Terrorism In The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict A Case Study In Applied Ethics

Is terrorism — commonly understood to mean deliberate attacks on innocent civilians — ever justifiable, or at least subject to morally persuasive distinctions? I will argue that while terrorism is always morally wrong, it is both possible and desirable to distinguish between degrees of moral wrongness. I will examine this issue in the context of just-war moral theory and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have resorted to terrorism at various times during the course of their long conflict. After a broad overview of this history of mutual terrorism, I will discuss the conduct of both parties in terms drawn from the just-war tradition. These are (1) just cause, (2) last resort or the availability of alternatives to terrorism to reach a just cause, and (3) the probability that terrorism will realize a just cause.

My central argument is that, contrary to the standard mythology, especially in Israel, Israeli terrorism has been significantly worse than that of the Palestinians. A refutation of this mythology is important for a number of reasons. First, of course, ascertaining historical truth is important for its own sake. Second, the truth might make Israelis less blind to their own behavior and therefore less intransigent in seeking a compromise settlement of their conflict with the Palestinians. In particular, the truth should make it clear that Israel has neither the moral legitimacy nor the national interest to refuse to negotiate with Palestinian organizations that have employed terrorism, particularly Hamas, without whose participation there is no chance for a compromise settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Third, because the Israeli mythology is also widely accepted in the United States, the truth might — or, at least, should — lead the American Jewish community (of which I am a part) to rethink its views and therefore, in turn, make it politically feasible for the U.S. government to end its nearly unconditional support of Israeli policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Finally, a refutation of the mythology should serve the principles not only of truth but also of justice: current U.S. attitudes and policies have precluded the U.S. government from serious and sustained pressures on Israel, in the absence of which there is next to no chance of a fair settlement of the conflict.


What Constitutes Terrorism? It is often argued that terrorism is very difficult to define and objectively identify because the matter is hopelessly confused by semantic or ideological issues: "Terrorism is in the eye of the beholder" or "One man's terrorism is another man's freedom fighter," and the like.

This argument, however, is mistaken. There is a generally accepted and objective definition of terrorism (though with minor variations): deliberate attacks, whether by governments or non-governmental groups, on noncombatants (sometimes described as "innocent civilians") as well as their crucial economic and societal institutions and infrastructures, aimed at reaching political, religious or ideological goals.

This definition does not seek to resolve crucially important issues by building the answers into the definition, such as whether all forms of terrorism are equally morally indefensible. Moreover, it is unhelpful to moral analyses as well as policy prescriptions if the definition of terrorism is confined to mean actions that only nonstate actors engage in. For example, the U.S. government has defined terrorism as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents"1 (emphasis added).

Since terrorism should be understood as a method of warfare, not (except in extremely rare cases) its purpose, it follows that fighters in a just cause, such as resistance to occupation or tyranny, can be both freedom fighters and terrorists.

The Prohibition: Categorical or Consequentialist?

Is it morally allowable to use unjust means if they are truly necessary to reach a just end or realize a just cause? Not in terms of categorical morality, which holds that certain rules or principles are inviolate, regardless of the circumstances; for example, Catholic moral tradition holds that evil may never be done in order that good can come of it. With regard to terrorism, then, categorical morality prohibits any deliberate attacks on innocent civilians (noncombatants), even if employed on behalf of a just cause, and even if no other means are available to realize it.

By contrast, consequentialist morality holds that, in the final analysis, actions and behavior can only be judged in terms of their practical consequences. In some circumstances, this view holds, the consequences of terrorism might be morally preferable to a status quo that cannot be changed except by terrorism.

Most writers on terrorism, certainly most Western political leaders, claim to categorically oppose it, regardless of consequences. That is clearly not the case, however, for hypocrisy or simple moral blindness have often trumped a categorical rejection of terrorism. For example, during the Cold War the United States actively supported Latin American military dictatorships that routinely tortured and murdered thousands of their own people in the name of "anticommunism." Likewise, during the 1990s, there was little or no U.S. government criticism when Algerian military dictatorships used extensive terrorist methods of their own to defeat an Islamic terrorist movement that at one point was on the verge of victory in democratic elections.

In short, for one reason or another, distinctions are quite common and are not only made by governments for political reasons. At the very least, in general discourse, it is often held that some forms of terrorism are more "understandable" — a vague euphemism, but essentially meaning less wrong than others. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that in ordinary judgments, few people truly believe that all forms of terrorism are equally and always prohibited. In real life, then, as distinct from moral theory, we make distinctions and consider mitigating circumstances: causes, contexts, exceptions and consequences are typically taken into account and inform our final moral judgments about terrorism. The most common distinction is between terrorism on behalf of what we think of as a just cause and that on behalf of an unjust one.

Aside from governments and ordinary citizens, a number of consequentialist moral philosophers have also questioned whether all terrorism can be categorically rejected, especially in cases of extreme injustices in which all other measures of remediation have failed.2 As well, it is commonly observed that an absolute prohibition against terrorism favors the militarily strong, an obvious issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, examined below. For this and other reasons, as C.A.J. Coady puts it, "Many contemporary moral philosophers, sympathetic to just-war thinking, are wary of moral absolutes. They would test the prohibition as expressing a very strong moral presumption against terrorism…but allow for exceptions in extreme circumstances."3

The moral dilemma seems inescapable. On the one hand, deliberate attacks on noncombatants are a clear moral evil. On the other, we instinctively wish to make distinctions between lesser and greater evils or unmitigated and mitigated evils.

Just-War Theory and Terrorism

For those who cannot accept a truly categorical moral prohibition of terrorism, just-war theory points to a number of morally relevant distinctions.

Just Cause. The first distinction is between terrorism whose purpose is morally indefensible and that whose purpose is justified. But what constitutes a just cause, one that is "morally right and fair"? It is a matter of argument and judgment. That said, in both international law and common morality, some causes are clearly so just they may warrant the use of force to attain them. The almost universally accepted justification is that of self-defense. Beyond that, there is an increasing acceptance of the principle that force may be justified to protect human-rights from massive abuse. In this light, the principal just-cause argument I am making here is that, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Palestinians have the right (just cause) to freedom, independence, and an end to Israeli occupation and repression.

However, while a just cause is an obviously necessary condition if violence in general — and terrorism in particular — can ever be considered justifiable or, at least, mitigable, it is by no means sufficient; in just-war moral philosophy, further conditions must be met.

Last Resort, or Absence of Alternatives. Terrorism, it is often said, is a weapon of the weak. The strong (such as states) have alternatives that the weak (such as nonstate groups and movements) lack: diplomatic and political influence, economic incentives and disincentives, and powerful armed forces. State attacks on noncombatants, therefore, even assuming a just cause, have an even greater burden of moral proof than nonstate attacks.

Nonetheless, terrorism by the weak, even on behalf of a just cause (the end of oppression, national liberation), could never be regarded as justifiable unless it was clear that all other means had failed. These means must include negotiations for a political settlement and nonviolent resistance if political means fail. They may even include armed resistance, but only so long as it is directed not against the civilian population but only against the oppressor's military forces or other instruments of violent repression.

A Reasonable Probability of Success. Even if the morally required conditions of just cause and absence of alternatives are met, any consequentialist justification for terrorism must also show that terrorism can lead to the realization of a just cause. In that sense, does terrorism ever work? There is a considerable body of scholarly literature on this issue, but no consensus on the answer. Some conclude that terrorism only hardens resistance; others argue that it has sometimes resulted in the realization of a just cause after other methods have failed.

The historical record suggests that the latter argument is the more persuasive. Terrorism employed by nationalist movements, such as for ending colonialism or other forms of foreign oppression, has sometimes achieved its goal or at least been a major contributing factor. Among the examples often cited to support that conclusion are the Algerian independence movement of the 1950s, ANC terrorism against South African apartheid, the defeat of British colonialism in Kenya and white settler colonial rule in Rhodesia, and the oft-cited success of Zionist terrorism in the creation of the state of Israel.4

Even so, the more important question, at least in moral terms, is whether even successful terrorism in a just cause can be morally justified.


Palestinian Terrorism

Israel typically labels acts of Palestinian armed resistance, including against its occupying military forces, as "terrorism." However, even actual Palestinian terrorism — attacks on civilians — has regularly been exaggerated, in terms of both its purpose and its extent. As Igor Primoratz, a prominent Israeli writer on terrorism, has pointed out, although there were Palestinian riots and mob violence in the 1920s-30s, there was no organized or sustained terrorism until the late 1960s, when there were numerous attacks against Israeli civilian targets (such as buses and restaurants) and against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad (the Munich Olympic team, air traffic and others).5 Even then, most historians of this period argue that the primary practical purpose of the terrorism (despite some of the extremist Palestinian rhetoric) was less that of destroying the Israeli state — which it obviously had no chance of doing — than calling the world's attention to the Palestinian plight. That is not to say that it was justified. Nonetheless, even in its earlier stages, the operational goal of most Palestinian terrorism was a limited one.

In any case, beginning in the 1980s, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) gradually but steadily moved away from their early ideological and uncompromising rejection of the existence of Israel and effectively abandoned the dream of creating a Palestinian state in all of historic Palestine. Finally, in November 1988, Arafat and the PLO officially agreed to end not only terrorism but all attacks on Israel, in the context of a compromise two-state political settlement that would create a largely demilitarized Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, Israel continued the occupation and refused to negotiate, precipitating the Palestinian intifada (uprising) that began in December 1987. Israel labeled this first intifada "terrorism." However, as a number of studies have concluded, most of the Palestinian demonstrations and protest actions were in fact nonviolent, and even "Of the violent acts, the vast majority consisted of rock throwing against the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] in the territories, with few incidents of terrorism inside the Green Line."6 Indeed, in order to demonstrate that the PLO's 1988 commitment to end terrorism remained in force, Arafat's security forces worked hand in hand with those of Israel, often in joint patrols, to identify and jail extremists and suspected terrorists.

There continued to be few Palestinian terrorist attacks until February 1994, when an Israeli settler attacked a Hebron mosque and killed 29 Palestinian civilians. However, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin refused to withdraw the fanatic Israeli settlers from Hebron, Hamas — but not the PLO — retaliated with a number of suicide attacks inside Israel. In 1997, though, the chief Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, conveyed an offer to Israel (through King Hussein of Jordan) to agree to a 30-year ceasefire. Israel not only ignored the offer; a few days later, its operatives tried to assassinate Meshal.7

The second intifada broke out in September 2000. In its early stages, there was little Palestinian armed violence, even against Israeli soldiers and police. According to most accounts, the protests were limited to stone throwing until Prime Minister Ehud Barak authorized the Israeli police to use deadly force. In the ensuing weeks, the police killed hundreds of Palestinians, even though the Israelis suffered only a few casualties. As Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli minister of security at the time, admitted, "Israel's disproportionate response to what had started as a popular uprising with young unarmed men confronting Israeli soldiers armed with lethal weapons fueled the intifada beyond control and turned it into an all-out war."8

During the intifada, Arafat and other PLO leaders repeatedly stated that it was not directed against the state or the people of Israel proper (that is, within its pre-1967 boundaries), but only against the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In fact, their behavior was generally consistent with this claim. With but a few exceptions, until the early 2001 election of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister, Palestinian violence was directed almost exclusively at the Israeli military forces or the most extremist and violent settlers in the occupied territories.

For several years after the election of Sharon, who ended the peace process, the Palestinians — primarily Hamas and Islamic Jihad but also some members of the Tanzim and the al-Aqsa Brigades, organizations loyal to Arafat — did engage in outright terrorism, such as suicide bombings of Israeli buses, restaurants and meeting places. Even so, there were differences of purpose among the groups engaging in terrorism. The pro-Arafat groups insisted that the purpose of their attacks was only to force Israel to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinians.

To be sure, some of the religious extremist groups, especially Islamic Jihad, openly proclaimed that their goal was not merely to end the occupation but to destroy Israel. Hamas's rhetoric was inconsistent. Sometimes it proclaimed its attacks were intended to put an end to the state of Israel; more typically, its terrorism was explained by the goal of ending the occupation or merely as retaliation for Israeli assassination of its militants or for other Israeli military attacks that killed Palestinian civilians. This claim was taken seriously by a number of Israeli observers, for it was an observable fact, frequently reported in Israeli newspapers, that Palestinian attacks often followed such Israeli attacks.

After the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel imposed a severe economic blockade — often called "the siege of Gaza" by Israeli critics. This, in turn, led to an escalation cycle: Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket attacks aimed at nearby Israeli towns were followed by Israeli military raids in Gaza, precipitating further Palestinian attacks, and so on. In the last eight years, these cycles have repeatedly ended with massive Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Palestinian Terrorism: Just Cause?

In the early years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the declared purpose of the PLO was to destroy the state of Israel and reclaim all of historical Palestine for the Arabs. Since 1988, however, both the declared and observable purpose of Arafat, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmoud Abbas has been to end the Israeli occupation and create an independent and viable Palestinian state in the 23 percent of the historical land that remained after the Israeli victory in the 1948 war — a clearly just cause. As a result, except for a few brief periods following the breakdown of the 2000-01 peace talks and the election of Ariel Sharon, PLO terrorism declined dramatically throughout the remaining period of Arafat's leadership. Since Arafat's death in 2004, the PA has embraced negotiations, compromise and nonviolence, in both its rhetoric and its actions.

In any case, a number of prominent Israeli writers, peace activists, politicians and even retired Shin Bet officers have not hesitated to attribute such Palestinian terrorism as has occurred during the history of the conflict as an understandable reaction to Israeli occupation and repression. None other than Ehud Barak himself once admitted, "If I were a Palestinian, I would join a terrorist organization."9 Similarly Nissim Levy, a 20-year veteran of the Shin Bet's operations in the occupied territories acknowledged, "If I were in their situation, I would make our lives bitter….When you take a person and put him up against the wall and don't leave him many options, then what do you want him to do? Do you think that if we were in their situation we wouldn't have suicide bombers?"10

There have been a number of similar statements by prominent Israelis, especially following periods of Palestinian terrorism, such as after Sharon's election ended the peace process. A partial list from 2003 includes the following:

• Twenty-seven reserve duty or retired pilots sent a letter to the Air Force chief of staff, declaring that they will refuse to participate in air operations against the Palestinians because they "are opposed to carrying out illegal and immoral attack orders [such as] attacks in civilian population centers." In a public letter, one the officers (Assaf Oron) elaborated: "I refuse to be a terrorist in my tribe's name. Because that's what it is: not a 'war against terror,' as our propaganda machine tries to sell it. This a war of terror…"11

• Menachem Klein, an Israeli political scientist who served as an adviser to Ehud Barak during the Camp David talks, charged that Israel had been engaged in terrorism since the outbreak of the intifada: it had "systematically assaulted a civilian population that is hostile, but noncombatant." The Israeli army, he added, frequently operated as "an agent of terror"; unlike the Palestinian "terrorism of the weak," he concluded, Israel terrorism was "terrorism of the strong, the mechanism of the state."12

• A leading Israeli columnist wrote that Sharon's demand that Arafat end terrorism as a precondition for negotiations was "ridiculous" and really designed to thwart any negotiations. How would the pre-state Zionist movement have responded, he asked, to a similar demand that the Irgun and other Zionist terrorist organizations be dismantled before "we achieved our goal and established our state?"13

• The editor of the English-language edition of Haaretz wrote, "We are running a military occupation regime in the territories that denies 3.5 million people their basic rights, bringing upon ourselves a bloody war of terrorism."14

• Amram Mitzna, a former IDF General and the Labor Party's candidate for prime minister in the 2003 elections, wrote, "Far from defeating terrorism, the prevailing policy — closures, checkpoints, liquidations — is creating terrorism."15

• Avraham Burg, a longtime Labor Party leader, the speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003, the former chairman of the Jewish Agency as well as the World Zionist Organization and an Orthodox Jew, wrote the following: "The Israeli nation today rests…on foundations of oppression and injustice….Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the center of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture."16

• The head of Israel's Rabbis for Human Rights called for Sharon to be tried, in an Israeli court, for war crimes: "Apparently, what guided Sharon during his military career and reached its shameful climax at Sabra and Chatilla, now dictates the way the IDF conducts its war against terror….We are every day witness to the indiscriminate killing of Palestinian civilians."17

• Perhaps most startling of all, while not specifically arguing that it was the Israeli occupation that had pushed the Palestinians into terrorism, a former head of the Shin Bet (Avraham Shalom) went so far as to compare the conduct of the Israeli armed forces with that of the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.18

These and other similar statements by prominent Israelis effectively conceded or, at least, implied that, insofar as PLO terrorism was designed to end the Israeli occupation rather than the state of Israel itself, its cause was just.

The Hamas Problem

But what about Hamas? The issue is complicated, turning on how to evaluate its real goal today. Certainly in the early years after its founding in 1987, its undoubted goal, as not only its Charter but numerous statements by its leaders made clear, was to destroy the state of Israel. However, in the last decade, it has become increasingly evident that Hamas is gradually moving towards a pragmatic acceptance of the realities of power — though a reluctant, inconsistent and uneven one — and therefore to a two-state political settlement.

The evidence includes the following:

• Shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan parliamentary elections, Hamas sent a message to President George W. Bush offering Israel a truce for "many years" in exchange for a compromise political settlement. Neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied.19

• In February 2006, Meshal said that Hamas would not oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference that offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem.20

• In May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah prisoners and issued the "Prisoner's Declaration." It went further than the earlier Hamas overtures, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state "in all the lands occupied in 1967" and reserving the use of armed resistance for those territories only.21

• In August 2006, Gazan prime minister Ismail Hanieh in effect accepted and incorporated the Prisoner's Declaration into the Hamas position, especially its crucial distinction between the occupied territories and Israel within its 1967 borders. He told an American scholar: "We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm"22 (emphasis added).

• In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was established. A Haaretz story noted, "This is the first time that a Hamas official has raised the possibility of full and official recognition of Israel in the future." According to the story, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "shrugged off" Meshal's statement.23

• Throughout 2008, Hamas's political positions continued to evolve. In April, Meshal publicly reiterated that Hamas would end its resistance activities if Israel ended the occupation and accepted a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.24 Israel ignored the statement.

• In a May 2009 interview in The New York Times, Meshal said that Hamas should be judged on its current deeds and policies and that it was "not logical for the international community to get stuck on sentences written 20 years ago" in its Charter.25

• In December 2010, Hamas announced it would honor any Palestinian referendum that approved a peace plan with Israel. "We accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital, the release of Palestinian prisoners, and the resolution of the issue of refugees," said Haniyeh. "Hamas will respect the results [of a referendum]," he added, "regardless of whether it differs with its ideology and principles." Zvi Bar'el, a leading Haaretz political analyst, noted: "Not a return of refugees, not the destruction of the State of Israel, no preconditions."26

• In January 2012, Hamas announced it was suspending all acts of terror in favor of "popular resistance" (nonviolent resistance); was joining in a unity government with the PA; would accept past deals between the PA or PLO and Israel, such as the Oslo agreements; would accept Mahmoud Abbas as the prime minister in that government, which would conduct negotiations with Israel; and would agree to a two-state solution if the Palestinian people approved it in a referendum.27

• In May 2012, Haaretz and The New York Times reported that Hamas was taking direct action in Gaza to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. Later that year, top IDF officers said Hamas had not participated in rocket attacks against Israel for over six months, and the military correspondents of Haaretz reported that, since Operation Cast Lead, Hamas "has almost completely refrained from firing rockets into Israel."28

• In November 2012, the ceasefire ended when Israel initiated an eight-day round of exchanges of fire with Hamas. However, before Israel once again broke an important ceasefire (as it had repeatedly done in the past), Hamas had apparently been on the verge of a radical change in its policies towards Israel. The story was covered in a series of articles in Haaretz by Gershon Baskin, a prominent Israeli peace activist with ties to both Hamas and the Israeli government who had helped negotiate the earlier deal in which an Israeli prisoner of Hamas was released in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners of Israel. Baskin had negotiated a draft agreement with Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari that provided for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas — not a 10-year or even a 30-year truce, as Hamas had proposed in the past, but a permanent one.29

A few weeks later, Reuven Pedatzur, the military correspondent of Haaretz, confirmed Baskin's account, writing that contacts between Baskin and Hamas had taken place "with the knowledge and consent of Defense Minister Ehud Barak," who was shown the draft agreement. Several hours later, though, Israel assassinated Jabari, "the man who had the power to make a deal with Israel," wrote Pedatzur.30

• After eight days of intense Israeli air attacks on Gaza, Israel and Hamas agreed to a new ceasefire, the central terms of which were that as long as Israel was not attacked, it would significantly ease the economic blockade widely termed, even in Israel, a "siege." Throughout 2013, however, this agreement was violated by Israel, which not only continued most of the economic sanctions but repeatedly engaged in assassinations and armed attacks inside Gaza. By contrast, Hamas continued not only to observe the ceasefire but cracked down even harder on Islamic Jihad and other militants to prevent them from launching rocket or mortar attacks. As a result, in the first three months after the ceasefire was negotiated, there was just one mortar attack from Gaza; throughout the rest of 2013, there were fewer attacks than in any year since 2003, the year that such attacks had begun. Israeli intelligence was said to be satisfied with Hamas's efforts to maintain the ceasefire.

• In January 2014, Hamas and the PA government in the West Bank signed a new reconciliation agreement (the previous agreement of 2012 had broken down). Under its terms, an interim unity government would be formed until new elections in six months time, but until then none of the cabinet-level positions would be filled by Hamas officials. Even more important, Hamas agreed to the PA's conditions that the Palestinian goal was a two-state settlement generally based on the 1967 lines, and that only nonviolent methods would be employed to reach it.31

A cautionary note: Despite the accumulating evidence, it cannot be denied that there have been inconsistencies in Hamas's position and that on occasion — usually following a particularly destructive Israeli attack — its spokesmen have returned to their earlier militant and rejectionist rhetoric. Sometimes Hamas officials have said that they accept Israel as a "fact" but would "never recognize its legitimacy"; on other occasions, however, they have strongly implied that their formal position had no practical importance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas official makes a particularly conciliatory statement, but other officials then deny there had been any changes in its policies. Sometimes Hamas has continued to stress its commitment to the "right of return" of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, perhaps the most difficult obstacle to a permanent settlement. At other times, however, it downplays the problem and generally indicates, like Abbas, that, in the context of an overall settlement, it will accept a symbolic resolution of the issue.

Despite the occasional mixed signals and contradictory rhetoric, there simply is no doubting the evolution of Hamas thinking, if for no other reason than that, as Paul Pillar (former deputy director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center) has recently put it, "Hamas leaders are certainly smart enough to realize their group will never have anything close to a capability to destroy Israel, even if they wanted to do so."

In the final analysis, the only way to resolve the remaining (but generally declining) ambiguities in Hamas's position and test its willingness to reach a settlement is for Israel to enter into serious political negotiations with it, as several former directors and other high officials of Mossad and Shin Bet have been urging for a number of years. Far from doing so, Israel not only continues to refuse political negotiations with Hamas; it continues the assassinations that have killed or unsuccessfully tried to kill most of the founders and leaders of Hamas and its main activists. Pillar sums up what the evidence demonstrates: "Rather than saying Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it would be closer to the truth to say that Israel is dedicated to the destruction of Hamas."

Palestinian Terrorism: A Last Resort?

Since the Palestinians have no chance of defeating the Israeli armed forces, their main alternatives have been negotiated political compromise and nonviolent resistance. As discussed above, Yasir Arafat ended most PLO terrorist actions in the late 1980s, when Hamas and other more extremist groups were not yet an important factor, and sought to negotiate a two-state settlement with the Israelis. Since Arafat's death in 2004, Mahmoud Abbas, his successor, has continued to seek a negotiated political settlement and has offered a number of further compromises — or retreats from previous PLO positions — to that end. All negotiations or Palestinian offers to negotiate have gone for naught, overwhelmingly because no Israeli government has been prepared to agree to end the occupation, withdraw the settlers and turn over East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians.

For that reason, the political path to a settlement is all but dead, leaving only nonviolent resistance as an alternative to terrorism. In fact, at various periods the Palestinians have tried nonviolent resistance, civil disobedience and political protest, especially in the first and largely unarmed intifada in the late 1980s, and in the last few years to prevent the further expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

All of these efforts have been suppressed or violently crushed by Israeli forces. As Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a leading Israeli intellectual, writer and journalist, has written: "The fear that nonviolent protest will take root among the Palestinians has accompanied the conflict for many years, and the response of the Israeli authorities to nonviolent protest has been no less severe than their reactions to violent acts. …The Israelis have managed to persuade the Palestinians that they have no inhibitions when it comes to using force, even gunfire, against unarmed protesters, and they make no distinction between violent and nonviolent demonstrations."32

Palestinian Terrorism: Probability of Success?

Despite the continuing history of Israeli rejection of a two-state settlement and the failure of both armed and unarmed Palestinian resistance, it does not necessarily follow that the Palestinians have had no choice, even on purely practical grounds, let alone on moral ones, but to resume terrorism. Nonetheless, let us begin with the practical question: has Palestinian terrorism worked?

A case can be made that, in the past, Palestinian terrorism sometimes did work, not in achieving its primary goals, but at least some of them. The 1972 Munich attack on the Israeli Olympic team is often cited as an example, insofar as it succeeded in dramatizing and calling the world's attention to the Israeli occupation and Palestinian desperation, which in fact was one of its objectives. More broadly, a number of Israeli commentators have argued that the historical evidence as well as the findings in public opinion polls often demonstrated (at least in the past) that when Palestinian violence was greater, the willingness of Israelis to compromise increased.

The Israeli withdrawal of its settlers from Gaza in 2005 illustrates the difficulty of assessing the impact of terrorism. On the one hand, many Israeli analysts believe that Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers in Gaza were a major factor in Ariel Sharon's decision to cut Israeli costs and withdraw the settlers. On the other hand, Sharon continued and expanded Israel's extensive system of indirect control over, and punishment of, Gaza. This has led a number of other analysts and human-rights organizations to conclude that the occupation and repression of the Gazan people were effectively continuing.

The more important point today is this: even if it is arguable whether the Palestinians gained more than they lost by their earlier periods of terrorism, it no longer is. In the last 10 years, it has become clear that Palestinian terrorism is a disaster for both peoples. It has reinforced the Israeli "Never Again" mindset that results in an entirely preposterous analogy, cynical or genuine, comparing Palestinian resistance to the Holocaust. It has resulted in a major loss of popular support for Israeli peace activists, who argue that it is both desirable and possible to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. It has largely silenced criticism of Israeli policies by the U.S. government and most of the American Jewish community (especially the big donors to U.S. politicians). It led to the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001. And it resulted in the Israeli economic blockade and military attacks on Gaza.

In short, Israel today is both too strong and too ruthless for strategies based on armed resistance, let alone terrorism, to work.

Israeli Terrorism: A Brief History

In 1923, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, a Russian-born journalist, soldier and early leader of rightwing Zionism, published an article entitled "The Iron Wall." The heart of his argument was this: "We cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries….A voluntary agreement is unattainable.…We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can [only develop] behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down."33

As Avi Shlaim and many other Israeli historians have demonstrated, the iron-wall strategy has been at the core of Zionist/Israeli policies towards the Arab world ever since Jabotinsky's enormously influential essay was published. Jabotinsky did not elaborate on what military strategies the Zionists should adopt to create the iron wall, but his own history as well as that of the Zionist movement in the pre-state era and of Israel since 1948 makes it obvious that attacks on the Arab civilian population — that is, terrorism — are a central component.

As is now widely acknowledged, in the pre-state period — like the Palestinian pre-state period today — the Irgun and Stern Gang terrorist groups (led, respectively, by future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir) frequently employed terrorism against Palestinian civilians, including bombs in markets and theaters, firing on buses and the like.

Then, during the Nakba, Zionist forces, including not only the clearly terrorist organizations but often with the collaboration or at least acquiescence of David Ben-Gurion and the Haganah, carried out a number of outright massacres. These included — among others — the notorious 1948 attacks on the Arab towns of Lydda and Deir Yassin, which had the intended consequence of causing tens of thousands of Palestinians to flee in terror from the lands and regions coveted by the Zionists.

The expulsion of the Palestinians led to the creation of the Palestinian guerrilla movement, which for a number of years operated out of bases in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Guerrilla attacks inside Israel were met with an Israeli policy of massive retaliation, hardly limited to "an eye for an eye." Moshe Dayan, Shlaim writes, was a believer in the iron-wall strategy and during the early 1950s "had few inhibitions and no moral qualms about the use of military force, even against civilians." Thus, Dayan created a special secret unit in the Israeli army. Led by the young Ariel Sharon, it carried out a number of cross-border retaliatory raids into Jordan that targeted Palestinian civilians, the purpose of which was to intimidate them into not supporting PLO raids into Israel.

During his years as one of Israel's leading generals, Yitzhak Rabin sometimes supported such tactics. Shlaim writes that PLO raids from Jordan convinced Rabin that "the problem was the civilians who assisted Israel's Palestinian enemies"; as a result, the Israeli cabinet agreed to Rabin's plan to attack civilians in order "to serve as a warning…not to cooperate with the Palestinian saboteurs."34

Israeli Terrorism against Egypt

These Israeli policies and practices continued in the 1970s and 1980s. Attacks on civilians were not limited to those against Palestinians. In 1968, Dayan warned that Israel might attack Egyptian cities in order to "strike terror into the hearts of the Arabs of the cities….[and] break the Arab will to fight."35 And it did so during the 1968-70 Suez Canal "War of Attrition." Israel responded to Egyptian attacks against its armed forces along the canal with massive artillery shelling and bombing of Egyptian towns and cities along its western banks. The "undeclared aims" were "to break Egyptian morale" by deliberately making life miserable for the population and thus increasing pressure against Nasser and later Sadat.36

The New York Times correspondent in Israel during this period later estimated that the Israeli air and artillery bombardments forced the evacuation of 750,000 civilians, destroyed 55,000 homes, and killed and wounded an untold number — all designed to be "a pressure tactic on the Egyptian authorities."37

Israeli Terrorism: Lebanon

There have been six major (and many smaller) Israeli air and ground-force attacks against Lebanon: in 1978, 1981, 1982, 1993, 1996 and 2006. While Hezbollah or PLO forces were the main targets of these attacks, a wealth of evidence (including newspaper accounts, Israeli commentaries and major books, and investigations by leading human-rights organizations) leaves no doubt that Israel deliberately attacked Lebanese civilian targets in order to deter the local population from supporting the PLO or Hezbollah and in the hope that the Lebanese government would be forced to suppress those groups. The various Israeli attacks killed over 15,000 civilians, wounded many thousands more, and deliberately targeted the Lebanese electricity network, ports and airports, fuel depots and factories, as well as private homes, small businesses and dozens of schools and hospitals.38

In addition, there is substantial evidence that in 1982 the Israeli army, in general, and Ariel Sharon, in particular, essentially collaborated with — or at least acquiesced in — the Lebanese Christian militia's slaughter of over 1,000 Palestinian civilians, including women and children, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps near Beirut.

Astonishingly, in unguarded moments, leading Israeli officials have sometimes acknowledged that Israel has employed terrorism as an instrument of policy. In 1978, for example, General Mordechai Gur, then chief of staff of the IDF and later a leading Labor Party politician, responded to criticism of Israeli tactics in Lebanon in this way: "I've been in the army 30 years. Do you think I don't know what we've been doing all those years? What did we do the entire length of the Suez Canal? A million and a half refugees….Since when has the population of South Lebanon been so sacred? They know very well what the terrorists were doing….I had four villages in South Lebanon bombarded…[as, he says, was done in Jordan]….The whole Jordan Valley was evacuated during the War of Attrition."

The Israeli interviewer then comments, "You maintain that the civilian population should be punished?" Gur responds, "And how….I have never doubted it, not for one moment….For 30 years from the War of Independence to this day, we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and towns…"39 Ze'ev Schiff, a leading Israeli military journalist, commented, "In South Lebanon we struck the civilian population consciously, because they deserved it….The importance of Gur's remarks is the admission that the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously…even when Israeli settlements had not been struck."40

As well, in 1981, Menachem Begin wrote a column in the Israeli press responding to what he considered to be "hypocritical" criticisms of his government's bombing of Beirut, which killed hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. In his defense, he offered a "partial list" of more than 30 Israeli military attacks against Arab civilians under Israeli Labor governments: "Under the Alignment [Labor] government, there were retaliatory actions against civilian Arab populations; the damage was directed against such structures as the canal, bridges and transport."41

A rather shocked Abba Eban, former Labor party foreign minister, responded: "The picture that emerges is of an Israel wantonly inflicting every possible measure of death and anguish on civilian populations in a mood reminiscent of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name." However, while Eban complained that Begin's charge helped "Arab propaganda," he did not contest Begin's facts. On the contrary, he defended Israel's earlier attacks on civilians on the grounds that, unlike the 1981 case, "There was [then] a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that the afflicted population would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities."42

As in the case of Gur's and Eban's remarkably revealing earlier statements, at other times Israeli officials in effect have openly admitted or warned of their intentions. For example, following Hezbollah's 2006 capture of several Israeli soldiers, the Israeli military's chief of staff, General Dan Halutz, called Hezbollah a "cancer" that Lebanon must get rid of "because if they don't, their country will pay a very high price." Senior officers in the IDF elaborated: "If the kidnapped soldiers are not returned alive and well, the Lebanese civilian infrastructures will regress 20 or even 50 years."43 Nor were such draconic threats limited to military officials; Eli Yishai and Haim Ramon, both cabinet members in the Olmert government, publicly threatened to "flatten" Lebanese villages.44

In addition to military and government officials, several leading figures in the general Israeli security establishment confirmed what Israel was doing. For example, Yossi Alpher, a former deputy chief of Mossad and senior adviser to Ehud Barak, argued that the humanitarian suffering in both Gaza and Lebanon, "is a deliberate act on Israel's part...intended to generate mass public pressure on the respective governments."45 Similarly, wrote Zeev Schiff, a long-time centrist defense analyst for Haaretz, "by encouraging large numbers of civilians to flee...to serve as a source of pressure," Israel was making "a strategic mistake." Such methods had led to the creation of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian occupied territories.46

Even more remarkably, several years later Moshe Arens — a high Likud official and well-known rightist, a former ambassador to the United States in the Begin government, foreign minister in the Yitzhak Shamir government, and a three-time defense minister in Likud governments since the 1980s — wrote: "The 'leverage' theory — which holds that the destruction of enemy infrastructure and attacks on the enemy's civilian population will produce pressure on decision makers to cease their attacks against Israeli civilians….did not work in Lebanon, and it certainly does not work in Gaza. Quite the contrary, it only increases the support that the terrorists receive from the civilian population…. Cutting off fuel, cutting off electricity, preventing food from reaching them is both counterproductive and immoral."47

In 2008, an allegedly "new" Israeli military doctrine was announced by Gadi Eizenkot, a leading Israeli general. This so-called "Dahiya doctrine," named after a 2006 Israeli attack with 2,000-pound bombs on the residential Beirut suburb of Dahiya, made explicit and, in effect, official what until then had been obvious though unacknowledged: "What happened in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on….We will apply disproportionate force on it and cause great damage and destruction….This is not a recommendation….It has been approved."48

Today Eizenkot is the IDF chief of staff.

Israeli Terrorism and the Palestinian Uprisings

In response to the Palestinian intifadas, Israel deliberately employed terrorist tactics to crush them, especially, but hardly limited to, three major military attacks on Gaza. In March 2002, Israeli forces invaded cities and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, supposedly to root out "terrorists" but obviously having the much broader purpose of destroying the governing capacity of Yasser Arafat and the PA as well as to intimidate Palestinian civilians from supporting Hamas or Islamic Jihad attacks on Israel. In the course of the invasion, Israeli forces killed dozens of civilians, destroyed hundreds of homes, shut off water for over 10 days, and even attacked schools, ambulances and hospitals. Beyond that, the invading forces methodically and systematically destroyed Arafat's and the PA's security, governmental, public-health, education and other civic institutions.

The Israeli attack was extensively covered by the international and Israeli media as well as by a number of human-rights organizations. Jessica Montell, the head of Btselem, Israel's most important and prestigious human-rights organization, wrote, "The suffering of the [Palestinian] population is not merely a byproduct of Israel's attacks on militants. It is an intentional part of Israeli policy. The clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population."49

Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in 2006 — in democratic elections — Israel has engaged in both economic and military warfare in that area, supposedly against Hamas but, in effect, against the civilian population as a whole. The economic warfare includes the ongoing (though recently somewhat eased) economic blockade or siege on Gazan trade and commerce: the prevention of exports of goods and products to other countries, severe restrictions on Palestinian drinking and agricultural water, substantial restrictions on the use of electrical power (mostly imported from Israel) and the prevention of farmers from reaching their lands and orchards and fishermen from fully plying their trade.

Beyond the economic warfare, there have been ongoing Israeli military attacks in Gaza as well as numerous death-squad assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists. The two major military attacks were Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. I have written extensively about Cast Lead,50 so I will only briefly summarize the main facts: Israel deliberately attacked Gazan government institutions and police stations; economic targets, including transportation and communications networks, roads and bridges, electrical generation plants and power lines, industrial facilities and fuel depots; and even private homes, residential apartment houses, sewage plants, water-storage tanks, various food production systems (orchards, farms greenhouses and fishing boats), and hospitals and ambulances.

The generally accepted estimate is that, in Cast Lead, Israel directly killed some 1,400 Palestinians, two-thirds of them noncombatants, including hundreds of women and children, while losing only three noncombatants of their own. This, of course, does not include the far greater longer-term death, destruction and suffering of the civilian population of Gaza.

"Protective Edge."

In November 2012, following a period of escalating military exchanges, Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, which included an Israeli commitment to end its military attacks, assassinations and economic warfare in Gaza in exchange for the end of all attacks on Israel. According to the most detailed and credible discussion of the ceasefire, Hamas implemented its commitments but Israel violated them, continuing its economic blockade and making periodic incursions into Gaza.51

In June 2014, the Netanyahu government blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students in the West Bank, even though, as many Israeli security officials privately admitted, there was no evidence of, or a credible motive for, Hamas responsibility. Then, using the tragedy as a pretext, on July 8 Israel launched a massive air and ground attack on Hamas in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge). As in Cast Lead in 2009, Israel bombed from the air and fired over 30,000 shells into Gaza, many of them into densely populated areas, deliberately or indiscriminately striking many civilian targets, including homes, schools, hospitals, industries and workshops, agricultural facilities, roads, water and sewage-treatment plants and the main Gaza electrical power plant. According to UN and other international agencies, some 2,100-2,200 Palestinians were killed, up to three quarters of them civilians (including more than 500 children), and about 11,000 were wounded; 100,000 people were left homeless, and 100,000 buildings destroyed or damaged. In the course of the seven-week attack, 72 Israelis were killed, all but six of them military personnel.

A number of Israeli and international human-rights organizations have investigated Protective Edge and concluded that the Israeli attacks amounted to war crimes and possibly "crimes against humanity."52 One of the most extensive and devastating accounts is a highly detailed report by Amnesty International of the events of August 1-4, three weeks after the onset of the Israeli attack and the day after the Netanyahu government announced a ceasefire.53 However, on that same day, Hamas fighters captured an Israeli officer ("kidnapped," in the standard Israeli parlance) and dragged him into a tunnel. Israel responded with unprecedented fury, unleashing a four-day massive and wholly indiscriminate air, tank and artillery bombardment on a nearby Palestinian residential neighborhood. In some cases, according to Amnesty, "there are indications that they directly fired at and killed civilians, including people fleeing."

On the first day of the attack alone, the Amnesty report states, "more than 2,000 bombs, missiles and shells were fired,…including 1,000 in the three hours following the capture [of the Israeli officer]." As a result, hundreds of homes and apartment houses were leveled, an estimated 135-200 civilians were killed, and of course many more were wounded. Two ambulances were evidently deliberately targeted by drones, their inhabitants burned alive.

The purpose of these attacks, horrifying even by previous Israeli standards, was apparently twofold: "revenge" and "deterrence." The report puts it this way: "Public statements by Israeli army commanders and soldiers after the conflict provide compelling reasons to conclude that some attacks that killed civilians and destroyed homes and property were intentionally carried out and motivated by a desire for revenge — to teach a lesson to, or punish, the population of Rafah for the capture of Lieutenant Goldin." As well, the report continues,

Post-conflict briefings to soldiers and public statements of Israeli officers suggest that the high death toll and massive destruction were not seen as regrettable side effects but 'achievements' or 'accomplishments' that would keep Gaza 'quiet for five years.'…Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said Israel's assaults were mostly aimed at convincing Hamas never to try it again: 'When they come out of their bunkers and they look around, they are going to have to make a serious estimation of whether what they have done was worth it.'

These and other such statements, Amnesty concluded, "indicate an intention to generate material damage as a deterrent."

Israeli Terrorism: Just Cause?

It is necessary to separate the issue of whether it was legitimate for the Jewish people to have a state of their own from the issue of where it could have been established. The argument is strong that, in light of centuries of murderous European anti-Semitism, in general, and the Holocaust, in particular, the establishment of a Jewish state was justifiable. On the other hand, the Zionist argument that such a state had to be in Palestine and nowhere else, regardless of the consequences for the Palestinians, was far less persuasive. Nonetheless, by 1948 there was no practical alternative for a Jewish state other than in Palestine. For that reason, the argument has been made — including by some leading Israelis who are otherwise appalled by Israel's policies since 1967 — that the moral wrongs of Zionist and Israeli terrorism and ethnic cleansing during the 1947-49 period were at least mitigated by the need to establish a viable state with a large Jewish majority. It was a just purpose, the argument holds, although an unjust means.

Even if one accepts that argument (a strong one, in my view), however, no such mitigation is available for Israeli terrorism since the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, during which Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Not only have the continuing Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians and their institutions been unjust, so have their essential purposes: to maintain the occupation and prevent the Palestinians from reaching their just goal of an independent state.

Such is the power of Israeli mythology that after both Cast Lead and Protective Edge, even strong critics of the those attacks typically argued that "of course, Israel has the right to defend itself" from Hamas rocket attacks, but that its response was "excessive" or "disproportionate." Such criticisms are far too weak. Aggressor states have no "right of self-defense" when it is their criminality that has provoked violent resistance — and this holds true if their response is aimed only at military targets and is somehow "proportionate."

Matters would be different, of course, if Palestinian attacks on Israel were to be continued after it had withdrawn from the occupied territories and accepted a political settlement. Then, and only then, would Israel have a true just cause: a secure state within its legitimate territory and boundaries, and therefore an undeniable right of self-defense.

Israeli Terrorism: Last Resort?

All non-terrorist actions the Palestinians have tried in order to win a state of their own have failed: armed resistance directed against military targets, political negotiations and compromise, and nonviolent protest. Therefore, it is reasonable to view Palestinian terrorism as truly a last resort. That doesn't necessarily make it morally defensible, or at least mitigable — if for no other reason than that it largely hasn't worked — but there is no avoiding the problem that the Palestinians genuinely have a desperate dilemma.

The Israelis have no such dilemma. Their only legitimate goal is to preserve their security within their legitimate borders, widely agreed to include their borders before the 1967 war. When Palestinian terrorism escalated after the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 and the early 2001 election of Sharon, it was highly likely that Israel could have ended all or nearly all of that terrorism by negotiating an obtainable long-term ceasefire with Hamas and then a two-state political settlement. But not only did Israel refuse political negotiations with Hamas, it repeatedly violated ceasefire agreements and refused even to explore offers for a long-term truce and possibly even for a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.54


While all terrorism is morally wrong, it is still possible and perhaps necessary to make some distinctions. There can be degrees of moral wrong; we commonly make such distinctions and consider mitigating circumstances, especially between moral wrongs committed in pursuit of just causes and the double moral wrong of injustices done for unjust causes.55

For several reasons, Israeli terrorism has been morally worse than that of the Palestinians. First, at least since the 1980s, most — though not all — Palestinian terrorism has been largely driven by the just cause of national liberation in part of Palestine rather than the unjust one of the destruction of Israel. By contrast, while there is a strong case that Zionist terrorism was instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel during the 1940s, a just cause, since at least 1967 Israeli terrorism has had no just cause. Contrary to the widely accepted mythology, its primary purpose has not been "self-defense" but rather the prevention of a two-state settlement and maintenance of the occupation and other forms of control over the Palestinians.

The just-cause issue aside, a second reason Israeli terrorism has been worse than that of the Palestinians is that its scale and extent have been far greater and more destructive. Numbers matter: the greater the number of innocent victims (other considerations being equal), the worse the immorality of terrorism. Indeed, the huge disparity in numbers aside, Israeli terrorism is also worse than Palestinian terrorism because it has often attacked the doubly innocent. When Palestinians plant bombs in Israeli cities, they are attacking the citizens of their enemy. This is bad enough. However, when Israel attacked Lebanese towns and cities, it was attacking the innocent citizens of a state that was to a great extent a helpless bystander or victim in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict over which it had no control.

Third, Palestinian terrorism comes much closer to meeting the just-war criterion of last resort, or the absence of alternatives. In their legitimate quest for independence and political sovereignty — not to mention dignity — the Palestinians have tried armed resistance against the Israeli occupying forces, negotiations and diplomacy, and nonviolent political action. None have worked. The Israelis have no such mitigating justification. They have repeatedly refused to agree to an increasingly obtainable political compromise with the Palestinians.

A final reason that Israeli terrorism is worse than Palestinian terrorism is that Israel is a democracy (however flawed). When it repeatedly elects as its prime ministers some of the worst Israeli terrorists — Yitzhak Shamir, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon — its people bear a far greater moral responsibility for the crimes of their government than do the Palestinians in Gaza, who live under the autocratic rule of Hamas. Indeed, a number of Israeli polls have shown that more Israelis demand from their government even greater violent repression of the Palestinians than oppose it. Even so, as "innocent civilians" or, more accurately, "noncombatants," the Israeli people are still not subject to legitimate attacks. However, they are surely less innocent than are the Palestinians.

All this said, the argument here should not be construed as a defense of Palestinian terrorism. In the final analysis, despite mitigating circumstances not available to Israel, Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians — even those whose purpose is to end the occupation, let alone to destroy Israel — cannot be justified (as opposed to mitigated), either in terms of morality or, at least in recent years, in terms of their consequences.

As I have argued, while there is a reasonable case that Palestinian terrorism in the 1970-2000 period did bring international recognition to the plight of the Palestinians and probably resulted in some increase in the Israel public's willingness to consider a compromise two-state settlement, today the circumstances are different. Israeli attitudes have hardened, and Palestinian terrorism has backfired. The Palestinians have no other means of attaining their just cause other than through nonviolent resistance, international diplomacy and moral appeals to convince the United States to end its de facto support of the Israeli occupation.

Tragically, it must be admitted that all of these methods so far have failed and show little promise of success in the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the Palestinians and all those who support their demand for an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of an independent state have no morally acceptable or practical option but to keep trying.

1 Among other places, U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001 (Washington D.C., May 2002), xvi.

2 There is a substantial and growing philosophical literature and debate on terrorism. Among the most important works, some of which specifically address the issue of terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are T. Asad, "Thinking about Terrorism and Just War," Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, no. 1 (2009): 3-24; C.A.J. Coady, "Terrorism, Just War and Supreme Emergency," in Coady and Michael O'Keefe, eds., Terrorism and Justice (Melbourne University Press, 2002), 31-42; C.A.J. Coady, "Terrorism and Innocence," The Journal of Ethics 8, no.1 (2004): 37-58; R.M. Hare, "On Terrorism," Journal of Value Inquiry 13 (1979): 240-49; Virginia Held, "Terrorism and War," Journal of Ethics 8, no. 1 (2004): 59-75; Ted Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7 (Continuum Publishing Group, 2006); Jeff McMahan, Killing In War (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009); Igor Primoratz, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation (Polity Press, 2013); and Andrew Valls, ed., Ethics in International Affairs: Theory and Cases (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000). Also see Allison Jaggar for a sophisticated review of the arguments over whether terrorism is ever justified: Jaggar, "What Is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?" Journal of Social Philosophy 36, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 202-217.

3 C.A.J. Coady, Terrorism and Innocence, 58.

4 There are many works making this argument. Two of the most important are J. Bowyer Bell, Terror Out of Zion; The Fight for Israeli Independence (Transaction Publishers, 1996), and Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Knopf, 2015).

5 Primoratz, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation (Polity Press, 2013), 148-49.

6 Max Abrahms, "Why Terrorism Doesn't Work," 73.

7 Zeev Schiff, "Ex-Mossad Chief: Hamas Offered 30-Year Ceasefire in 1997," Haaretz, March 30, 2006.

8 Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 267.

9 Barak's startling admission has been widely quoted in Israel. For example, see Akiva Eldar, "If I Were a Palestinian," Haaretz, April 27, 2009.

10 Uri Blau, "If I Were a Palestinian," Haaretz, January 5, 2007.

11Haaretz, September 24, 2003.

12 Klein, "Terrorism Rules," World Today, August/September 2002, 1-2.

13 Hillel Shocken, "Before We Blame the Palestinians," Haaretz, August 20, 2003.

14 David Landau, "False Frontier," Haaretz, September 5, 2003.

15 "A Historical Act by the Chief of Staff," Haaretz, November 2, 2003.

16 Avraham Burg, "A Failed Society Collapses While Its Leaders Remain Silent," Yediot Aharonot, August 29, 2003.

17 David Forman, "Put Sharon on Trial. Here." Haaretz, February 13, 2003.

18 In a 2012 interview in the Israeli film documentary, "The Gatekeepers."

19 Barak Ravid, "In 2006 Letter to Bush, Haniyeh Offered Compromise with Israel," Haaretz, November 14, 2008.

20 Danny Rubinstein, "Don't Boycott the Palestinians," Haaretz, February 13, 2006.

21 Arnon Regular, "Hamas, Fatah Prisoners Agree to Two-State Solution in Joint Draft," Haaretz, May 11, 2006.

22 Quoted in Scott Atran, "Is Hamas Ready to Deal?" New York Times, August 17, 2006.

23 Avi Issacharoff, "PM Dismisses Meshal Comments That Israel's Existence Is a Reality," Haaretz, April 2, 2008.

24 Avi Issacharoff, "Meshal: Hamas Backs a Palestinian State in '67 Borders," Haaretz, April 2, 2008.

25 Quoted in Fares Akram, "Hamas Says That Its Political Leader Does Not Plan to Seek Re-election," New York Times, January 22, 2014.

26 "Is Hamas Really Willing to Change?" Haaretz, Decemer 7, 2010.

27 Merav Michaeli, "Israel Is Missing Another Opportunity for Peace," Haaretz, January 2, 2012.

28 Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, "Hamas' Change of Strategy: Rocket Fire Directed at Israeli Military Targets," Haaretz, June 20, 2012.

29 Baskin wrote an oped in the New York Times describing the event: "Israel's Shortsighted Assassination," November 17, 2014.

30 Reuven Pedatzur, "Why Did Israel Kill Jabari?" Haaretz, December 4, 2012.

31 For details on the agreement, see Jack Khoury and Barak Ravid, "Hamas, Fatah Sign Reconciliation Agreement," Haaretz, April 23, 2014. For discussions emphasizing the significance of the agreement, see Nathan Thrall, "Hamas's Chances," London Review of Books, August 21, 2014; Paul Pillar, "Dedication, Destruction and Hamas," National Interest, August 2, 2014; and John Judis, "Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza? A Primer," New Republic, July 25, 2014. After reviewing the evidence, Judis concludes: "Hamas's charter can't be used as an excuse by Israel to prolong the occupation."

32 Meron Benvenisti, "An Explosive, Dangerous Balance," Haaretz, Feburary 27, 2008.

33 Quoted in the most important work on the Iron Wall concept and its influence on Zionist/Israeli policies: Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall; Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2000), 13.

34 Ibid., 233-34. The quotations are Shlaim's summary of Rabin's position.

35 Quoted by Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 122.

36 Shlaim, Iron Wall, 292.

37 David K. Shipler, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (New York: Penguin, 1986), 45.

38 The literature on the Israeli attacks on Lebanon is extensive, including major books by Israeli writers, journalists and soldiers, as well as extensive reports of human-rights organizations. I sum up this evidence in Jerome Slater, "Just War Moral Philosophy and the 2008-09 Campaign in Gaza," International Security (Fall 2012): 47-51.

39 From an interview with Gur in the May 10, 1978, edition of the Israeli newspaper Al Hamishar.

40Haaretz, May 15, 1978.

41 The Begin letter was printed in Haaretz, August 4, 1981.

42 Eban's response, "Morality and Warfare," was published in the Jerusalem Post, August 16, 1981.

43 Amos Harel, "Israel Prepares for Widespread Escalation," Haaretz, July 12, 2006.

44 Quoted by Tom Segev, "Three Theses for the Committee's Examination," Haaretz, August 18, 2006.

45 "An Integral Part of This Conflict," Bitter Lemons, July 17, 2006.

46 Schiff, "A Strategic Mistake," Haaretz, July 20, 2006.

47 Arens, "Too Much To Expect," Haaretz, March 5, 2008.

48 The Eizenkot statement has been widely quoted in Israel. See also Rashid Khalidi, "The Dahiya Doctrine, Proportionality, and War Crimes," Journal of Palestine Studies 44, no. 1 (Autumn 2014): 5-13.

49 Montell, "A Form of Collective Punishment," Bitter Lemons, July 17, 2006.

50 Slater, "Just War."

51 Thrall, "Hamas's Chances."

52 The major reports by Israeli and international human-rights organizations include those of Amnesty International (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/05/world/middleeast/amnesty-international-says-israel-showed-callous-indifference-to-gaza-civilians.html?ref=topics); Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (http://gazahealthattack.com/2015/01/20/no-safe-place-gaza-health-attack-full-report/); Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/11/israel-depth-look-gaza-school-attacks); B'Tselem (http://www.btselem.org/publications/summaries/201501_black_flag); and the recent report of the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict (http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIGazaConflict/Pages/ReportCoIGaz…).

53 "'Black Friday,' Carnage in Rafah During 2014 Israel/Gaza Conflict," https://blackfriday.amnesty.org/.

54 For a detailed discussion of Israeli violations of ceasefires, see Slater, "Just War," 58-62.

55 In a report to the United Nations, John Dugard, the Special Rapporteur in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the UN Human Rights Council, an internationally renowned South African scholar and a leading opponent of apartheid in the 1980s, made that argument: "Common sense….dictates that a distinction must be drawn between acts of mindless terror, such as acts committed by Al-Qaeda, and acts committed in the course of a war of national liberation…..While Palestinian terrorist acts are to be deplored, they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation….As long as there is occupation, there will be terrorism" (quoted in Haaretz, Feb. 27, 2008).

1. The conceptual issue

The history of terrorism is probably coextensive with the history of political violence. The term “terrorism”, however, is relatively recent: it has been in use since late 18th century. Its use has repeatedly shifted in some significant respects. Moreover, in contemporary political discourse the word is often employed as a polemical term whose strong emotional charge occludes its somewhat vague descriptive meaning. All this tends to get in the way of sustained rational discussion of the nature and moral standing of terrorism and the best ways of coping with it.

1.1 “Terrorism” from the French Revolution to the early 21st century

1.1.1 The reign of terror

When it first entered public discourse in the West, the word “terrorism” meant the reign of terror the Jacobins imposed in France from the fall of 1793 to the summer of 1794. Its ultimate aim was the reshaping of both society and human nature. That was to be achieved by destroying the old regime, suppressing all enemies of the revolutionary government, and inculcating and enforcing civic virtue. A central role in attaining these objectives was accorded to revolutionary tribunals which had wide authority, were constrained by very few rules of procedure, and saw their task as carrying out revolutionary policy rather than meting out legal justice of the more conventional sort. They went after “enemies of the people”, actual or potential, proven or suspected; the law on the basis of which they were operating “enumerated just who the enemies of the people might be in terms so ambiguous as to exclude no one” (Carter 1989: 142). The standard punishment was death. Trials and executions were meant to strike terror in the hearts of all who lacked civic virtue; the Jacobins believed that was a necessary means of consolidating the new regime. This necessity provided both the rationale of the reign of terror and its moral justification. As Robespierre put it, terror was but “an emanation of virtue”; without it, virtue remained impotent. Accordingly, the Jacobins applied the term to their own actions and policies quite unabashedly, without any negative connotations.

1.1.2 Propaganda by the deed

Yet the term “terrorism” and its cognates soon took on very strong negative connotations. Critics of the excesses of the French Revolution had watched its reign with horror from the start. Terrorism came to be associated with drastic abuse of power and related to the notion of tyranny as rule based on fear, a recurring theme in political philosophy.

In the second half of the 19th century, there was a shift in both descriptive and evaluative meaning of the term. Disillusioned with other methods of political struggle, some anarchist and other revolutionary organizations, and subsequently some nationalist groups too, took to political violence. They had come to the conclusion that words were not enough, and what was called for were deeds: extreme, dramatic deeds that would strike at the heart of the unjust, oppressive social and political order, generate fear and despair among its supporters, demonstrate its vulnerability to the oppressed, and ultimately force political and social change. This was “propaganda by the deed”, and the deed was for the most part assassination of royalty or highly placed government officials. Unlike the Jacobins' reign of terror, which operated in a virtually indiscriminate way, this type of terrorism—as both advocates and critics called it—was largely employed in a highly discriminate manner. This was especially true of Russian revolutionary organizations such as People's Will or Socialist Revolutionary Party (SR): they held that it was morally justified to assassinate a government official only if his complicity in the oppressive regime was significant enough for him to deserve to die, and the assassination would make an important contribution to the struggle. Their violence steered clear of other, uninvolved or insufficiently involved persons. Some instances of “propaganda by the deed” carried out by French and Spanish anarchists in the 1880s and 1890s were indiscriminate killings of common citizens; but that was an exception, rather than the rule. The perpetrators and some of those sympathetic to their cause claimed those acts were nevertheless morally legitimate, whether as retribution (exacted on the assumption that no member of the ruling class was innocent) or as a means necessary for the overthrow of the unjust order. Accordingly, in their parlance, too, the term “terrorism” implied no censure. When used by others, it conveyed a strong condemnation of the practice.

1.1.3 The state as terrorist

The terrorism employed by both sides in the Russian Revolution and Civil War was in important respects a throwback to that of the Jacobins. The government set up in Russia by the victorious Bolsheviks was totalitarian. So was the Nazi rule in Germany. Both sought to impose total political control on society. Such a radical aim could only be pursued by a similarly radical method: by terrorism directed by an extremely powerful political police at an atomized and defenseless population. Its success was due largely to its arbitrary character—to the unpredictability of its choice of victims. In both countries, the regime first suppressed all opposition; when it no longer had any opposition to speak of, political police took to persecuting “potential” and “objective opponents”. In the Soviet Union, it was eventually unleashed on victims chosen at random. Totalitarian terrorism is the most extreme and sustained type of state terrorism. As Hannah Arendt put it, “terror is the essence of totalitarian domination”, and the concentration camp is “the true central institution of totalitarian organizational power” (Arendt 1958: 464, 438). While students of totalitarianism talked of terrorism as its method of rule, representatives of totalitarian regimes, sensitive to the pejorative connotation of the word, portrayed the practice as defense of the state from internal enemies.

However, state terrorism is not the preserve of totalitarian regimes. Some non-totalitarian states have resorted to terrorism against enemy civilians as a method of warfare, most notably when the RAF and USAAF bombed German and Japanese cities in World War II (see Lackey 2004). Those who designed and oversaw these campaigns never publicly described them as “terror bombing”, but that was how they often referred to them in internal communications.

1.1.4 Terrorists and freedom fighters

After the heyday of totalitarian terrorism in the 1930s and 1940s, internal state terrorism continued to be practiced by military dictatorships in many parts of the world, albeit in a less sustained and pervasive way. But the type of terrorism that came to the fore in the second half of the 20th century and in early 21st century is that employed by insurgent organizations. Many movements for national liberation from colonial rule resorted to it, either as the main method of struggle or as a tactic complementing guerrilla warfare. So did some separatist movements. Some organizations driven by extreme ideologies, in particular on the left, took to terrorism as the way of trying to destroy what they considered an unjust, oppressive economic, social and political system. This type of terrorism is, by and large, indiscriminate in its choice of target: it attacks men and women of whatever political (or apolitical) views, social class, and walk of life; young and old, adults and children. It shoots at people, or blows them up by planting bombs, in office buildings, markets, cafes, cinemas, places of religious worship, on buses or planes, or in other vulnerable public places. It also takes people hostage, by hijacking planes and in other ways.

As “terrorism” has by now acquired a very strong pejorative meaning, no-one applies the word to their own actions or to actions and campaigns of those they sympathize with. Insurgents practicing terrorism portray their actions as struggle for liberation and seek to be considered and treated as soldiers rather than terrorists or criminals. They often depict their enemy—the alien government, or the agencies of the social, political and economic system—as the “true terrorists”. For them, the test of terrorism is not what is done, but rather what the ultimate aim of doing it is. If the ultimate aim is liberation or justice, the violence used in order to attain it is not terrorism, whereas the violence aiming at maintaining oppression or injustice, or some of the “structural violence” embodying it, is. On the other hand, governments tend to paint all insurgent violence with the brush of “terrorism”. Government spokespersons and pro-government media typically assume that terrorism is by definition something done by non-state agents, and that a state can never be guilty of terrorism (although it can sponsor terrorist organizations). For them, the test of terrorism is not what is done, but who does it. When a state agency uses violence, it is an act of war, or reprisal, or defense of the security of the state and its citizens; when an insurgent group does the same, it is terrorism. Under these circumstances, one person's terrorist is indeed another's freedom fighter, and public debate about terrorism is largely conducted at cross purposes and to little effect. Attempts of the United Nations to propose a definition of “terrorism” that could be accepted by all states and embedded in international law so far have been frustrated by the same sort of relativism. Islamic countries would accept no definition that allowed national liberation movements in the Middle East and Kashmir to be portrayed as terrorist, whereas Western countries would accept no definition that allowed for state agencies to be guilty of terrorism.

1.2 Two core traits of terrorism and two types of definition

1.2.1 Violence and terror

The evaluative meaning of “terrorism” has shifted considerably more than once. So has its descriptive meaning, but to a lesser degree. Whatever else the word may have meant, its ordinary use over more than two centuries has typically indicated two things: violence and intimidation (the causing of great fear or terror, terrorizing). The dominant approach to the conceptual question in philosophical literature reflects this. Terrorism is usually understood as a type of violence. This violence is not blind or sadistic, but rather aims at intimidation and at some further political, social, or religious goal or, more broadly, at coercion.

That is how (political) “terrorism” is defined by Per Bauhn in the first philosophical book-length study in English:

The performance of violent acts, directed against one or more persons, intended by the performing agent to intimidate one or more persons and thereby to bring about one or more of the agent's political goals (Bauhn 1989: 28).

Another good example of a mainstream definition is provided in C.A.J. Coady's article on terrorism in the Encyclopedia of Ethics:

The tactic of intentionally targeting non-combatants [or non-combatant property, when significantly related to life and security] with lethal or severe violence … meant to produce political results via the creation of fear (Coady 2001: 1697).

Yet another example is the definition proposed by Igor Primoratz:

The deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people, with the aim of intimidating some other people into a course of action they otherwise would not take (Primoratz 2013: 24).

These definitions put aside both the question of who the actor is and the question of what their ultimate objectives are, and focus on what is done and what the proximateaim of doing it is. They present terrorism as a way of acting that could be adopted by different agents and serve various ultimate objectives (most, but perhaps not all of them, political). It can be employed by states or by non-state agents, and may promote national liberation or oppression, revolutionary or conservative causes (and possibly pursue some nonpolitical aims as well). One can be a terrorist and a freedom fighter; terrorism is not the monopoly of enemies of freedom. One can hold high government or military office and design or implement a terrorist campaign; terrorism is not the preserve of insurgents. In this way much of the relativism concerning who is and who is not a terrorist that has plagued contemporary public debate (see 1.1.4 above) can be overcome.

Beyond concurring that violence and intimidation constitute the core of terrorism, the definitions quoted above differ in several respects. Does only actual violence count, or do threats of violence also qualify? Must terrorist violence be directed against life and limb, or does violence against (some) property also count? Does terrorism always seek to attain some political goal, or can there be non-political (e.g. criminal) terrorism? All these points are minor. There is also one major difference: while Coady and Primoratz define terrorism as violence against non-combatants or innocent people, respectively, Bauhn's definition includes no such restriction. Definitions of the former type can be termed “narrow”, and those of the latter sort “wide”. Philosophical literature on terrorism abounds in instances of both types.

1.2.2 Wide and narrow definitions

Should we adopt a wide or a narrow definition? A wide definition encompasses the entire history of “terrorism” from the Jacobins to the present, and is more in accord with current ordinary use. A narrow definition departs from much ordinary use by restricting terrorist violence to that directed at non-combatants or innocent persons. Thus it leaves out most of 19th century “propaganda by the deed” and political violence perpetrated by Russian revolutionaries which they themselves and the public called terrorist.

For these reasons, historians of terrorism normally work with a wide definition, and social scientists do so much of the time. But philosophers may well prefer a narrow definition. They focus on the moral standing of terrorism and need a definition that is particularly helpful in moral discourse. Morally speaking, surely there is a difference—for some, a world of difference—between planting a bomb in a government building and killing a number of highly placed officials of (what one considers) an unjust and oppressive government, and planting a bomb in a tea shop and killing a random collection of common citizens, including children. While both acts raise serious moral issues, these issues are not identical, and running them together under the same heading of “terrorism” will likely hamper, rather than help, discerning moral assessment.

Narrow definitions are revisionary, but (unlike those discussed in the next section) not implausibly so. They focus on the traits of terrorism that cause most of us to view the practice with deep moral repugnance: (i) violence (ii) against non-combatants (or, alternatively, against innocent people) for the sake of (iii) intimidation (and, on some definitions, (iv) coercion). In highlighting (ii), they relate the issue of terrorism to the ethics of war and one of the fundamental principles of just war theory, that of non-combatant immunity. They help distinguish terrorism from acts of war proper and political assassination, which do not target non-combatants or common citizens. It does not matter very much whether the victims of terrorism are described as “non-combatants” or “innocent people”, as each term is used in a technical sense, and both refer to those who have not lost their immunity against lethal or other extreme violence by being directly involved in, or highly responsible for, (what terrorists consider) insufferable injustice or oppression. In war, these are innocent civilians; in a violent conflict that falls short of war, these are common citizens.

Is the injustice or oppression at issue, and thus the standing of those implicated in it, to be determined by some objective criteria, or from the point of view of those who resort to violence? Coady chooses the former option. He approaches terrorism from the standpoint of just war theory and its principle of noncombatant immunity. “Combatants” is a technical term designating agents of aggression or, more broadly, “dangerous wrongdoers” or “agents of harm”; they are legitimate targets of potentially lethal violence. All others are noncombatants, and enjoy immunity from such violence (Coady 2004). This approach may not be difficult to apply in war, where the wrong or harm at issue is either aggression that needs to be repelled, or systematic and large-scale violations of human rights that provide the ground for humanitarian intervention. Issues of injustice or oppression that arise in an internal conflict that falls short of war, however, tend to be highly contentious: what some consider an imperfect, but basically morally legitimate political and social order, others may see as the epitome of injustice and oppression that must be overthrown, if need be by violence. Under such circumstances, when a highly placed political official is killed by insurgents, that may be characterized (and condemned) by many as an act of terrorism, while the insurgents and those sympathetic to their struggle may reject this characterization and portray (and justify) the killing as political assassination.

In order to avoid this kind of relativism, Primoratz puts forward a view that in one important respect takes on board the standpoint of the terrorist. The direct victims of terrorism are innocent in the sense of not being responsible, on any credible understanding of responsibility and liability, for the injustice or oppression the terrorists fight against—not responsible at all, or at least not responsible to the degree that makes them liable to be killed or maimed on that account. The injustice or oppression at issue need not be real; it may be merely alleged (by the terrorists). Being responsible for a merely alleged great injustice or oppression is enough for losing one's immunity against violence, as far as the type of immunity and innocence relevant to defining terrorism is concerned. According to mainstream just war theory one does not lose immunity against acts of war only by fighting in an unjust war, but by fighting in any war (Walzer 2000: 36–41). Similarly, one does not lose immunity against political violence only by holding office in or implementing policies of a gravely unjust government, but by holding office in or implementing policies of any government: as King Umberto I of Italy said after surviving an assassination attempt, such risk comes with the job. Members of these two classes are not considered innocent and morally protected against violence by those attacking them; the latter view their acts as acts of war proper or of political assassination, respectively. If the terrorists subscribe to a credible view of responsibility and liability, then, when they attack common citizens, they attack people innocent from their own point of view, i.e., innocent even if we grant the terrorists their assessment of the policies at issue. (This is not to say that those who consider a government to be gravely unjust have a moral license to kill its officials, but only that if they do so, that will not be terrorism, but rather political assassination. We can still condemn their actions if we reject their judgment of the policies at issue, or if we accept that judgment, but believe that they should have opposed those policies by nonviolent means. But we will not be condemning their actions qua terrorism.)

On this account, not only real, but also merely alleged injustice or oppression counts in determining the innocence of the victims and deciding which acts are acts of terrorism; thus such decisions are not hostage to endless debates about the moral status of contested policies. Nevertheless, a residue of relativity remains. The account presupposes a certain understanding of responsibility and liability: a person is responsible for a state of affairs only by virtue of that person's voluntary, i.e., informed and free, act or omission that has a sufficiently strong connection with that state of affairs, and thereby becomes liable to some proportionately unfavorable response. Provided the terrorists accept some such understanding of responsibility and liability, they kill and maim people they themselves must admit to be innocent. To be sure, some militant organizations resort to violence which we perceive as terrorist, yet object to the label. They profess a view of responsibility and liability based on extremely far-fetched connections between states of affairs and human choices and actions, and argue that entire social classes or nations are responsible for certain policies and practices and all their members are liable to be attacked by deadly violence (see 2.1 below). Such arguments can only be regarded as preposterous. We should insist on viewing their actions as terrorist, although they reject this description. It is not clear how this residue of relativity could be removed (Primoratz 2013: 16-21).

Some object to defining “terrorism” as violence against non-combatants or innocent persons. They argue that doing so runs together the question of the nature of terrorism and that of its moral status, and begs the moral issue by making terrorism unjustified by definition. We should rather keep these questions separate, and take care not to prejudge the latter by giving a wrong answer to the former. What is needed is a morally neutral definition of terrorism, and that means a wide one (Corlett 2003: 114–20, 134–35; Young 2004: 57). But it is doubtful that “terrorism” can be defined in some morally untainted way. The wide definitions these philosophers adopt contain the word “violence”, which is itself morally loaded. A narrow definition is not completely morally neutral, as violence against the innocent is clearly morally wrong. But what is clear is that such violence is prima facie wrong. The definition implies a general presumption against terrorism, not its sweeping moral condemnation in each and every instance, whatever the circumstances and whatever the consequences of desisting from it. The definition does not rule out that in certain circumstances it might not be wrong, all things considered. Ethical investigation is not preempted: a particular case of terrorism still needs to be judged on its merits.

Another way of settling the issue of wide vs. narrow definition is offered by Georg Meggle. He adopts a wide definition of terrorism, and goes on to distinguish two different types: terrorism in the strong sense, which deliberately, recklessly, or negligently harms innocent people, and terrorism in the weak sense, which does not. Obviously, the moral assessment of the two types of terrorism is going to be significantly different (Meggle 2005).

1.2.3 Some idiosyncratic definitions

The vast majority of cases almost anyone without an ax to grind would want to classify as “terrorism” exhibit the two traits implied in ordinary use and highlighted by mainstream philosophical definitions such as those quoted above: violence and intimidation. But philosophical literature also offers definitions that leave out one or the other core component.

Some seek to sever the connection between terrorism and violence. Carl Wellman defines terrorism as “the use or attempted use of terror as a means of coercion”. Terrorism is often associated with violence, but that is because violence is a very effective means of intimidation. Yet “violence is not essential to terrorism and, in fact, most acts of terrorism are nonviolent” (Wellman 1979: 250–51). The last claim seems false on any non-circular interpretation. There may be many acts generally considered terrorist that do not involve actual violence, but are meant to intimidate by threatening it; but that is not enough to support the notion of “non-violent terrorism”, which seems odd. So does Wellman's example of “classroom terrorism”: a professor threatens to fail students who submit their essays after the due date, causes panic in class, and thereby engages in terrorism.

Robert E. Goodin offers a similar account, emphasizing the political role of terrorism: terrorism is “a political tactic, involving the deliberate frightening of people for political advantage” (Goodin 2006: 49). This, he claims, is the distinctive wrong terrorists commit. Whereas on Wellman's account one can commit an act of terrorism without either engaging in or threatening violence, merely by making a threat in order to intimidate, on Goodin's account one need not even make a threat: one acts as a terrorist by merely issuing a warning about the acts of others that is meant to intimidate. This, too, seems arbitrary, although it makes sense as a step in an argument meant to show that “if (or insofar as) Western political leaders are intending to frighten people for their own political advantage, then (to that extent) they are committing the same core wrong that is distinctively associated with terrorism” (Goodin 2006: 2).

It has also been suggested that terrorism need not be understood as inducing terror or fear. According to Ted Honderich, terrorism is best defined as “violence, short of war, political, illegal and prima facie wrong” (Honderich 2006: 88). This definition might be thought problematic on several counts, but the idea of “terrorism” without “terror” seems especially odd. The two are connected etymologically and historically, and this connection is deeply entrenched in current ordinary use. Intimidation is not the morally salient trait of terrorism (pace Goodin), but it is one of its core traits that cause most of us to condemn the practice. We might consider severing the connection if Honderich offered a good reason for doing so. But he supports his highly revisionary definition by the puzzling claim that to define terrorism as violence meant to intimidate is to imply that terrorism is particularly abhorrent and thereby “in effect … invite a kind of prima facie approval or tolerance of war” (Honderich 2006: 93).

2. The moral issue

Can terrorism be morally justified? There is no single answer to this question, as there is no single conception of what terrorism is. If we put aside definitions that depart too much, and for no compelling reason, from the core meaning of “terrorism” (such as those cited in 1.2.3), we still need to decide whether the question assumes a wide or a narrow understanding of terrorism. A narrow conception of terrorism seems to be better suited to ethical investigation (1.2.2). Moreover, philosophers who work with a wide definition typically hold that terrorism that targets non-combatants or innocent persons is much more difficult to justify than “selective” terrorism which attacks only those who cannot plausibly claim innocence of the injustice or oppression at issue (and which accordingly does not count as “terrorism” on a narrow definition of the term). The present discussion therefore focuses on terrorism understood as violence against innocent civilians or common citizens, intended to intimidate and thereby to achieve some further (political) objective or, more broadly, to coerce.

One might try to justify some acts or campaigns of violence of this kind in two ways. One could argue that the victims may be non-combatants or common citizens, but nevertheless are not innocent of the wrongs the terrorists are fighting against. Alternatively, one could concede the innocence of the victims and argue that attacks on them are nevertheless justified, either by their consequences on balance, or by some deontological considerations.

2.1 Complicity of the victims

If the former line of argument is successful, will it prove too much? In showing that an instance of violence was justified because those targeted were not really innocent, we will have shown that the act or campaign of violence at issue was actually not a case of terrorism. This may be merely a matter of semantics. There is a much more damaging objection. A terrorist act is characteristically the killing or injuring of a random collection of people who happen to be in a certain place at a certain time. Arguments to the effect that those people are not innocent of the wrongs the terrorist fights against will therefore have a very wide reach, and accordingly will be based on some simplistic conception of collective responsibility. These arguments will be of the sort offered, for example, by the 19th century anarchist Emile Henry. He planted a bomb at the office of a mining company which, if it had exploded, would have killed or injured a number of people who did not work for the company, but lived in the same building. He also planted a bomb in a café that did go off, injuring twenty people, one of whom later died of his injuries. At his trial, Henry explained: “What about the innocent victims? […] The building where the Carmeaux Company had its offices was inhabited only by the bourgeois; hence there would be no innocent victims. The whole of the bourgeoisie lives by the exploitation of the unfortunate, and should expiate its crimes together” (Henry 1977: 193). When commenting on the second attack, he said:

Those good bourgeois who hold no office but who reap their dividends and live idly on the profits of the workers' toil, they also must take their share in the reprisals. And not only they, but all those who are satisfied with the existing order, who applaud the acts of the government and so become its accomplices … in other words, the daily clientele of Terminus and other great cafés! (Henry 1977: 195)

This is an utterly implausible view of responsibility and liability. It claims that all members of a social class—men and women, young and old, adults and children—are liable to be killed or maimed: some for operating the system of exploitation, others for supporting it, and still others for benefiting from it. Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant the anarchist's harsh moral condemnation of capitalist society, not every type and degree of involvement with it can justify the use of extreme violence. Giving the system political support, or benefiting from it, may be morally objectionable, but is surely not enough to make one liable to be blown to pieces.

Another, more recent example, is provided by Osama Bin Laden. In an interview in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001 he said:

The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government and that they voted for their president. Their government makes weapons and provides them to Israel, which they use to kill Palestinian Muslims. Given that the American Congress is a committee that represents the people, the fact that it agrees with the actions of the American government proves that America in its entirety is responsible for the atrocities that it is committing against Muslims (Bin Laden 2005: 140–141).

This, too, is a preposterous understanding of responsibility and liability. For it claims that all Americans are eligible to be killed or maimed: some for devising and implementing America's policies, others for participating in the political process, still others for paying taxes. Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant Bin Laden's severe condemnation of those policies, not every type and degree of involvement with them can justify the use of lethal violence. Surely voting in elections or paying taxes is not enough to make one fair game.

Attempts at justification of terrorism that concede that its victims are innocent seem more promising. They fall into two groups, depending on the type of ethical theory on which they are based.

2.2 Consequentialism

Adherents of consequentialism judge terrorism, like every other practice, solely by its consequences. Terrorism is not considered wrong in itself, but only if it has bad consequences on balance. The innocence of the victims does not change that. This is an instance of a general trait of consequentialism often highlighted by its critics, for example in the debate about the moral justification of legal punishment. A standard objection to the consequentialist approach to punishment has been that it implies that punishment of the innocent is justified, when its consequences are good on balance. This objection can only get off the ground because consequentialism denies that in such matters a person's innocence is morally significant in itself.

Those who consider terrorism from a consequentialist point of view differ in their assessment of its morality. Their judgment on terrorism depends on their view of the good to be promoted by its use and on their assessment of the utility of terrorism as a means of promoting it. There is room for disagreement on both issues.

2.2.1 Terrorism justified

Kai Nielsen approaches questions to do with political violence in general and terrorism in particular as a consequentialist in ethics and a socialist in politics. The use of neither can be ruled out categorically; it all depends on their utility as a method for attaining morally and politically worthwhile objectives such as “a truly socialist society” or liberation from colonial rule. “When and where [either] should be employed is a tactical question that must be decided … on a case-by-case basis … like the choice of weapon in a war” (Nielsen 1981: 435). Nielsen has a wide definition of terrorism, but his examples show that the innocence of the victims of terrorism makes no difference to its justification—that is, that his conclusions apply to terrorism in both the wide and narrow sense. In his view,

terrorist acts must be justified by their political effects and their moral consequences. They are justified (1) when they are politically effective weapons in the revolutionary struggle and (2) when, everything considered, there are sound reasons for believing that, by the use of that type of violence rather than no violence at all or violence of some other type, there will be less injustice, suffering and degradation in the world than would otherwise have been the case (Nielsen 1981: 446).

Historical experience, in Nielsen's view, tells us that terrorism on a small scale, used as the sole method of struggle in order to provoke the masses into revolutionary action, is ineffective and often counterproductive. On the other hand, terrorism employed in conjunction with guerrilla warfare in a protracted war of liberation may well prove useful and therefore also justified, as it did in Algeria and South Vietnam. (For an earlier statement of the same view, see Trotsky 1961: 48–59, 62–65.)

2.2.2 Terrorism unjustified

Nicholas Fotion also uses a wide definition of terrorism. He, too, is a consequentialist (although some of his remarks concerning the innocence of many victims of terrorism might be more at home in nonconsequentialist ethics). But he finds standard consequentialist assessments of terrorism such as Nielsen's too permissive. If some types of terrorism are justifiable under certain circumstances, such circumstances will be extremely rare. Terrorists and their apologists do not perform the requisite calculations properly. One problem is the “higher good” to be promoted by terrorism: more often than not, it is defined in ideological terms, rather than derived from settled preferences or interests of actual people. But for the most part Fotion discusses the issue of means. If a terrorist act or campaign is to be justified instrumentally, it must be shown (1) that the end sought is good enough to justify the means, (2) that the end will indeed be achieved by means of terrorism, and (3) that the end cannot be achieved in any other way that is morally and otherwise less costly. Terrorists not only, as a matter of fact, fail to discharge this burden; Fotion argues that, with regard to terrorism that victimizes innocent people, it cannot be discharged. All direct victims of terrorism are treated as objects to be used—indeed, used up—by the terrorist. But

in being treated as an object, the innocent victim is worse off than the (alleged) guilty victim. Insofar as the latter is judged to have done a wrong, he is thought of as a human. […] For the terrorist the innocent victim is neither a human in this judgmental sense nor a human in the sense of simply having value as a human being. Of course the terrorist needs to pick a human being as a victim … because [that] brings about more terror … But this does not involve treating them as humans. Rather, they are victimized and thereby treated as objects because they are humans (Fotion 1981: 464).

In reply, terrorists can claim that they advisedly sacrifice valued human beings for a higher good. But for this claim to carry any conviction, they would have to show that they have no alternative. Yet, Fotion argues, they always have the alternative of taking on the opponent's military establishment, and often also have the option of going after government officials responsible for the wrongs they object to, instead of attacking innocent persons. That kind of terrorism may sometimes be justified, whereas terrorism that targets innocent people never is.

2.3 Nonconsequentialism

Within a nonconsequentialist approach to morality, terrorism is considered wrong in itself, because of what it is, rather than only because (and insofar as) its consequences are bad on balance. But this is not to say that this approach leaves no room whatever for morally justifying certain acts or campaigns of terrorism. Indeed, nonconsequentialist discussions of terrorism also present a range of positions and arguments.

A nonconsequentialist might try to justify an act or campaign of terrorism in one of two ways. One might invoke some deontological considerations, such as justice or rights, in favor of resorting to terrorism under certain circumstances. Alternatively, one might argue that the obvious, and obviously very weighty, considerations of rights (of the victims of terrorism) and justice (which demands respect for those rights) may sometimes be overridden by extremely weighty considerations of consequences—an extremely high price that would be paid for not resorting to terrorism. For the rejection of consequentialism is of course not tantamount to denying that consequences of our actions, policies, and practices matter in their moral assessment; what is denied is the consequentialists' claim that only consequences matter.

2.3.1 Basic human rights and distributive justice

Virginia Held operates with a broad notion of terrorism, but her justification of terrorism is meant to apply to terrorism that targets common citizens. Her discussion of the subject focuses on the issue of rights. When rights of a person or group are not respected, what may we do in order to ensure that they are? On one view, known as consequentialism of rights, if the only way to ensure respect of a certain right of A and B is to infringe the same right of C, we shall be justified in doing so. Held does not hold that such trade-offs in rights with the aim of maximizing their respect in a society are appropriate. Yet rights sometimes come into conflict, whether directly or indirectly (as in the above example). When that happens, there is no way we can avoid comparing the rights involved as more or less stringent and making certain choices between them. That applies to the case of terrorism too. Terrorism obviously violates some human rights of its victims. But its advocates claim that in some circumstances a limited use of terrorism is the only way of bringing about a society where human rights of all will be respected.

Even when this claim is true, that is not enough to make resort to terrorism justified. But it will be justified if an additional condition is met: that of distributive justice. If there is a society where the human rights of a part of the population are respected, while the same rights of another part of the population are being violated; if the only way of changing that and ensuring that human rights of all are respected is a limited use of terrorism; finally, if terrorism is directed against members of the first group, which up to now has been privileged as far as respect of human rights is concerned—then terrorism will be morally justified. This is a justification in terms of distributive justice, applied to the problem of violations of human rights. It is more just to equalize the violations of human rights in a stage of transition to a society where the rights of all are respected, than to allow that the group which has already suffered large-scale violations of human rights suffer even more such violations (assuming that in both cases we are dealing with violations of the same, or equally stringent, human rights). Human rights of many are going to be violated in any case; it is more just, and therefore morally preferable, that their violations should be distributed in a more equitable way (Held 2008).

It might be objected that in calling for sacrificing such basic human rights as the right to life and to bodily security of individual victims of terrorism for the sake of a more just distribution of violations of the same rights within a group in the course of transition to a stage where these rights will be respected throughout that group, Held offends against the principles of separateness of persons and respect for persons (Primoratz 1997: 230–31). In response, Held argues that

to fail to achieve a more just distribution of violations of rights (through the use of terrorism if that is the only means available) is to fail to recognize that those whose rights are already not fairly respected are individuals in their own right, not merely members of a group … whose rights can be ignored.

An argument for achieving a just distribution of rights violations is not necessarily about groups; it can be an argument about the rights of individuals to fairness (Held 2008: 89–90). (For further objections to Held's argument, see Steinhoff 2007: 125–30; Nath 2011.)

2.3.2 Supreme emergency and moral disaster

In Held's justification of terrorism, it is justice that requires that inescapable violations of human rights be more evenly distributed. There is a different way of allowing for the use of terrorism under certain circumstances within a nonconsequentialist approach to the ethics of violence. It could be argued that, as far as justice and rights are concerned, terrorism (or, in Held's terminology, the kind of terrorism that targets the innocent) is never justified. Furthermore, considerations of justice and rights carry much greater weight than considerations of good and bad consequences, and therefore normally trump the latter in cases of conflict. However, in exceptional circumstances considerations concerning consequences—the price of not resorting to terrorism—may be so extremely weighty as to override those of justice and rights.

Michael Walzer offers an argument along these lines in his discussion of “terror bombing” of German cities in World War II. In early 1942, it seemed that Britain would be defeated by Germany and that its military could not prevail while fighting in accordance with the rules of war. Britain was the only remaining obstacle to the subjugation of most of Europe by the Nazis. That was “an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives, an ideology and a practice of domination so murderous, so degrading even to those who might survive, that the consequences of its final victory were literally beyond calculation, immeasurably awful” (Walzer 2000: 253). Thus Britain was facing a “supreme emergency”: an (a) imminent threat of (b) something utterly unthinkable from a moral point of view. In such an emergency—a case of the “dirty hands” predicament that so often plagues political action (see Walzer 1973)—one may breach a basic and weighty moral principle such as civilian immunity, if that is the only hope of fending off the threat. So for more than three years, the RAF, later joined by the USAAF, deliberately devastated many German cities, killed about 600,000 civilians and seriously injured another 800,000 in an attempt to terrorize the German people into forcing their leadership to halt the war and surrender unconditionally. By early 1943 it was clear that Germany was not going to win the war, and all subsequent terror bombing lacked moral justification. But in its first year, in Walzer's view, the terror bombing of Germany was morally justified as a response to the supreme emergency Britain was facing. Walzer then expands the notion of supreme emergency to apply to a single political community facing the threat of extermination or enslavement, and eventually to a single political community whose “survival and freedom” are at stake. For “the survival and freedom of political communities—whose members share a way of life, developed by their ancestors, to be passed on to their children—are the highest values of international society” (Walzer 2000: 254).

Here we have two different conceptions of supreme emergency. The threat is imminent in both, but the nature of the threat differs: it is one thing to suffer the fate the Nazis had in store for peoples they considered racially inferior, and another to have one's polity dismantled. By moving back and forth between these two types of supreme emergency under the ambiguous heading of threat to “the survival and freedom of a political community”, Walzer seeks to extend to the latter the moral response that might be appropriate to the former. Yet whereas genocide, expulsion, or enslavement of an entire people might be thought a moral disaster that may be fended off by any means, its loss of political independence is, at most, a political disaster. If a polity to be dismantled lacks moral legitimacy, its demise may well be a moral improvement. But even if a polity does have moral legitimacy, a threat to its “survival and freedom” falls short of “an ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives”. If so, its military cannot be justified in waging war on enemy civilians in order to defend it.

There is another, less permissive position constructed along similar lines, but based on a more austere view of what counts as a moral disaster that might justify resort to terrorism. Contrary to what many fighters against social or economic oppression, colonial rule, or foreign occupation believe, evils of such magnitude that they can justify indiscriminate killing and maiming of innocent people are extremely rare. Not every case of oppression, foreign rule, or occupation, however morally indefensible, amounts to a moral disaster in the relevant sense. Nor does every imminent threat to “the survival and freedom of a political community” qualify, contrary to what Walzer has argued. However, if an entire people is subjected to extermination, or to an attempt at “ethnically cleansing” it from its land, then it is facing a true moral disaster and may properly consider terrorism as a method of struggle against such a fate. In view of their enormity and finality, extermination and “ethnic cleansing” of an entire people constitute a category apart. To be sure, resorting to terrorism in such a case will be morally justified only if there are very good grounds for believing that terrorism will succeed where nothing else will: in preventing imminent extermination or “ethnic cleansing”, or stopping it if it is already under way. Cases where both conditions are met will be extremely rare. Indeed, history may not offer a single example. But that does not mean that that no act or campaign of terrorism could ever satisfy these conditions and thus turn out to be justified. Accordingly, terrorism is almost absolutely wrong (Primoratz 2013: chapter 6).

Both the “supreme emergency” and the “moral disaster” view will justify a resort to terrorism only when that is the only way to deal with the emergency, or to prevent the disaster, respectively. Just how certain must we be that terrorism will indeed achieve the goal, while no other method will? One might argue that when in extremis, we cannot apply stringent epistemic standards in deciding how to cope—indeed, if we cannot really know what will work, we must take our chances with what might. This is Walzer's view: in such a predicament, we must “wager” the crime of terrorism against the evil that is otherwise in store for us. “There is no option; the risk otherwise is too great” (Walzer 2000: 259–260). It may be objected that this position highlights the enormity of the threat, while failing to give due weight to the enormity of the means proposed for fending off the threat—the enormity of terrorism, of deliberately killing and maiming innocent people. When that is taken into account, the conclusion may rather be that even in extremis, if terrorism is to be justified, the reasons for believing that it will work and that nothing else will must be very strong indeed.

2.3.3 Terrorism absolutely wrong

Some hold that terrorism is absolutely wrong. This position, too, comes in different versions. Some philosophers work with a wide definition of terrorism, and argue that under certain circumstances “selective” terrorism that targets only those seriously implicated in the wrongs at issue may be justified (Corlett 2003, Young 2004). This seems to suggest that terrorism which is not selective in this way—that is, terrorism in the narrow sense—is never justified. Yet this does not follow: there is still room for arguing that terrorism of the latter type can be justified by further considerations, such as those of “supreme emergency” or “moral disaster”.

Per Bauhn does not leave it at that. He attempts to show that terrorism that targets non-combatants or common citizens can never be justified by deploying a slightly amended version of Alan Gewirth's ethical theory. Freedom and safety are fundamental prerequisites of action and therefore must be accorded paramount weight. The need to protect them generates a range of rights; the right pertinent here is “an absolute right not to be made the intended victims of a homicidal project” all innocent persons have (Gewirth 1981: 16). When the absolute status of this right is challenged by invoking supreme emergency or moral disaster, Bauhn argues that there is a moral difference between what we are positively and directly causally responsible for, and what we are causally responsible for only indirectly, by failing to prevent other persons from intentionally bringing it about. We are morally responsible for the former, but (except in certain special circumstances) not for the latter. If we refuse to resort to terrorism in order not to target innocent persons, and thus fail to prevent some other persons from perpetrating atrocities, it is only the perpetrators who will be morally responsible for those atrocities. Therefore we must refuse (Bauhn 1989: chapter 5).

Stephen Nathanson seeks to ground absolute immunity of civilians or common citizens and absolute prohibition of terrorism it entails in a rule-consequentialist ethical theory (Nathanson 2010: 191–208). Adopting civilian immunity, rather than adopting any other rule regulating the matter or having no rule at all, is the best way to reduce the killing and destruction in armed conflict. Moreover, the best consequences will be achieved by adopting it as an absolute rule, rather than as a rule allowing for exceptions in supreme emergencies. The idea of supreme emergency is vague. The criteria for proffering supreme emergency exemptions are liable to be applied in arbitrary and subjective ways. Finally, there is the slippery slope argument: “permitting [departures from the rule of civilian immunity, including terrorism] even under the direst circumstances will lower the bar for justifying such acts ... broadcast the message that such behavior may sometimes be justified and ... thus lend its weight to increasing the use of such methods” (Nathanson 2010: 207).

However, one can adopt rule-consequentialism as one's ethical theory and yet view the immunity of civilians or common citizens and the attendant prohibition of terrorism as very stringent, but not absolute moral rules. Thus Richard B. Brandt and Brad Hooker do not view this immunity as absolute. They argue that a set of moral rules selected because of the good consequences of their adoption should include a rule that allows and indeed requires one to prevent disaster even if that means breaking some other moral rule. Even such a stringent moral rule as the prohibition of deliberate use of violence against innocent people may be overridden, if the disaster that cannot be prevented in any other way is grave enough. (See Brandt 1992: 87–88, 150–51, 156–57; Hooker 2000: 98–99, 127–36). There is thus some convergence at the level of practical conclusions between their understanding of the immunity of civilians or common citizens and the “moral disaster” position outlined above (2.3.2).


Books, Book Chapters, and Articles

  • Allhoff, Fritz, 2012, Terrorism, Ticking Time-Bombs, and Torture: A Philosophical Analysis, New York: Columbia University Press; see especially Part I.
  • Arendt, Hannah, 1958, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 2nd edn., Cleveland: The World Publishing Co.; see especially chapters 12–13.
  • Bauhn, Per, 1989, Ethical Aspects of Political Terrorism: The Sacrificing of theInnocent, Lund: Lund University Press.
  • Bin Laden, Osama, 2005, “The Example of Vietnam”, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden, Bruce Lawrence (ed.), James Howarth (trans.), London and New York: Verso, 139–144.
  • Brandt, Richard B., 1992, Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carter, Michael Philip, 1989, “The French Revolution: ‘Jacobin Terror’”, in Rapoport and Alexander (eds.) 1989, 133–51.
  • Coady, C.A.J., 1985, “The Morality of Terrorism”, Philosophy, 60: 47–69.
  • –––, 2001, “Terrorism”, in Becker, Lawrence C., and Becker, Charlotte B., eds., Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edn., New York and London: Routledge, vol. 3, 1696–99.
  • –––, 2004, “Terrorism and Innocence”, Journal of Ethics, 8: 37–58.
  • Coady, Tony, and O'Keefe, Michael, eds., 2002, Terrorismand Justice: Moral Argumentin a Threatened World, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
  • Corlett, J. Angelo, 2003, Terrorism: A Philosophical Analysis, Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  • Dardis, Tony, 1992, “Primoratz on Terrorism”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 9: 93–97.
  • Elshtain, Jean Bethke, 2003, Just War against Terror: The Burden of American Powerin a Violent World, New York: Basic Books.
  • Fotion, Nicholas, 1981, “The Burdens of Terrorism”, in Burton M. Leiser (ed.), Values in Conflict, New York: Macmillan, 463–70.
  • Frey, R.G. and Morris, Christopher W., eds., 1991, Violence, Terrorism, and Justice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fullinwider, Robert K., 1988, “Understanding Terrorism”, in Steven Luper-Foy (ed.), Problems of International Justice, Boulder: Westview Press, 249–59.
  • George, David A., 2000, “The Ethics of IRA Terrorism”, in Andrew Valls (ed.), Ethics in International Affairs: Theories and Cases, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 81–97.
  • Gewirth, Alan, 1981, “Are There Any Absolute Rights?”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 31: 1–16.
  • Gilbert, Paul, 1994, Terrorism, Security and Nationality: An Introductory Study in Applied Political Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Goodin, Robert E., 2006, What's Wrong with Terrorism? Oxford: Polity.
  • Goppel, Anna, 2013, Killing Terrorists: A Moral and Legal Analysis, Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Gordon, Neve, and Lopez, George A., 2000, “Terrorism in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”, in Andrew Valls (ed.), Ethics in International Affairs: Theories and Cases, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 99–113.
  • Govier, Trudy, 2002, A Delicate Balance: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about Terrorism, Cambridge, Mass.: Westview Press.
  • Grayling, A.C., 2006, Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime?, London: Bloomsbury.
  • Held, Virginia, 2008, How Terrorism Is Wrong: Morality and Political Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Henry, Emile, 1977, “A Terrorist's Defence”, in George Woodcock (ed.), The Anarchist Reader, Hassocks: Harvester Press, 189–96.
  • Honderich, Ted, 2003, After the Terror, 2nd edn., Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • –––, 2006, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War, London and New York: Continuum.
  • Hooker, Brad, 2000, Ideal Code, Real World: A Rule-consequentialist Theory of Morality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hughes, Martin, 1982, “Terrorism and National Security”, Philosophy, 57: 5–25.
  • Jollimore, Troy, 2007, “Terrorism, War, and the Killing of the Innocent”, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 10: 353–72.
  • Kamm, F.M., 2013, Ethics for Enemies: Terror, Torture and War, Oxford: Oxford University Press; see chapter 2.
  • Kapitan, Tomis, 2008, “Terrorism”, in Halwani, Raja, and Kapitan, Tomis, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Philosophical Essays on Self-Determination, Terrorism and the One-State Solution, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 132–97.
  • Kautsky, Karl, 1973 [1919], Terrorism and Communism: A Contribution to the Natural History of Revolution, trans. Kerridge, W.H., Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press.
  • Khatchadourian, Haig, 1998, The Morality of Terrorism, New York: Peter Lang.
  • Lackey, Douglas, 2004, “The Evolution of the Modern Terrorist State: Area Bombing and Nuclear Deterrence”, in Primoratz (ed.) 2004, 128–38.
  • Laqueur, Walter (ed.), 1987, The Terrorism Reader: A Historical Anthology, 2nd edn., New York: New American Library.
  • Law, Stephen (ed.), 2008, Israel, Palestine and Terror, London: Continuum.
  • Luban, David, 2003, “The War on Terrorism and the End of Human Rights”, in Verna V. Gehring (ed.), War after September 11, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 51–65.
  • McPherson, Lionel K., 2007, “Is Terrorism Distinctively Wrong?” Ethics 111: 524–46.
  • Meggle, Georg, 2005, “Terror and Counter-Terror: Initial Ethical Reflections”, in Meggle (ed.) 2005, 161–75.
  • Meggle, Georg (ed.), 2005, Ethics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism, Frankfurt/M.: Ontos Verlag.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 1969, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the CommunistProblem, trans. O'Neill, John, Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Miller, Richard W., 2005, “Terrorism and Legitimacy: A Response to Virginia Held”, Journal of Social Philosophy, 36: 194–201.
  • Miller, Seumas, 2009, Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Ethics and Liberal Democracy, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Nath, Rekha, 2011, “Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right: A Critique of Virginia Held's Deontological Justification of Terrorism”, Social Theory and Practice 37: 679–96.
  • Nathanson, Stephen, 2010, Terrorism and the Ethics of War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nielsen, Kai, 1981, “Violence and Terrorism: Its Uses and Abuses”, in Burton M. Leiser (ed.), Values in Conflict, New York: Macmillan, 435–49.
  • Primoratz, Igor, 1997, “The Morality of Terrorism”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 14: 221–33.
  • –––, 2006, “Terrorism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Case Study in Applied Ethics”, Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly 55: 27–48.
  • –––, 2010, “Can the Bombing Be Morally Justified?” in Igor Primoratz (ed.), Terror from the Sky: The Bombing of German Cities in World War II, New York: Berghahn Books, 113–33.
  • –––, 2013, Terrorism: A Philosophical Investigation, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • ––– (ed.), 2004, Terrorism: The Philosophical Issues, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Rapoport, David C., and Alexander, Yonah, eds., 1989, The Morality of Terrorism: Religious and Secular Justifications, 2nd edn., New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Reiff, Mark K., 2008, “Terrorism, Retribution, and Collective Responsibility”, Social Theory and Practice 34: 209–42.
  • Scheffler, Samuel, 2006, “Is Terrorism Morally Distinctive?” Journal of Political Philosophy, 14: 1–17.
  • Schwenkenbecher, Anne, 2012, Terrorism: A Philosophical Enquiry, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Shanahan, Timothy (ed.), 2005, Philosophy 9/11: Thinking about the War on Terrorism, Chicago: Open Court.
  • –––, 2009, The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Simpson, Peter, 2004, “Violence and Terrorism in Northern Ireland”, in Primoratz (ed.) 2004, 161–74.
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, 1991, “On Primoratz's Definition of Terrorism”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 8: 115–20.
  • Steinhoff, Uwe, 2007, On the Ethics of War and Terrorism, Oxford: Oxford University Press; see especially Chapter 5.
  • Sterba, James P. (ed.), 2003, Terrorism and International Justice, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Trotsky, Leon, 1961 [1920], Terrorism and Communism: A Reply to Karl Kautsky, Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Valls, Andrew, 2000, “Can Terrorism Be Justified?”, in Andrew Valls (ed.), Ethics in International Affairs: Theories and Cases, Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 65–79.
  • Walzer, Michael, 1973, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2: 160–80.
  • –––, 2000, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 3rd edn., New York: Basic Books; see especially Chapters 12, 16.
  • –––, 2004, Arguing about War, Ithaca, N.Y.: Yale University Press; see especially chapters 4, 10.
  • –––, 2006, “Terrorism and Just War”, Philosophia, 34: 3–12.
  • Wellman, Carl, 1979, “On Terrorism Itself”, Journal of Value Inquiry, 13: 250–58.
  • Wellmer, Albrecht, 1984, “Terrorism and the Critique of Society”, in Jürgen Habermas (ed.), Observations on “The Spiritual Situation of the Age”, trans. Buchwalter, Andrew, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 283–307.
  • Wilkins, Burleigh Taylor, 1992, Terrorism and Collective Responsibility, London and New York: Routledge.
  • Young, Robert, 1977, “Revolutionary Terrorism, Crime and Morality”, Social Theory and Practice, 4: 287–302.
  • –––, 2004, “Political Terrorism as a Weapon of the Politically Powerless”, in Primoratz (ed.), 2004, 55–64.

Special journal issues

  • Ethics, 114/4, 2004: Terrorism, War, and Justice.
  • Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly, 55/1, 2006: Terrorism and Counterterrorism.
  • The Journal of Ethics, 8/1, 2004: Terrorism.


Thanks to Andrew Alexandra, Tony Coady, and Thomas Pogge for helpful comments on a draft of this article.


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