Can Terrorists Win?

The Irgun and Lehi managed to kick the British out of their Palestine mandate in a successful terrorist campaign between 1944 and 1948. No Palestinian terror group has been able to eject the Israelis from the West Bank nor are they likely to do so in the future. To determine why this is the case it’s worth looking at why the Irgun in particular was so successful.

In his newest offering Anonymous soldiers: The struggle for Palestine, 1917-1948 Bruce Hoffman uses the pre state of Israel Jewish terror groups; The Irgun and Lehi in order to learn lessons about how effective terrorism can be in achieving a political objective which he does thoroughly and without holding back from the reality of terror. For those crying foul at the use of the word terror when describing the Irgin and Lehi read Hoffman’s description of an Irgun attack in 1938 and then decide whether it counts as a terrorist attack or not;

“Around 6:00 an Irgunist disguised as an Arab porter made his way through Haifa’s crowded central market carrying two metal milk churns. He casually set the churns down next to a stall across from a police station and left. Approximately an hour later a tremendous explosion ripped through the market as the time bomb concealed in one of the churns detonated, releasing a lethal fusillade of steel nails in all directions. Then the second bomb exploded. Panic ensued as suddenly shots rang out from every direction. It took the police half an hour to restore order, but the violence both continued and spread to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

A couple of pages later he adds the following:

“Less than a week later, again on the Muslim holy day, the Irgun carried out another lethal bombing. A forty-pound explosive was left in the Arab vegetable market, just inside Jaffa Gate and opposite a mosque. It was timed to explode just as midday services concluded and the street would be filled with departing congregants and shoppers. The blast killed twenty Arabs and wounded more than thirty others. The carnage continued when, less than seventy-two hours later, three Arabs were found shot dead outside Tel Aviv and in retaliation Arabs killed four Jewish laborers [sic] near Ramat Ha-Kovesh. Indeed, within forty-eight hours, twelve Jews had been murdered and more than thirty others wounded…In less than two weeks, this sustained wave of Irgun attacks had claimed the lives of more than sixty Arabs and injured at least three times that number.”

There were Arab terror attacks at this time also, attacks that very much resembled those quoted above. The interesting thing to note is how much these murders of civilians by Jews mirrored the murders of Jews by Arab bands of the day. Each feeding the actions of their enemies leading to waves of violence that rocked British mandate Palestine. The tactic of murder based on ethnicity is one Hamas continues to use against Jews, Sunni use against Shia and vice versa, it’s one Catholics used against Protestants in Northern Ireland and vice versa. The tendency of such a tactic to provoke revenge attacks are what makes it such a self-defeating use of violence.

Benny Morris notes in his book Righteous Victims: A History of the Arab Zionist Conflict 1881 – 1998 that Irgun attacks at this time were singularly ineffective in their goal of causing Palestine’s Arabs to think twice before attacking Jews;

“The Irgun bombs of 1937– 38 sowed terror in the Arab population and substantially increased its casualties. Until 1937 almost all of these had been caused by British security forces (including British-directed Jewish supernumeraries) and were mostly among the actual rebels, but from now on, a substantial proportion would be caused by Jews and suffered by random victims. The bombs do not appear in any way to have curtailed Arab terrorism, but they do appear to have helped persuade moderate Arabs of the need to resist Zionism and to support the [Arab] rebellion.”

Similarly the campaign of terror launched by the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas that was the al Aqsa Intifada destroyed the Israeli peace camp and ensured Israeli soldiers arrived in the heart of every Palestinian city, town and village where they remained until the Intifada ended internationally it stymied efforts to rally international opinion to the Palestinian cause. The campaign ended with Israeli forces withdrawing from Gaza and sealing it off while remaining in the West Bank. Hardly a victory.

Once Menachem Begin arrived in Palestine he changed the focus of the Irgun away from revenge attacks on Arabs and towards the British, away from mass casualty attacks towards symbols of the British mandate. Almost as soon as he did so the conflict radically changed. Furthermore the Irgun’s attacks were on the psyche of the British forces based there rather than on individuals. Crucially Hoffman shows that the Irgun’s terror strategy both achieved its stated objectives and kept casualties low;

“This was not a war of numbers. Winning was measured not in terms of enemy losses or assets destroyed but by psychological impact. The Irgun undertook innovative and spectacular attacks such as the bombings of the King David Hotel and the British embassy in Rome, the assault on the officers’ club in Jerusalem’s special security zone, the raid on Acre prison, and the hangings of the two sergeants specifically to demoralize the British and undermine the Labour government’s resolve to remain in Palestine. Indeed, the butcher’s bill was remarkably modest compared with the horrific standards of terrorism today. Between August 1945 and August 1947, a total of 141 British soldiers and police and 40 terrorists died, including those executed or who committed suicide while awaiting execution. Civilian fatalities during the same period were also remarkably low. Fewer than one hundred Arab and Jewish non-combatants perished as a result of terrorism between August 1945 and August 1947, and just over four hundred were injured. The overwhelming majority of these casualties were inflicted in one incident alone— the Irgun’s bombing of the King David Hotel, which perhaps explains why that attack has never been forgotten and remains a source of perpetual controversy.”

Attacks on prestige targets signalled the end for the British administration in Palestine in the same way the overrunning of the American embassy in Saigon spelled the end for the US war effort in Vietnam. The Palestinians never managed to hit Israeli prestige targets during any of their terrorist campaigns be they Marxist PLO campaigns or Islamist campaigns by Hamas or even the nationalist Arab Revolt of the 1930s. But actually even if they had, their inability to understand that Israel is a sovereign nation rather than a colony hampers their ability to concoct a winning strategy. As Haviv Rettig Gur eloquently stated in the Times of Israel;

“So we must ask: What happens when the anticolonial strategy of terrorism is employed against an indigenous national identity? Or more bluntly, what happens when you send a suicide bomber to murder the innocent children of a tribe that does not believe it has anywhere else to go? The response to such violence is the very opposite of the colonialist’s: instead of flight, war.

If the Irgun taught the world anything about terrorism it’s the precise opposite to al Qaeda’s lesson, that body count comes a distant second to hitting targets that the enemy generally considers to be impregnable. Or to put it another way, hitting targets to convince your enemy that they’ve already lost. By mobilising the Irgun to attack high profile targets Begin forced the British to the realisation that they would never succeed in bringing control over their territory and effectively relegated the Arabs to witnesses not in control of their own destiny rather than combatants.

In general the Palestinians have found it difficult to learn this lesson. Although Hamas did force an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah forced Israel out of the Security zone neither have come close to achieving their stated objective of wiping Israel off of the map. In fact Hamas are  further away from forcing the IDF out of the West Bank, an area of far greater strategic, religious and political importance to the state of Israel than ever.

Now imagine a situation where Palestinian terror groups had IEDs placed all over the roads in the West Bank, where they attacked military bases as a matter of course, where settlements were under mortar attack and prestige targets such as the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv were successfully attacked. As long as Israelis understood that it would all end if the IDF withdrew from the West Bank the possibilities for success for a terror campaign are quite high.

The problem with this rationale is that Palestinian groups would be able to avoid the considerable pain of having to launch such a terror campaign and therefore endure stringent Israeli counter-terror operations by simply accepting a state of Palestine in the West Bank only and launching a diplomatic offensive on that basis. The constant celebration of terror attacks, the casual antisemitism in state run media, the moral and financial support for terror attacks against civilians all serve to negate the Palestinian argument that they are seeking human rights and that random murders of Israelis are part and parcel of the Palestinian Authority’s policy.

In the twenty first century the definition of terror has come to be anything with a high body count. Begin showed that you can use terror as a weapon in your choice of target without having to seek targets that give mass casualties. However I fear that this lesson is irrelevant to modern terror groups who seem to be less motivated by coherent political objectives than by the act of terror itself. A mass casualty attack is, in and of itself the goal and while this is the case the victory is in the perpetration of the attack rather than what comes after it.

CORRECTION: The first version of this post stated that the Irgun attack on Haifa occurred in 1935, it occurred in 1938 and has been updated.