennett told German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “A Palestinian state would mean a terror state…. Based on our experience, the meaning of a Palestinian state means that very likely there will be established a terror state, roughly seven minutes from my house and from almost any point in Israel.”

The double standard applied by Israel, its Canadian lobby and media supporters can also be seen in their attitude toward the Jewish Defence League (JDL). The JDL was designated as a terrorist organization by the FBI in 2001. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “The group has orchestrated countless terrorist attacks in the US and abroad, and has engaged in intense harassment of foreign diplomats, Muslims, Jewish scholars and community leaders, and officials.”

The JDL, founded by extreme Jewish nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, has long been active in Canada, often acting as provocateurs and bullies where pro-Palestinian advocates gather. In 2017, JDL Toronto members attacked a demonstration in Washington, DC, bludgeoning a 55-year-old Palestinian-American man with their flagpoles. During huge Toronto protests against Israel’s May 2021 Gaza incursion, JDL activists staged a counter-demonstration. When Palestinians attempted to defend themselves against attacks by the JDL, Israel lobby organizations spun it as an antisemitic incident. Politicians, including the mayor of Toronto and the prime minister of Canada, expressed sympathy with the Jewish community. When camera footage of bat- and knife-wielding JDL members belied the accusation, however, the original story was not retracted.

Canada’s pro-Israel lobby seems to shun any approach to peace in Palestine short of abject Palestinian surrender. In contrast, we urge the Canadian government to see past the lobby’s accusations of terrorism, which are clearly levelled for tactical purposes. International solidarity movements and eventually most of the world community have resisted being distracted by such accusations elsewhere. Eventually many of these conflicts ended through negotiation.

In these cases as well as the case of Israel, the cause of the violence was oppression. When colonialism was defeated, the nature of the tactics used to oppose it was no longer deemed an issue.

Canada played an important role, albeit tardily, in helping marshal the international pressure that ended apartheid in South Africa. We urge Ottawa to reject attempts to label Palestinian activists as terrorists and instead to play a peacemaking role vis-à-vis the conflict in Israel-Palestine by helping to end apartheid there.

Larry Haiven is Professor Emeritus at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax; Sid Shniad was the Research Director at the Vancouver-based Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) for 30 years. Both are founding members of Independent Jewish Voices Canada.

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