The Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, gave an interview to Nightline broadcast on March 28 (not online) in which she answered questions about the nature of terrorism, starting with the role her parents played in the Irgun and its bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946, then the British headquarters. Livni replied that "there is a difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. And my parents didn't use violence against civilians. … They called to get the civilians out of the hotel."
John Donvan of ABC News then pressed her on the related subject of Palestinian terrorists: Is a Palestinian struggling for the homeland, a freedom fighter, as her father was?
LIVNI: There's a difference between freedom fighter and between a terrorist who is looking for children to kill, for civilians, for a restaurant to kill people. And between those who are fighting army.
DONVAN: "But what you're saying is that if the Palestinians - if Hamas only used suicide bombers against Israeli soldiers, you might not call that terrorism."
DONVAN: You might call that freedom fighting?
LIVNI: I cannot call it freedom fighters because I believe - but - you know, don't push your luck. But, in a way, it is more legitimate than - it's a legitimate fight. But they're looking for killing babies and civilians and women and people in the street. This is something unacceptable. And I believe that the international community should make the same distinction. … Somebody who is fighting against Israeli soldiers is an enemy. And we will fight back. But I believe that it is not under definition of terrorism.
In response to this interview, an MP from the National Union-National Religious Party, Uri Ariel, accused Livni of giving "legitimacy to attacks against our soldiers" and he called on Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "to fire her immediately. She is not worthy of serving in her position." Former defense minister Moshe Arens said that Livni's statements were "senseless" and proved that she still had a lot to learn. Israel's former consul general Alon Pinkas said that Hamas and Islamic Jihad should be defined by their ideology and whom they target. The New York Post editorialized about her comments under the title "Livni's Lunacy." Who knew, it asks, that "a top Israeli official could be so clueless when it comes to terrorism?"
These are all voices I usually agree with, but this time I am with Livni. If the term terrorism is to mean anything, it must be reserved for a certain sort of violence, that against non-combatants. Fighting against soldiers is war, legitimate war, not terrorism, no matter how hideous the enemy may be, no matter what his goals may be. That said, the Palestinians use various tactics (such as fighting out of civilian homes or using civilians as shields) that are clearly illegitimate.
Michael Walzer agrees with this distinction:
My instinct is to say that attacks on soldiers are not terrorist attacks. That does not make them right, terrorism is not the only negative moral term in our vocabulary. I did not think that the plane that flew into the Pentagon in 2001 was a terrorist attack or, better said, it was a terrorist attack only because the people in the plane were innocent civilians who were being used and murdered. But if you imagine an attack on the Pentagon without those innocent people in the plane, that would not have been a terrorist attack—whereas the attack on the Twin Towers was terroristic. I feel the same way in the Israeli cases: whatever you want to say about Palestinian resistance to the occupation, there is a difference between attacking soldiers and killing civilians, and it is an important moral difference.
(April 15, 2006)