IDF soldiers from the Nahal Brigade operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge IDF soldiers from the Nahal Brigade operating in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Photo: Israel Defense Forces / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED

John Rees looks at the history of the use of terror in Israel and Palestine, and at Marxist attitudes to terrorism

In this article I examine three aspects of terrorism in the Palestine-Israel conflict. Firstly, I look at the role of terrorism in the foundation of the state of Israel; secondly, I examine armed struggle and national-liberation movements; finally I look at some of the discussions among Marxists about terrorism.

Terrorism and the foundation of the state of Israel

Israel’s claim to be fighting terrorism must strike anyone who knows the elementary facts of the foundation of that state as the bitterest of ironies, for the Israeli state was founded by terrorist groups and its first leaders were members of terrorist organisations.

It was three Zionist terrorist groups, the Irgun, the Stern Gang and the Haganah, who took up arms against the British authorities who governed Palestine under a League of Nations mandate from the First World War until 1948. The campaign they waged cost the lives of 750 British police and soldiers. The Zionist terrorists blew up the British officers’ club in Haifa and the British authorities’ HQ in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 killing 92 people.

When the British quit Palestine, the Zionist terror groups used the same techniques to drive Palestinians from their land in the catastrophe, the Nakba, of 1948. This terror campaign led directly to the foundation of the state of Israel.

Many of the early leaders of the Israeli state had direct responsibility for this since they had been leaders of the terror groups. David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s first prime minister and a member of the largest of the terror groups, the Haganah. Haganah means defence force. The name was bequeathed to the Israeli army when the organisation became, along with other terrorist groups, the Israeli Defence Force in 1948.

Levi Eshkol was the treasurer and armourer of the Haganah and Israel’s third prime minister. Menachem Begin was a leader of the Irgun and the British described him as a ‘notorious terrorist’. He founded the Likud party, the party now led by Benjamin Netanyahu, and became Israel’s sixth prime minister. Yitzhak Shamir was a leader of the Stern Gang and Israel’s seventh prime minister.

Israel was founded by terrorists and it has used the same methods as its founders to continue to dispossess Palestinians in every decade of its existence. This is the reason why Israel has been the subject of more UN resolutions of condemnation than any other state in the world. But Israel could not survive as a state if it did not enjoy enormous support from the major powers. Specifically it is the largest recipient of US military aid in the world. The case of Israel clearly demonstrates that terror is at least as much used by colonisers as by anti-colonialists, at least as much by states as by non-state actors. And in this case, the Palestinians took up the armed struggle in reaction to the US-armed terrorist state that came into being in 1948.

The Palestinians and armed resistance

The first-generation resistance organisation was the Palestine Liberation Organisation founded in 1964. It is now lauded by the West as the authority that accepted the 1993 Oslo accords, which established the two-state solution within the framework of a partitioned Palestine. But before that it was reviled as a terrorist organisation. Its leader, Yasser Arafat, despite his speeches rejecting terrorism, was demonised just as Hamas leaders are now.

The PLO emerged as part of the international wave of anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s. The best known of these were the NLF in Vietnam, the ANC in South Africa, and the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland.

The fate of some of the leading figures in these movements should warn us about taking establishment-inspired hysteria about terrorism too seriously. The leaders of two of these armed resistance movements, Nelson Mandela and Martin McGuinness, who were jailed as terrorists, later both met the Queen when the political panic had subsided. In the last month, King Charles even made a special trip to Kenya to apologise for the brutality of the British campaign against the Mau Mau, which certainly did use terror in its campaign against the colonial occupiers.

All this should point us to an important distinction. While it’s true that the armed struggle of national-liberation movements has often involved unacceptable acts of terror and the death or injury of civilians (the necklacing of those deemed collaborators by elements of the ANC, including Winnie Mandela, for instance), it is not accurate to describe these organisations as simply terrorist.

They were all national-liberation movements engaged in armed struggle. And the right to engage in that struggle is underpinned by United Nations resolution 45/130, which affirms ‘the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial domination, apartheid and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle’.

The key distinction here is between individual terrorism and an armed resistance movement rooted in oppressed communities. It is clear that acts of terror like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth or the assassination of President Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald were individual acts of terror, not acts of armed resistance by national-liberation movements. The assassination of MP Jo Cox was also an act of individual terror since, although it was carried out by an individual influenced by the far right, he was not acting on behalf of any organisation which endorsed individual terrorism as a tactic. Al Qaeda is a group whose sole method of operation is terrorism and which is not representative of any significant social base. Even the Narodniks, who were an organised Russian terrorist group that assassinated Tsar Alexander II in 1881, actually had no base among the Russian peasantry they claimed to represent.

The PLO, the NLF, the ANC, and the IRA all had demonstrable support among the populations from which they emerged. Hamas is very different in political complexion from the national-liberation movements of the 1960s. It emerged in the late 1980s in reaction to the incorporation of the PLO into the failed Oslo accords process. Oslo became widely seen as a capitulation, after Israel refused to implement any of the provisions of the accords. Hamas was also part of a new wave of anti-imperialist activists in the Middle East, who looked to the Iranian Revolution of 1979 for inspiration rather than the more secular and leftist politics of the PLO.

But whatever we may think of Hamas’ wider politics it does retain very significant support among Palestinians in Gaza. It was elected as the government of Gaza in 2006 and, although there has been no election since, all the opinion polls show that it would be re-elected and that Hamas would significantly outpoll their PLO rivals. A majority of Gazans, even before the current Israeli attack, favoured an increase in the armed struggle and a one-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

Marxism and armed struggle 

Marxists are advocates of the transformation of society by means mass struggle: collective protests and demonstrations, general strikes, and so on. And many Marxists, notably Lenin and Trotsky in their writings about the Narodniks and other Russian terrorists, were insistent on the differences between the Marxist strategy and individual terrorism.

They quite rightly made the point that individual terrorism diminishes the centrality of working-class mass struggle by elevating the individual terrorist, who acts on behalf of the masses, above the organised self-activity of the working class.

But this generally correct approach is then sometimes used in ways which end in rejecting the armed struggle of national-liberation movements completely. This is a mistaken view which can end in implicit support for establishment attacks on ‘terrorism’.

Firstly, this approach tends to treat all armed struggle as if it is individual terrorism, when it is actually a legitimate expression of the struggle against brutal and well-armed occupying forces. Of course, no one supports the killing of civilians, or individual terrorist attacks. But the Israeli state is guilty of such acts on a far greater scale than the Palestinian resistance, and has been for decades before the Hamas attack on 7 October.

Secondly, even when critical of terrorism, Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, were virulently critical of those on the left who gave any ground to the political establishment in their attacks on the use of political violence by the oppressed.

Marx was a firm ally of Irish nationalists because he believed, as he wrote in a letter in April 1870, that ‘if the English army and police were to be withdrawn from Ireland … this would provide the preliminary condition for proletarian revolution in England’. On 24 April 1882, as part of the Land War, in Ireland, John Lydon and his son Martin were attacked in their home in Galway, dragged into the road by a group of assailants and shot. Pat Walsh was arrested for the murder, although his trial had to be moved to Dublin because no local jury could be trusted to convict him. On 3 May, Engels wrote to Eduard Bernstein, ‘The Irish are teaching our leisurely John Bull to get a move on. That’s what comes of shooting!’.

Trotsky wrote that the Marxist view, 

‘has nothing in common with those bought-and-paid-for moralists who, in response to any terrorist act, make solemn declarations about the “absolute value” of human life. These are the same people who, on other occasions, in the name of other absolute values – for example, the nation’s honour or the monarch’s prestige – are ready to shove millions of people into the hell of war. Today their national hero is the minister who gives the sacred right of private property; and tomorrow, when the desperate hand of the unemployed workers is clenched into a fist or picks upon a weapon, they will start in with all sorts of nonsense about the inadmissibility of violence in any form.’

Writing of the Easter rising of 1916 in Ireland, a ‘failed putsch’ viewed from the point of view of those with no sympathy for national-liberation movements, Lenin wrote:

‘To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a “putsch”.

Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.’

Lenin’s point was that anti-imperialist revolts destabilise the global capitalist order, no matter what the politics of the people who lead such revolts. Marxists have long combined a principled attitude to armed struggle with political criticism of nationalist politics. Nationalist movements always aim at the establishment of an independent nation state within the existing system. Marxists support that right, irrespective of whether those movements are led by left nationalists, mainstream nationalists, Catholics, followers of Islam or anyone else. It is up to the oppressed themselves to choose their own leaders and it cannot be right for others, especially in the imperialist states, to refuse support on the grounds that we have political differences with the leaders of the national-liberation movements.

But Marxists also reserve the right to argue for the total transformation of the imperialist system and for the importance of socialist politics. This combination has often been described as ‘unconditional but not uncritical support for national-liberation movements’. That is why we will not withdraw support from national-liberation movements if we disagree with a particular tactic or politically with their leadership, but we will still make it clear where the political differences lie. National-liberation movements can, and often have, destabilised the imperial order. But it will take socialist revolution to overthrow it.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

Tagged under: