“A war to the bitter end.” That is how Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, described his country’s latest military campaign in the Gaza Strip. It is refreshing to hear an Israeli politician refer to what the Western press routinely calls “a crisis” or “a cycle of violence” as a war, for that is in fact what is taking place in Gaza. But if war is in indeed an accurate description of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, then can we continue referring to Hamas’ attacks against Israel as acts of terrorism? If a government declares war against a terrorist group, does it not in effect transform the group’s members from terrorists into soldiers? In a battle between a state like Israel and a “non-state entity” like Hamas, are acts of terror distinguishable from acts of war?
Can the difference between lawful and unlawful war—between a soldier and terrorist—really be a matter of matching uniforms? The United States seems to think so.
We certainly like to think there is a difference. War, we argue, is legally sanctioned killing; terrorism is not. Yet terrorists also consider themselves to be engaged in war. Al Qaeda has gone so far as to draw up a legal declaration of war against the United States, accusing it of “occupying the lands of Islam in its holiest of places—the Arabian Peninsula—plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead with which it fights the neighboring Muslim peoples.” Hamas, too, considers Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands to be an act of war, which is why it views its militant wing, the Qassam Brigades, as a legitimate military force and not, as it has been labeled by most of the international community, a terrorist organization.
Of course, whether a legitimate force or not, the fact is that Hamas militants do not always differentiate between civilian and military targets, sending suicide bombers into crowded restaurants, randomly attacking Jews in the occupied territories as well as in Israel proper, and indiscriminately launching crude rockets into Israeli neighborhoods. This, many argue, is the real line of demarcation between a soldier and a terrorist: Soldiers are trained to target combatants; terrorists deliberately attack civilians. True, civilians are also killed in wars, but such deaths are often excused as “collateral damage.” Even when civilians are targeted on purpose—as was the case with the firebombing of London and Dresden during World War II, or with the United States’ obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which wiped out more than 200,000 men, women, and children in the blink of an eye—their deaths are considered tragic but necessary in order to win the war.
Throughout the recent war Israeli officials have repeatedly stressed that, unlike Hamas, they do not deliberately target civilians. Israel’s soldiers do their utmost to focus their guns and laser-guided missiles on Hamas targets. Nevertheless, the United Nations estimates that a quarter of the 400 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli airstrikes over the past five days have been civilians, nearly 40 of them children (in the same period, Hamas rockets have killed four Israeli civilians). Israel pins the blame for these deaths on Hamas, whose bases of operations are located deep inside residential neighborhoods and whose rockets are sometimes fired from civilian areas. “Hamas uses civilians as human shields,” said Major Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman. “The targets we picked are military.”
But Israeli officials have in the past conceded that it is almost impossible to differentiate between military and civilian targets in Gaza, one of the most densely packed regions on earth. In a barren strip of land the size of Washington, D.C., but with 1.5 million residents, there is simply no such thing as a “nonresidential” neighborhood. Israel’s claim to focus exclusively on so-called military targets is further muddled by the fact that Hamas’ status as the freely elected government of Gaza allows the Israeli army to consider civilian infrastructure like universities, police stations, and water and electricity plants as legitimate targets. (At the same time, Israel’s status as a democratic state has allowed Hamas militants to justify targeting Israeli civilians as supporters of the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestine.)
The political theorist Michael Walzer differentiates between war and terrorism by situating the former within the parameters of “the state,” and arguing that only a state has the authority to legally declare war against its enemies. Walzer admits that the state may sometimes resort to immoral or even illegal means to achieve victory, but at least it tries to abide by international law. When it fails to do so—when it slaughters innocents, either by accident or by necessity—the state responds with remorse for its actions and, as Walzer writes in Arguing About War, makes “a commitment not to make [its] actions into an easy precedent for the future.” In other words, a state such as Israel feels guilty and apologizes when it kills civilians; a terrorist organization like Hamas does not.
The problem with Walzer’s view is that it fails to recognize the countless historical examples of state-sponsored terrorism. From Stalin’s pogroms to the death squads of El Salvador, from ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo to genocide in Darfur, state-sponsored terror has, in the words of psychiatrist and terrorism expert Walter Reich, “amassed deaths that a near eternity of conventional substate terrorist actions could not hope to accomplish.” And let's not forget that no victorious state has ever been held accountable for its actions in war—only losers are tried for war crimes.
A more fundamental flaw in Walzer’s argument is that, in a globalized world, it is arguable whether the state can still be considered the sole instrument of political community and thus the only entity with the permission to wage to war. In any case, to refer to a group like Hamas as a “non-state entity” is to assume that there is such a thing as a Palestinian state. Consider the case of Israel: Before it was a state, its military operations were conducted primarily by the Irgun, the Haganah, the Stern Gang, and the like, all deemed terrorist organizations by the international community. When, in 1948, Israel became a state, the members of these paramilitary organizations were absorbed into the official military apparatus, given national uniforms, and, almost overnight, transformed into legitimate soldiers of a legally sanctioned army.
Can the difference between lawful and unlawful war—between a soldier and terrorist—really be a matter of matching uniforms? The United States seems to think so. From the start of the so-called war on terror, the US has argued that captured members of Al Qaeda need not be protected under the Geneva Protocols because they are not a state army. “They would have to have worn uniforms or other distinctive signs visible at a distance” in order to be considered soldiers, President Bush’s spokesmen announced at the start of the war on terror.
Talal Asad, in his brilliant treatise On Suicide Bombing, states plainly that “there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies (especially if those armies belong to powerful states that are unaccountable to international law) and the horror inflicted by insurgents.” That is not to say that there is no difference between a state like Israel and an organization like Hamas. It does, however, suggest that in “a war to the bitter end” between an Israel Defense Forces soldier and a Hamas militant, perhaps those differences are not as black and white as one might hope.
Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360 . He wrote the New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of Mecca.com.