TERRORISM SALON: Eric Rosand Responds on Definitional Issues

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(Eric Rosand is a senior fellow at the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation in New York and a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation).
Thanks, Matt, for following this thread.
On the definition issue, at risk of stating the obvious, the distinction between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” is given weight it doesn’t deserve because of the inherently political nature of any discussion of who is and who isn’t a terrorist. The fact that the US only recently took Nelson Mandela off of its terrorist list is a reminder of this.
I don’t think it’s realistic to expect one to divorce the politics from the law here, particularly in the context of efforts to reach agreement among the diversity of countries within the UN. It’s worth noting that many sitting governments in sub-saharan Africa (and elsewhere) saw themselves as “freedom fighters” (and were often labeled by Western governments as “terrorists”) when they fought to “overthrow” the colonial regimes that had been in place.
Thus, to the extent there is any hope to finally reach agreement on a global definition of terrorism, the task can’t be left to the lawyers (I was one of them!) to try to resolve the differences in the draft UN comprehensive convention on international terrorism that has been in play for some years now. Instead, high-level political engagement is needed. This needs to come from the UN Secretary-General, the US President, and leaders from key Islamic and African countries. Finding a way to get President Abbas to come to the UN General Assembly and condemn all indiscriminate attacks against civilians carried out for political purposes, even if committed by Palestinian “freedom fighters”, for example, would be an important first step.
On Matt’s 1267 Committee point, the issue is a bit more complicated. For example, it’s worth recalling that the US was one of the loudest critics of the Monitoring Group that was disbanded in 2004. In fact, the US lead the charge in the UNSC to not renew the mandate. Much of the criticism had to do with the occasional failure of the group to stay within it its mandate and back up its often pointed assertions in its reports with the necessary factual support.
As for whether the UNSC should establish an independent panel, this is something that I hope to address in a broader discussion of the UN’s role in CT, which I hope will be prompted.
— Eric Rosand
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.

Comments

30 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Eric Rosand Responds on Definitional Issues

  1. David S says:

    I don’t understand how I can be called a racist. In fact, what I am suggesting is that the Palestinians have a lot of power.
    With regard to to WWII, we all had family who served. And are proud of their service. That is irrelevant–otherwise, I would think that you voted for the first Pres Bush for his service. Ha!
    In fact, I am concerned that many on this board are in favor of a one-state solution that does not include an Israel. Let alone a place for Jews (or Christians) much like in the rest of the Arab world. What happened to the thriving Jewish communities of Baghdad and Persia in the past half-century?
    And for my past question, there is stil no proof of the appearance of Palestinian contrition. In my world, intentionally killing a defenseless child is wrong no matter where it takes place. But I guess that makes me a racist…..

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  2. Kathleen says:

    Ooops typo. thanks arthurdecco

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  3. Kathleen says:

    Thank you, artherdecco.

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  4. PissedOffAmerican says:

    And the Israelis have shot nine more people at the boy’s funeral. Just call it “discouraging dissent”. Power, my ass.

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  5. ... says:

    regarding POA’s post, look at the language used to describe the murder of this boy in haaretz.. now if it was an israeli, the description would have been very different… one has to be asleep to not notice the way language is used depending on who is doing what…. http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1006972.html

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  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    “The Palestinians have a great amount of power to be used constructively or destructively. To suggest otherwise is to denigreate them as children while adults must make the decisions”
    The Israelis just shot a ten year old boy who was with a group of Palestinians who were protesting a wall being built that will separate them from 600 acres of their olive orchard. The Israeli soldier knelt, aimed, and fired, putting a round in the ten year old’s forhead at 100 yards.
    The ten year old is dead, the Israelis claim they will “investigate”, the wall will be built, and the 600 acres of Palestinian livelyhood will be erased. Now, tell me, what “power” do these Palestinians have?
    You know what, buddy? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to surmise that you just might be more than a tad racist. Your every post merits that hypothesis. You seem to consider the Palestinians lesser human beings than the Israelis. But you will deny it. And its only a matter of time before you will start spitting out the accusation of anti-semitism here, unable to defend Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians by any other means. Sure, my comment will stall your use of the tactic, but its only a matter of time before you get on script.

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  7. arthurdecco says:

    Great post, Kathleen, filled with sound reasoning, (as opposed to the dancing on the head of pin kind on display throughout this thread).

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  8. Kathleen says:

    David S…Not quite… our entrance to WW2 was Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor…not as discussed was Germany sending U boats to the US… which entered Long Island Sound and torpedoed a freighter anchored in Mahattan Harbor and two others traveling up the Thames River in New London, CT. where they were attempting to reach the US Submarine Base when they were captured. That was an act of aggression… a clear and present danger…the U boats are on display to this day at the SubBase and the shed at the foot of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge where the German crew was held is still called by locals, “the German shed”..
    Palestinians were minding their own business when others came there from somewhere else and basically squatted on their land. Palestinians were defending their homeland. That European Jews were persecuted by the Germans is criminal, but this was not due to Palestinians., who have been made to pay the price. Arafat rejected the Camp David agreement over the wall. Had Rabin not been killed, by one of his own, they might have been able to reach an agreement. When Palestinians receive $16 million a day from Uncle Sam, they’ll have power.
    Incidentally, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father volunteered for the Navy, but was commissioned in the Coast Guard as a Captian because he had all the required pilot’s licenses to transport passengers and vehicles in Long Island Sound, having been the Captian of several ferries. His job was to transport Army Corps Engineers out to the tiny islands in LI Sound while they constructed an underwater steel fence accross its mouth to prevent any other U-boats from entering the Sound.
    Curiously, I recently learned that John McCain and I were both 5 yeras old and both living in New London. when Pearl Harbor was attacked… his Dad was at the SubBase, upriver… my Dad was out in open water, transporting civilians in unarmed ferries and later military personel. I’m glad my Dad was able to defend our country without having to go kill other people.

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  9. David S says:

    Kathleen–the all killing is bad motif places Ted Bundy in the same position as a US soldier in Germany in 1945.
    A primary difference is that soldiers have the job of fighting when they are in uniform. They are not garbagemen, secretaries, or waitresses.
    And as to whether people are “pressed into defending their homeland” gives those who are “pressed” no agency. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this suggests the Palestinians have no recourse, no power. I disagree.
    What about the offer made in 2000 that Arafat rejected? What about the money that Arafat had stashed away that could have been (and could be) used to feed his people? What about destroying whatever was left in Gaza? What about attacking non-Israeli Jews around the globe? What about hundreds of millions of other Arab supporters in the famed “Arab street”?
    The Palestinians have a great amount of power to be used constructively or destructively. To suggest otherwise is to denigreate them as children while adults must make the decisions.
    The Pale

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  10. Kathleen says:

    Legalize bingo, or else!!! I needed that, honestly. If the reality of terror and the discussion were not so tragic, it would be hillarious.
    To cut right to the case, it seems, based on how the “powers that be” define the issue, clothes make the man. If you’re in a uniform and part of a State’s Military, you can drop bombs into civilian areas and say it’s a mistake to bomb a wedding.
    If, on the other hand, you are part of group, who were presed into defending their homeland with whatever mean there are at hand, but you all aren;t wearing the same outfit, you’re a terrorist. ..and what is this distinction between civilians and noncivilians? Aren’t people in uniform someone’s child, too?
    All killing is wrong, no matter who is doing it, in or out of uniform, except in self-defense. If you go to another’s country and begin killing the people who live there, in or out of unifrom, you are a terrorist/murderer and people defending themselves, by whatever means, are acting in self-defense.
    The core issue is that all societies claim to forbid killing, except when they do it and the semantic gymnastics employed to justify their actions is the stuff of history.
    Meanwhile, back at the Philology Center, I’m looking for a philogynist for president.

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  11. questions says:

    left out the seach terms — I had them in angle brackets and that must mean something in html.
    US military paid compensation victims
    sorry about that.

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  12. questions says:

    JohnH,
    Not sure this link (below) quite answers your question about compensation. I googled something along the lines of and several articles turned up. This is one of them. I think it’s not uncommon for the US to pay compensation for “wrongful death”. It’s all weird and kind of gross, but we do seem to pay out money to the families of people we have accidentally killed while trying to kill others. I have to admit, I really don’t understand why anyone gets into the war business.
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/12/news/abuse.php

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  13. David S says:

    JohnH: that was my point exactly. And these are the rules regardless of who is the actor and who is the victim. This is not dependent on whether I “like” people or you “like” people.
    Although the hostage situation with a bomb is also clear intent. Why else have the bomb and the imprisonment of people–the hostage taker knows that he/she is intentionally jeopardizing the lives of the hostages with an explosive. So even if the “terrorist” tripped and fell thereby causing the bomb to explode and to kill the hostages, there was such a gross and reckless disregard for life that it should amount to murder.
    PS: The US military admits mistakes all the time. So does the Israeli military (albeit not as often as many posters would like them to do so!)
    But have the Palestinians ever apologized for killing an innocent Israeli? And we are not talking about Fatah denouncing Hamas acts, for Fatah is not apologizing for itself. If so, please provide a link to educate me. I am ready and willing to learn something new.

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  14. JohnH says:

    questions, how often does the military admit a mistake? How often do they compensate innocent victims?
    Based on their treatment of veterans (lousy), I expect their treatment of innocent, foreign victims to be absolutely abysmal, particularly since my impression is that admitting mistakes is not part of their culture.

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  15. questions says:

    JohnH,
    I’m not a lawyer, but I believe that in US criminal law, there are distinctions between first degree murder (with intent) and involuntary manslaughter, with the distinction resting precisely on intent. If a plumber at a wedding party accidentally blows up the building because the torch lights gas from a leak, there’s a bloody wedding party, but absolutely no intent. Though there may be negligence somewhere. If I spend weeks learning about explosives, go buy a bunch, strap them to me, walk to a wedding and explode, well, there’s pretty clear intent. If there’s a hostage situation and I blow up a bunch of people, it’s not really intent again, but there may be negligence.
    We don’t want wrongful death to go unpunished, but we do want the punishment to be based on intent. So if a military helicopter blows up a wedding but didn’t intend to, there’s negligence and compensation, but not intent and capital punishment.
    Nt sure I like any of these categories, but on some level, it does seem to make sense.

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  16. ... says:

    i have noticed a consistency in the language the news outlets use to describe events involving israelis/palestinians. isrealis “kill” palestinians.. palestinians ” murder” israelis… israelis kill “suspected” terrorists… palestinians “murder’ innocent victims…. now whether this is the case all the time, i somehow doubt it, but that is the way the mainstream western media always describe it…. i come away thinking that the language is always slanted to a friendly bias towards israel and a hostile one towards arabs in general… as a consequence i don’t believe what i read in the media and think they play a role in shaping opinion that is dishonest…

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  17. JohnH says:

    David S, Two problems–how do you establish the intent of someone who blows up a wedding party? You seem to assume a priori that some (people you don’t like) blow up wedding parties to terrorize the civilian population, while others (people you like) blow it up by mistake. Shouldn’t anyone who blows up a wedding party be brought to justice and let the chips fall where they may?
    Second problem is that in the Israel-Palestinian situation, you seem to have four sets of laws, depending on the identity of the pepetrators and victims: Jews who kill Jews, Palestinians who kill Palestinians, Jews who kill Palestinians, and Palestinians who kill Jews. It seems to me that you could greatly improve the situation and relieve the tension but having one set of laws applied equally to all.

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  18. David S says:

    In our nation-state driven world, there is no way to consider movements on an equal footing to countries. Nor should there be. Under such a framework, the Republic of West Texas and other McVeigh like groups could get a seat at a proverbial table. Or Al-Qaeda. And how many movements would be needed to sit down at this table of equality with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
    With regard to terrorism, the wedding discussion is also a difficult one. If a soldier is riding a bus while on a weekend pass and reading a book when a bomb kills him/her in the bus, the mere fact that this person is a soldier as his day job does not make him/her a target for murder. This is indisputably a defenseless human being.
    Thus, the tenor of this conversation leads me to conclude that many of you consider all Israelis to be appropriate targets at all times as occupiers. This is false. And outrageous. Are you an appropriate target at all times becuase the US has a large number of troops in Iraq? I for one, do not believe I am a target wherever I go just because I am a US citizen.
    In total, as some have pointed out the fundamental tenets of terrorism is to act with the INTENT to terrorize the CIVILIAN population. Therefore, mitakenly blowing up a wedding is not terrorism–it is a mistake, incompetence, or whatever. (Not to excuse it at all, mind you). In legal terms, this is not murder because of the lack of intent.
    Whereas to purposely blow up a wedding with the intent of murdering its attendees to scare the general population that they could be next unless certain acts are taken, that is terrorism and muder. This is the case regardless of who the actor is–whether that person is from Israel, the Arab world, or anywhere else in this universe.

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  19. Sweetness says:

    JohnH,
    I think you’re mixing up a number of elements here. One is the identity of the perp(s). Two is the motivation of the perp(s). And three is who, in fact, gets killed, i.e., is it just civilians or is it a mix of civilians and the real targets who, unfortunately, are in proximity to each other. I’m not sure how all these elements interrelate to bring clarity to the discussion.
    I don’t think it works to say that any action in which civilians are killed is ipso facto terrorism. At a minimum, one would want to say that it is the intentional targeting of civilians that is at issue…because the point of terrorism is to create terror, not merely to kill. In that sense, many non-terrorist acts are worse–in terms of killing and destruction– than terrorist acts.
    Your point about identity is both good and sort of useless. Arabs are considered a priori terrorists…but not by Arabs. Jews are considered a priori terrorists…but not by Jews. Americans are considered a priori terrorists…but not by Americans. In short, everyone has his own perspective and roots for his own “team,” which is, a priori, good, or, a priori, given the benefit of the doubt.
    Treating all “teams” equally would require, I think, a world government and world court that floated above the teams and could judge them impartially.

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  20. ... says:

    as usual JohnH, you make some really good comments that everyone knows, but very few are willing to discuss openly.. people are often suckers for images and words and get manipulated into thinking one way or the other, never getting beyond those same words and images to examine the real issues more deeply.. i think you hit the nail on the head with many of your posts..

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  21. JohnH says:

    Dan, clearly certain acts should be made criminal. Indiscriminately targeting civilian populations is a good example. Most would agree that it is a crime. Blowing up a civilian airliner or a wedding party are pretty cut and dried examples.
    However, one level of problem arises because the identify of the perpetrator is of paramount importance in any discussion of terrorism. An Arab who blows up a wedding party is a priori considered to have been targeting civilians, even though many of the victims were military and police officials. An American who blows up a wedding party from a bomber is a priori considered to have been targeting a bad guy, even though most of the victims were women and children, something that should have been obvious in advance.
    Most laws are based first and foremost on the outcome of an act. If people killed other people, it’s a usually crime. However, when it comes to terrorism, the fact that people were killed is subsumed to the identify of the killer (Arab or American), the perpetrator (Arab or American) and the tactics used (car bomb vs. bomb from aircraft). The identities of the criminal, the perpetrator, and the tactics used are taken to imply motivation, even though actual motivation is often impossible to ascertain. To have a real system of justice relating to terrorism, the laws need to focus on the crime committed and be blind to the identities of the perpetrator, the victim and the weapons used.
    Not doing this creates the very real problem of selective enforcement. As I posted earlier, Luis Posada Carriles is suspected of having been involved in blowing up a Cuban airliner with the Cuban national fencing team aboard. Most Americans, without hearing the identity of the perpetrator or the victims, would consider this to be an act of terrorism. When the identities are revealed, some people, particularly those inside the beltway, look to rationalize the crime and turn the victims into perpetrators and vice-versa. And so Posada Carriles get coddled by the Bush administration, while others who blew up civilian airliners rightfully spend their time in jail.
    I have no problem making terrorism a crime, as long as it treats all those who attack civilian populations equally. There should not be one set of rules for certain groups of perpetrators and a different set for another. And there should not be one set of rules for people who attack civilians using certain weapons versus those who do it using other weapons. Attacking civilian populations is attacking civilian populations, period.

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  22. arthurdecco says:

    Sweetness said: “The notion that Israel is a balloon kept inflated
    by the hot air of the US is delusional.”
    Au contraire – the notion that Israel, (as presently constituted), is NOT a balloon kept inflated by the hot air of the US is delusional.

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  23. ... says:

    for the record i believe it was the israelis who first started using bulldozers (american caterpillars) for murdering innocent palestinians while destroying homes not to forget the murder of rachel carrie that started the ball rolling on on the use of a bulldozer to cause suffering or worse…

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  24. Dan Kervick says:

    I don’t understand this debate. The concepts of being a terrorist and being a freedom fighter are logically independent.
    One can be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist; one can be a freedom fighter and not a terrorist; one can be a terrorist and not a freedom fighter; and one can be neither a terrorist nor a freedom fighter. The answer to the question “Is he a terrorist?” entails nothing one way or another about the answer to the question “Is he a freedom fighter?”
    The whole idea behind the customary and international legal proscription of terrorism is supposed to be, I always assumed, that there are certain ways of fighting that civilized humans are determined to regard as dirty, out of bounds, dishonorable, unchivalrousness, or what have you, without regard to the underlying justice or injustice of the cause. So long as people have fought, they have tried to make rules establishing the acceptable bounds within which the fighting can take place. And most have declared terrorism out of bounds.
    So you might be legitimately fighting for freedom, and thus be a freedom fighter. But if you employ terrorism in your struggle then you are both a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Your fight for freedom is legitimate, but your terrorism is not. And if I call someone a terrorist, and condemn his terrorism unequivocally, that condemnation entails nothing all about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of his cause.
    But that doesn’t mean, by the way, that the concept of terrorism automatically comes with a judgment of moral disapprobation logically packed into it. The philosopher Ted Honderich has written articles and a book defending the idea that terrorism is in some circumstances morally justified. Honderich’s views might be wrong; but they are not logically inconsistent. The definition of terrorism as a certain kind of fighting tactic is one thing; moral or legal rules proscribing terrorism are another.
    It’s common to hear the complaint the the definition of terrorism is hopelessly muddy and confused, and so it it useless. But most of the definitions of terrorism I have come across are actually fairly consistent among one another, although they leave some things fuzzy around the edges. They all presuppose a distinction can be made between combatants and non-combatants, and they all declare terrorism to involve the intentional infliction of violence on non-combatants. There are usually some other phrases to the effect that the purpose of the violence is to spread fear in a political community in order to advance a political cause through intimidation.
    For example, if I shoot the head of the gaming commission because I don’t like his policies and want him gone, that’s not terrorism. It’s just an assassination. If, on the other hand, I blow up a random collection of innocent individuals and leave a message that says “Legalize Bingo or I will strike again!”, that’s terrorism.
    Even groups who tend to practice terrorism tend to grasp and understand the concept clearly enough, and acknowledge the deep morally problematic character of terrorism. For example, some of the writings of Al Qaeda members and their ilk, argued that the 9/11 attacks were justified, because the people in the Trade Center were willing functionaries in the apparatus of US imperialism. In other words, they justified their actions by arguing that their victims were not really non-combatants. They wouldn’t bother advancing this argument if they didn’t recognize that there is something prima facie odious about killing non-combattants.
    Others justified their actions by claiming that the circumstances were extreme, and that there were no other viable options. Again, this kind of argument seems to recognize that there is something prima facie wrong about terrorism, and that defending it thus requires appeal to extraordinary circumstances.
    The one big difference between extant definitions of terrorism is that the governments of states tend to say that terrorism is, by definition, something committed by sub-national groups or non-state actors, so as to get themselves off the hook automatically, whereas many academics and jurists with no prejudice in favor of state violence define terrorism in such a way as to allow that a state can be guilty of it.

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  25. Sue says:

    Meanwhile…
    Article title: Little Havana press conference presses for exile’s pardon
    “When he was arrested on July 22, 1983, Cuban exile Eduardo Arocena was described by federal authorities as America’s most dangerous anti-Castro terrorist.
    But at a news conference in Little Havana Tuesday, Arocena’s family and friends described the former New Jersey dockworker as an ailing Cuban patriot deserving of a presidential pardon.
    Twenty five years after a federal judge sentenced the Omega 7 leader to life in prison plus 35 years for allegedly murdering a Cuban diplomat and planting multiple bombs in Miami and New York, the Arocena case is again in the headlines.
    His wife and supporters are seeking presidential clemency for Arocena, who was in his 40s when sentenced.”
    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/breaking-news/story/622341.html

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  26. erichwwk says:

    “Finding a way to get President Abbas to come to the UN General Assembly and condemn all indiscriminate attacks against civilians carried out for political purposes, even if committed by Palestinian “freedom fighters”, for example, would be an important first step.”
    It seems to me that continuing to use force to demand the physical weaker party make the first concession, along the lines of what the power elite have been insisting on with Iran just continues the double standard that terrorists/freedom fighters have always been willing to die for.
    To show a “good faith” move towards rule of law, wouldn’t it make more sense for the US to make the first concession, and address the US sponsored terrorists?
    Isn’t this sort of “you first” insistence that caused the Baruch Plan to fail, and gave us the cold war in the first place?
    I am getting the sense here that US culpability in
    terrorism is not being recognized, except by the those that comment. See eg The latest PEW poll on self evaluation on ones own economy and foreign policy, p. 14.
    http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/261.pdf
    The US is ahead of only Lebanon and South Korea in both of these polls, something suggesting Bush/Rice, rather than Abbas, make the first concession.

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  27. Sweetness says:

    Yes; the obligations of the Palestinians always seem to be
    paramount when Westerners are speaking. This is unfortunate.
    Hopefully, ENLIGHTENED support from the US can right this
    balance. I do think that Rosand wasn’t going for a
    comprehensive view here, however. He said, “For example…”
    Equally unfortunately, unless Hamas rejects its stated aim of
    overthrowing Israel, then even if it never amounts to a real
    threat to Israel’s security, peace will never come. It’s all well and
    good to point out that Israel has 500# bombs and the
    Palestinians have inaccurate mini missiles, if the Palestinians
    keep up “the armed struggle,” they are never going to achieve
    statehood, IMO. And it won’t matter if the US cuts off 100% of
    its aid to Israel. The notion that Israel is a balloon kept inflated
    by the hot air of the US is delusional.
    The Israelis have to get that ruling over another people is a
    cancer that will eat away at the soul of their society. It is wrong
    and unjust. The Palestinians have to realize that they lost in
    1948. The big fight has been over for a long time. This is not
    the Soviet Union, nor is it South Africa. Keeping hope alive here
    is keeping them in increasingly desperate straits. It’s sort of a
    shit sandwich for everyone, but eating the sandwich is better
    than dying and living in a prison.

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  28. JohnH says:

    David, where did Rosand mention the obligations of the Israelis? If you are going to have a definition of terrorism, it has to be comprehensive. It can’t exclude either the one that causes casualties in person or the one that does with snipers and bombers.
    Rosand picked one side of a conflict to single out as terrorists but failed to mention how the other side contributes to the problem.

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  29. David S says:

    The onus is not exclusively on the Palestinians or the Israelis. It is on both of them. How dare you suggest that this is one-sided when bulldozers are killing Israelis in Jerusalem.
    Moreover, do the Palestinians, as Hamas states, want a one-state solution that does not include Israel? If so, where is the lack of a bargaining partner for a two state solution?

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  30. JohnH says:

    Always the onus on the Palestinians: “Finding a way to get President Abbas to come to the UN General Assembly and condemn all indiscriminate attacks against civilians carried out for political purposes, even if committed by Palestinian “freedom fighters”, for example, would be an important first step.”
    How about finding a way to get Prime Minister Olmert to put a stop to dispossessing Palestinians, indiscriminately killing them, even dropping 500# bombs on apartment buildings? Even after the truce with Hamas, Israel continues to provoke, trying to elicit a response from the Palestinians, which Israel can then trumpet as a violation of the truce, justifying another escalation of violence.
    Hamas arrested the rocket crew that targeted Aashkelon, but in return Israel targeted Khalil al-Haya for assassination and rounded up other members of Hamas.
    When will the Palestinians to find a sincere partner to negotiate peace with?

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