Rémi Brulin writes: Appearing on CNN a few days into the current offensive in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Hamas as “the worst terrorists, genocidal terrorists.” He said they want to “pile up as many civilian dead as they can,” and, he added, to “use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
By contrast, Israeli strikes are said to be aimed at the “terrorists,” who are by definition legitimate targets. Any civilian casualties that may result from such uses of force are unintentional, and in fact should be blamed squarely on Hamas. Indeed, Netanyahu explained, not only do they target civilians but they also “hide behind civilians,” thus committing “a double war crime.”
According to this narrative, often embraced in toto by elected officials and political commentators in the United States, “terrorism” is a very clear, non-controversial concept. “Terrorism” is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.
This discourse on “terrorism” is a deeply moral discourse, one that makes important normative claims about a given conflict and the parties to it.
It draws its power from a simple claim: what separates “us” from “them” is a fundamental conception of the value of innocent life. “We” respect innocent lives, demonstrated by our refusal to target civilians. In stark contrast, not only are “the terrorists” more than willing to hurt our civilians, but they also hope that we will kill theirs too.
The discourse on “terrorism” is thus an essentialist discourse: it claims to say something about the very essence of “the enemy” (cue recurring references to “barbarism”) and, consequently, about us (and our “civilized” values.)
On closer inspection however, this discourse fails precisely where it claims to be strongest. Israel’s actual practices, informed by its combat doctrine, are fundamentally at odds with how international law defines the concept of “civilian.” In actual fact, the discourse on “terrorism” and the practices it informs and justifies drastically erode the distinction between civilian and combatants as commonly understood in International Humanitarian Law. [Continue reading…]