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Can Terrorism Be Resistance?
What history can tell us about killing civilians to advance a cause
In the introduction to his book, Killing Rage, Eamon Collins writes an achingly beautiful treatise on peace in Northern Ireland.
“Shortly before the cease-fire — with the IRA’s bombing of the fish-and-chip shop in the Shankill and the loyalists’ retaliatory machine-gunning of a pub in Loughinisland — I think Northern Ireland was moving towards a Bosnia-type abyss,” he wrote.1
“How do you respond to the slaughter of shopfuls of people buying food or old men having a pint? Bombing a street; then a whole village; and then the bloody expulsions from cities and regions,” Collins lamented. Both sides of the nation recoiled.
“It is to the credit of both republicans and loyalists that they walked up to the edge of the abyss, peered over, gulped, then stepped back.”
Writing just a year before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Collins described his modest ambitions for peace. There would be pain ahead, he wrote, but at least it would be pain felt in “an atmosphere of relative peace.” Even if the Catholics and Protestants would maintain a weary distance, they could begin “gradually enlarging the common ground in the middle.” He was, of course, right. Peace didn’t happen immediately, but it was allowed to grow only once the cycle of violence stopped.
But Collins didn’t spend The Troubles watching his nation approach the precipice: He helped push it there.
Like many in Northern Ireland, he wanted Irish unification, but h wanted it achieved peacefully: Through sit-ins and protests. He had been convinced that the IRA’s violent tactics were “plunging Catholics into a cauldron in which they would be boiled to death.” But the reality of life in Northern Ireland wore him down: The massacre of civilians on Bloody Sunday, the checkpoints, even his own abduction and interrogation by unionist soldiers. His home had been wrecked, his mother terrorized, his father humiliated. Eventually he was recruited into the Provisional IRA.
He became not just a soldier, but a terrorist. He organized the killings of unionist police officers and soldiers, bombed hotels and pubs, and killed innocent civilians. He saw political figures like Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as a “sell out.”
Collins often picked his targets not based on military significance, but out of anger and hatred. There was the small town of Warrenpoint: The “little sugar-plum fairy on the top of a rotten unionist cake.” He even hated the Catholics who lived there under British rule. He infiltrated the community, even joining the local choir, to collect intelligence for the attack. On March 25, 1990, the IRA bombed the Crown Hotel in Warrenpoint. The Catholic owners had even tried to protest as the militants walked in, pointing to the nationalist memorabilia on the walls. It was useless.
Collins recalls how he ordered the assassination of a local Protestant believed to be in the Ulster Defence Regiment — only to learn, after he was shot in front of his wife and children, that the intelligence was wrong. The man was a civilian. Collins confronted doubt and guilt with more certainty. “Catholics had, after all, died in their thousands over the centuries for the nationalist cause; ten men had just died on hunger strike for the same cause.”
Less than a week later, Collins helped coordinate a carbomb which killed an 11-year-old boy — a fellow militant had called in a warning to the local police, but far too late to clear the crowd. They descended into conspiratorial excuses. “Those bastards must have let it go off so that we’d look back,” his fellow ‘Provo’ lamented.
In the years that followed, Collins recalls, “I had become a person who could, with barely a flicker of disquiet, contemplate the killing of any enemy of the republican movement.” Or, at least, those who they believed were their enemies. In October 1983, the IRA sent a gunman to execute a suspected police officer who Collins had identified: But he had identified the wrong man, and the triggerman executed a fellow Catholic in cold blood. “I could not have cared less.”
There were pangs of self-awareness as he came to realize that his insurgent army was a cadre of flawed humans, willing to employ brutal violence for a noble cause, even the violence just made things worse. “I began to ask myself how such an organization could ever take power, set up an alternative government structure, and win the hearts of the people,” he wrote. “If all we had to offer was bumbling thuggishness and occasional military effectiveness, and if we could only attract the naive or the brutal, how could we appeal to the mass of Irish people in the late twentieth century?”
Despite those lurking doubts, or perhaps because of them, Collins advanced his cause with even more fervor. He followed orders to infiltrate Sinn Féin, the republican movement’s political arm. It had risen in prominence since Bobby Sands had led his fellow IRA members to a deadly hunger strike inside the Maze prison. That growing political power, Collins recalled, was a threat. “If Sinn Féin developed real political muscle in terms of electoral support, then republicans could be sidetracked into constitutional politics, which for them was a contemptible collaborationist activity.” They had employed so much violence that they could not imagine a political struggle without it.
He continued following orders, even as the real cause seemed to blur and twist: The IRA began bombing Catholics so Sinn Féin could rush in and help. “The armed struggle was contradicting, not enhancing, the political struggle, and vice versa.” The conclusion was not difficult from there: “Armed struggle was taking nationalists nowhere.”
Collins’ armed struggle came to an end for good when he was arrested in 1985. He was ultimately acquitted of murder and released two years later. He had turned states’ witness against the IRA, only to recant. But the bridge was burned. He watched as republicans killed other republicans to cement their position of dominance. He saw a movement that had betrayed itself. Or which had never really been loyal to the cause.
Collins wrote Killing Rage in hopes that his children might “inherit a more equal and just society.” He wouldn’t live long enough to see it.
Shortly after new year’s day in 1999, Collins was attacked and brutally murdered while walking his dogs.
“He had become a writer, an irrefutable witness to the moral depravity of murdering your neighbour,” filmmaker Kevin Toolis wrote then in The Guardian. “And the IRA killed him for it.”
This week, on a very sombre Bug-eyed and Shameless, we’ll try and understand the morality, mortality, and efficacy of terrorism.
October 7 marked the single deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.
At least 1,300 Israelis were murdered when waves of terror were unleashed on Israel by Hamas. Thousands more were injured, and hundreds were kidnapped and taken into the Gaza strip.
There is no justifying this violence. Critics of the Israeli government, both within the country and outside of it, were quick to point out how the ongoing blockade of Gaza had created deplorable conditions. Services and quality of life have declined precipitously. Particularly since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government came to power with a coalition of radical parties opposed to a negotiated peace, but even before it, dreams of a two-state solution have grown more distant. In that mounting pessimism, more Palestinian radicalization has taken hold. Hamas has been tolerated and supported by Palestinians who feel there is simply no other option for service-delivery, political success, and resistance against Israel. All of that is true, and does not justify this violence.
Hamas is a terror organization. Their political project is inextricably linked with violence, not just against the Israeli state but against Israeli civilians. And they know full well that their tactics will bring more death on Palestine. They hope to cause such fear and anger to provoke Israel into disproportionate attacks on Gaza — and they hide amongst Palestinian civilians to ensure the highest possible moral price for Israel’s response and retribution. What’s worse, they have prioritized violence in order to establish their dominance over the more radical Islamic Jihad and more politically-minded Fatah. Hamas knows these attacks make a negotiated settlement less likely, not more; but that it will cement their own political supremacy in Gaza.
This dispatch is not an attempt to unravel the impossible ethics, morality, and politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The history of humanitarian crises caused by Israel, and the violence inflicted by Hamas is impossibly long and I would be unable to do it justice. I don’t have a solution for how to change that calculous, nor should anyone be looking to me for one.
I think we must establish an area of agreement, however: The murder of Israeli civilians is morally wrong; as is the collective punishment of Palestine. Those two ideas need not be in competition.
But it seems like, for many in the West, both ideas cannot be true simultaneously. Activists, influencers, and organizations have rushed to justify the murders: Graphics lionizing the Hamas paragliders; screeds insisting that Hamas is “decolonizing” Israel; celebration of Hamas as “freedom fighters.”2
This framing, in short, accepts Hamas’ propaganda: That there are no civilians in Israel. That any target, even children, the elderly, and a Canadian-Israeli peace activist, is legitimate. In another sense, it removes all agency from the Palestinians: That the blockade imposed by Israel have given them no recourse but this brutal response.
And that’s what I want to explore here. Because it is a popular argument that Hamas’ terrorism is both necessary and effective. It is resistance.
I am here to argue that terrorism isn’t just morally wrong and practically ineffective, but a suicide note for a nation struggling to find independence. Celebrating Hamas is condemning the Palestinian people.
The last century is rife with examples of independence movements which have unleashed their anger and frustration on civilians, and sold their souls doing so. It is also replete with instances of sovereignty campaigns renouncing retribution and succeeding because of it.
Hamas cannot obtain Palestinian statehood through the blood of Israeli civilians and settlers. Even if it could, its independence would be a poisoned chalice.
In 2009, researchers Eric Gould and Esteban Klor embarked on a study of public opinion in Israel, overlaying it with trends in attacks on civilians.
They were armed with a simple question: Does terrorism work?
Their oft-cited study, at first blush, suggests a straight-forward answer: Yes.
“Terror attacks by Palestinian factions have succeeded to move the entire political landscape of the Israeli electorate towards a more accommodating stance regarding the political objectives of the Palestinians,” the researchers found. In particular, they found a correlation between the tempo of terror attacks and Israeli support for land concessions.
The data are far from conclusive, the shift in opinion is, at best, marginal, and the possible reasons for it are complicated. Attacks may thrust the problem back into public consciousness, focus attention on the need for a negotiated solution, and wear down opposition to a negotiated settlement. Certainly, the murder of civilians is a very high cost way to achieve those objectives.
At the same time, however, the research pointed to a countervailing shift: Israelis were growing more likely to vote for right-wing parties. (Although those parties were moving slightly to the left on the peace process over that time.) But their conclusion was stark: “While terrorism in small doses appears to be an effective political tool, our results suggest that terror activity beyond a certain threshold seems to backfire on the goals of terrorist factions, by hardening the stance of targeted population.”
Indeed, that paper is now more than a decade old. The intervening years have either seen an unraveling of the observations made in the paper, or a clear endorsement of their warning of a tipping point. The whole Israeli political spectrum has moved drastically to the right, while Israeli support for a two-state solution has never been so low.
National security researcher Robert Pape posited in 2003 that there was a “strategic logic” behind terrorism. While we often think of terrorists, suicide bombers in particular, as irrational and fanatical — and they may well be — they are usually deployed with a strategic aim in mind. Pape, describing the shift observed by Gould and Klor, found that low-level attacks could attain small strategic benefits, but that “more ambitious suicide terrorist campaigns are not likely to achieve still greater gains and may well fail completely.” He posits that this kind of terrorism could push governments to abandon low-value objectives but not high-value ones. This feels fairly obvious, but it’s worth underlining: Terrorism can only push states to sacrifice something they are already willing to sacrifice.
The Tamil Tigers are a good illustration of this. They arguably invented the tactic of strategic suicide bombings during the brutal Sri Lanka civil war.3 The use of suicide bombers — and other war crimes, including the conscription of child soldiers — came out of decades of Tamil persecution and subjugation, but it was used as a tactic in an internal struggle. Capitulation, for the Sri Lankan state, meant breaking the state itself. That was an impossibly high cost. After more than 20 years of fighting, and some 100,000 dead, the Tamil Tigers were defeated.
Israel’s own statehood was marked by the terror campaign of LEHI and Irgun, two Jewish paramilitary gangs which targeted Palestinian civilians, British administrators, and even Jewish residents of during the UK’s mandate of Palestine in the 1930s and 40s. Even as the overwhelming majority of Israelis put aside their differences with the British in order to oppose the threat of Nazi Germany, the two radical gangs kept up attacks, robberies, and assassinations. These small groups went so far as to contemplate an alliance with fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to secure the future of a Jewish Israeli state. (This proposal came to nothing, and the two groups were branded ‘Jewish Quislings’ for their attempt.) After the war ended, Irgun stepped up its campaign: Planting bombs in the kitchen of the King David Hotel, killing 91 and wounding scores of others. The mass murder may have hastened Britain’s exit from Palestine, but it served no obvious strategic benefit: The British had already settled on a partition plan for a new Israeli state and refused to change it amid the pressure. The bombings had only succeeded in scarring the Jewish state before it was even born.
Joseph Heller wrote years later that the whatever successes may have been attained by the terror — minor as they were — LEHI and the Stern Gang “appeared to be working against the normalisation of the young state.” Israelis saw that “all the fighters had to offer were prophecies of doom.”4
While we can focus on the instances where terrorism achieved some tactical advantage or short-term political goal, it is also worth considering the significantly longer list of examples where terrorism not only failed, but backfired. The Baader–Meinhof Gang in German, the Front de libération du Québec, the Weather Underground, the Earth Liberation Front, and a long list of others all deployed terrorism tactics of different stripes, at different levels of severity, and succeeded only in hardening attitudes against their cause. The FLQ, in particular, squandered public support in Quebec after murdering a government official. (An earlier version of this post said the FLQ had killed a British official. In fact, James Cross was kidnapped but later released. Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte was the one who was killed.)
The African National Congress also represents an interesting example. Senior figures, including Nelson Mandela, set up an armed wing of their anti-apartheid movement styled after Irgun: Umkhonto we Sizwe (Translated: Spear of the Nation.) But its terror campaign remained minor, especially in contrast to both state-backed violence and attacks from other anti-apartheid groups. Its renunciation of violence, just as ethnic conflict broke out across the country, may have been key to the ANC’s rise to power. “In the broad context of the the ending of the bipolar contest, the decaying political legitimacy of the Afrikaner regime, and the eruption of widespread ethnic violence, it is just as easy to argue that MK [Umkhonto] atacks on civilians held back the ANC’s cause as it is to find evidence that they advanced it,” concluded conflict expert Audrey Conin.5
Even when terror tactics are deployed in a desperate act of self-defence, they are often both woefully insufficient and used as justification of provocation.
In 1992, a Muslim man from Višegrad, Murat Šabanović, appeared on television to declare that he had taken control of a hydroelectric dam near the Serbia border. He had taken a number of Serbs hostage and rigged the dam with explosives. If Serbian tanks advanced further, he would unleash a tidal wave of destruction.
Days earlier, Serbian forces, clad in balaclavas, had gone door-to-door in a predominately Muslim town and killed everyone they found, under orders from Slobodan Milošević. Serbian television stations described his raid on the town as a “rescue of innocent Serbs threatened with genocide.” Šabanović knew what was coming for the rest of Bosnia.
Serbian TV went wall-to-wall with coverage of the Bosniak who threatened Serbia with terrorism. “I’ll become a war criminal. But you will be a bigger war criminal!” Šabanović screamed at a Serbian commander, live on TV. It became another casus belli for the Serbian state to invade.
Šabanović was bluffing: There were no explosives. He opened the flood gates, but it washed away only a bridge. The hostages were released, unharmed. Serb armies advanced into Bosnia. No action he could have taken would have stopped Milošević’s genocidal aims. Heroic as his attempt was, it was used by Serbia to justify its own actions and to convince international observers that this was a two-way sectarian conflict, not the dawning of ethnic cleansing. To this day, Serbia still maintains that Šabanović is a “radical Muslim” and a war criminal.
I run through these examples not to compare them, because these various struggles are incomparable. But instead I think they start to paint a picture of terrorism as a tool of limited value. It can obtain some small short-term tactical benefit, at a high cost, but not real victory. And as it becomes an end onto itself, terrorism can frustrate the very cause it purports to be struggling for.
In his sprawling book, again posing the question: Does Terrorism Work, Irish historian Richard English considers a massive amount of historical precedent and comes to a pointed conclusion:
Terrible human suffering will ensue from terrorist violence. Taken together, this doesn't mean that such violence is necessarily illegitimate. But weighing the certainty of damage against the much less certain achievement of beneficent outcomes is vital. Every one of the case studies examined sustainedly in this book has involved considerable human suffering being caused; none of them has involved the achievement of the relevant group's central goals. And, contrary to the confidence so often evinced by terrorist activists about violently achieved progress, very many of the political futures that they have helped to create have been far less worthy of celebration than they had anticipated. Indeed, in tune with historians' frequent scepticism about historical watersheds, very much in political life (in our al-Qaida, PIRA [Provision Irish Republican Army], Hamas, and ETA [Basque Homeland and Liberty] case studies, for example) has actually proved continuous before, during, and after those groups' violent campaigns in pursuit of dramatic change.6
The one consistent conclusion of terrorism research seems to be that terror succeeds most when it is met with terror. State over-reaction, especially when it bleeds into inhumanity, polarizes and radicalizes. If we accept English’s conclusions (as, I think, we should) that terror is costly and ineffective, perhaps there is still benefit in a psychological or reputational sense. Simply: Terror forces the state to delegitimize itself.
But even that cynical logic cannot justify this violence. If anything, it is an even more depraved justification.
For starters, this tactic only works with a complimentary disinformation campaign: One that Hamas, in particular, is very adept at. Deny your crimes, and attribute to your enemy what you yourself are responsible for. Consider this conversation between Zanny Minton Beddoes, the Economist’s editor-in-chief; and Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior Hamas political leader in Qatar.
Zanny Minton Beddoes: How can you justify the atrocities that have been committed in Israel murdering hundreds of innocent people?
Moussa Abu Marzouk: The al-Qassam fighters did not commit any atrocities. They were committed to the international and moral laws. They were fighting against settlers and soldiers.
Beddoes: I'm sorry, that is manifestly not true. The scenes from the music festival [was] the greatest loss of Jewish life in a mass murderer since the Holocaust.
Marzouk: The main target was 50 military posts and the festival music festival was by coincidence, maybe those two those were bypassers. […] And, of course, they were very considered by fighters as settlers, not as tourists. In a nutshell, if they were knew that those are tourists not settlers or Israeli soldiers they will not kill them.[…] Among the 1000 who were killed from the Israelis, you will not find a single child. […]
Beddoes: So you are saying that no Israeli children were killed by the Palestinian fighters?
Marzouk: For sure. 7
We know, of course, this is a grievous lie. Despite allegations of “disinformation,” we have photographic evidence of the murder of infants at the hands of Hamas fighters, just as we have video of Hamas terrorists methodically executing festival-goers. Hamas’ attempts to whitewash these atrocities, and attempts by Westerns to help them, is sickening.
This barbarity was not accidental or incidental, but intentional It was designed to elicit a disproportionate response. And that response has arrived. Israeli airstrikes have already killed more than 1,500 in Gaza, including hundreds of youth and infants. Israel is already warning that there is more death to come. Hospitals have lost power and are being told to evacuate or face airstrikes.
This was the only possible outcome from Saturday’s attack. Right or wrong, it was always going to be the response. Hamas knows that, because Hamas and Israel have done this action/reaction cycle before.
That is, at least partly, why Hamas has long used residential apartment blocks to launch their operations, nestling command centers, tunnel networks, and rocket launchers amongst Palestinian civilians. They use civilians both as camouflage, human shields, and as cost multipliers for Israeli military action. And Israel consistently pursues that action anyway.
Again, this is the point. If we are to assess the attacks of September 11 based on Osama bin Laden’s stated goals — the end of American support for Israel, the closure of American bases in Saudi Arabia, a lifting of sanctions on Iraq — it was a complete and total failure. But we would be naive to think those were actually al-Qaeda’s expected outcomes. It is clear that bin Laden was keen to provoke an American invasion of the Middle East and destroy the last vestiges of American moral authority. And, to that end, he succeeded beyond any imagination.
Yet even the most charitable read of this tactic still shows it to be a failure. Two decades of American involvement in the Middle East have left hundreds of thousands of Muslims dead and pushed millions away from the bloody tactics of radical Islamism. The region is now more fractured and divided than it was before 9/11. The only argument that the attacks of September 11 ‘worked’ is one based in anger, retribution, and emotion.
Stripping away your own humanity in hopes that your adversary may follow suit, showing the world how depraved they can be, is a way to entrench an interminable conflict, not resolve it.
Where does this leave us?
We should be clear-eyed that the actions of Hamas are not acts of resistance. They are employing their defining strategy of indiscriminate terrorism as they always have, and they are precipitating a death spiral. This constant action/reaction cycle has left the Palestinian people more isolated, with less territory, less free, less prosperous, and further away from a peace agreement. They have made it harder for Palestine to achieve liberation. At the same time, Hamas is struggling to cement its own power base: They forbade local elections last year. They are locked in a battle to take control of the Palestinian Authority from an aging Mahmoud Abbas. This wave of attacks may destroy any remnants of a functioning democracy in Gaza, leaving Hamas to assume total control.
But we should also understand that Israel’s thinking has also become punitive and short-term, trading immediate security for long-term instability. There has been radicalization in their ranks, too — some of whom have even adopted a revisionist appreciation for LEHI and the Stern Gang. Members of Netanyahu’s government have advanced policies they know will elicit violent responses from Hamas. This fatalism must be resisted, and actively discouraged by the international community. Unfortunately, the international community has long been deferential to Netanyahu.
Israelis overwhelmingly blame Netanyahu for the security failures which led to Saturday’s attack. That will, likely, push Netanyahu to make the assault on Gaza even more brutal and decisive. With power and water cut off from Gaza, Israel is talking about the citizens of Gaza as complicit, labeling their cohabitation with Hamas as collaboration. That logic mirrors Hamas’ own rationale to justify strikes of Israeli civilians.
It’s easy to despair.
But history, generally speaking, tells us a couple of things. One: That people will not accept a descent into permanent armed struggle. While terror can entrench itself as a seemingly inseparable part of a movement, and even frustrate more effective political tactics, it will ultimately either destroy a cause or fall away as more effective strategies for peace emerge. It is hard to imagine the dream of a Palestinian state dying, so we have to hope for the latter. Two: The state cannot engage in counter-terrorism forever. Given a legitimate opening, it will pursue a rational peace and reconciliation process, even if it means shaking hands with the erstwhile terrorists. But this process can only work if the threat of terrorism is actually and entirely taken off the table.
The Oslo Accords may feel like a distant memory, but sometimes peace can be closer than it feels. We can only hope that the Palestinian people — like the Irish — will be given the opportunity to divorce themselves from Hamas’ suicidal commitment to violence; and that the Israelis will be open to accepting it.
That’s it for this, very troubling, week.
This week’s dispatch came out of my own attempt to reconcile the horrors of Hamas’ assault on Israel with the fear of what the attack would mean for the people of Gaza — even as I watched people I know and respect celebrate the former and denounce the latter. Or vice versa.
Until next time.
I am deliberately not calling out any specific people in this dispatch. There’s enough vitriol going around the internet right now.
Suicide attacks have a long and complicated history, of course. The Tamil Tigers were innovative in how they deployed individual suicide bombers to achieve low-level operational objectives.