Fatal Falls. Car Crashes. Stabbings. Terrorism?


The current spate of violence in Israel has included a number of attacks that look different from past incidents: They are low-tech in terms of weaponry and involve smaller numbers of people; sometimes, the victims and perpetrators know each other.

We may define terrorism as politically-motivated attacks on non-combatants in a conflict. But are some incidents being called terrorism when they may be something else?  

One particular event that stands out was the fatal fall of a young father of two from a construction platform at the 11th floor of a building in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv.  After initially calling this tragedy of September 16th an accident, the police reclassified it as terrorism in late November. Yet the three persons held for questioning have been released, there are no known suspects, and the evidence seems circumstantial.  

The victim's fellow workers at the site were mainly Arab citizens of Israel, Palestinians from the West Bank and guest workers from China. The most convincing argument that there was foul play was advanced by the victim's brother, who also works in construction, explaining that a double cable system is used to insure backup for such devices; when both fail, it's a sure sign that someone tampered with them.

It seems to be only an assumption, albeit not an unreasonable one, that the probable homicide in this case was an act of terror. Still, it's a view shared by left-wing Israelis as well.

“Someone, apparently an Arab working at the site, cut the rope and the guy fell to the ground and was killed," Laura Wharton, a Meretz member of the Jerusalem city council, said. “It's typical of the current wave in that isolated individuals have been committing random acts of terror outside of known organizations and with little or no planning. They're very hard to predict or prevent.” 

Neri Zilber, a visiting scholar at the centrist Washington Institute for Near East Policy, characterized the recent attacks as “lone-wolf,” “freelancing,” “almost opportunistic,” and also with a “low degree of planning.” 

“Large-scale operations against lone-wolf attacks ― such as advocated by Naftali Bennett ― won't work, because there is no organizational or planning apparatus to dismantle,” Zilber explained. 

So an attack does not have to be a bomb in a crowded marketplace to be characterized as terrorism. 

Still, what seems wrong to me is when attacks on Israeli soldiers are routinely defined as terrorism, and when all fighters for the Palestinian cause are automatically labeled terrorist.

This is typical rhetoric for an occupying or colonial power encountering armed resistance. Not, mind you, that I would want to see any attacks on Israelis, whether or not in uniform or armed. What makes most Palestinian violence against Israelis terrorism is that it targets unarmed civilians.

Case in point: The Jewish Virtual Library compiles a timeline of “Terrorism Against Israel: Comprehensive Listing of Fatalities (September 1993 – Present).” It tendentiously includes all rocket and mortar casualties during and in the wake of this summer's Gaza war, and even some incidents involving the deaths of on-duty soldiers. 

Rockets and mortars targeting civilians during a war are clearly “war crimes,” but is this terrorism?  Losses inflicted on soldiers in a war zone, including during some operations in Gaza — such as the five killed in battle when Lt. Hadar Goldin was thought to be captured — are casualties of war, not victims of terrorism.      

Jews are not alone in making questionable judgments on what is or is not terrorism, said Hillel Schenker, a veteran journalist and peace activist who is currently co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal:

“As PIJ co-editor in regular contact with Palestinians, it's clear to me that they are suspicious of every claim of a Palestinian terrorist act. Their first response is to be skeptical about the claim, even when the evidence is clear. I know that the Palestinians are convinced that what happened with the tractor driver who hit a bus was an accident, which the police chose to define as a terrorist act. Here I would tend to trust the police version.  

“The same dynamic is at work concerning the death of the Palestinian Egged bus driver by hanging," he added. "The Palestinians are convinced that he was murdered, while the police have declared that it was a suicide.  Personally, I think that the evidence in that case is inconclusive, and I'm not sure which claim is true.”

This pattern of Palestinian distrust was also emphasized by Zilber, who says that “Most Palestinians truly believe that the Al-Aksa Mosque complex is threatened” by Jewish religious extremists and right-wing politicians.

Nevertheless, Zilber says the situation looks worse in the headlines from afar than they actually do on the ground, and not like an intifada — yet.   

Ralph Seliger is a long-time editor and writer, mostly on Israeli and Jewish political and cultural issues, from a left-Zionist perspective. He is currently administrator of the Partners for Progressive Israel Blog.