Amin Saikal – SMH

By and large a one-dimensional approach has characterised our approach to understanding the phenomenon of terrorism. However, the recent killing of a Hamas figure, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, in Dubai should make us cast our net wider to focus also on state terrorism.

The Dubai police have claimed with almost undisputed evidence that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was behind the killing. Israel has, as usual, maintained a policy of ambiguity by neither confirming nor denying Mossad’s actions, although some of its political leaders, specifically the Opposition Leader, Tzipi Livni, have applauded the killing on the grounds that Mabhouh was a terrorist and deserved to be eliminated.

If it is proved beyond doubt that Mossad agents, using forged passports in the names of British, French, Irish, German and Australian citizens, perpetrated the act, the killing clearly underlines a  disturbing aspect of Israeli behaviour.

It constitutes a blatant act of state terrorism, which places Israel in a position parallel to the very forces that it has unfailingly condemned as terrorist groups or networks.

This is not the first time, and may not be the last time, that a state has engaged in such operations. In the case of Israel specifically, it has historically never shied away from targeting those it has regarded as either acting violently against it or violently threatening it. In this, it has never made a distinction between those perpetrating violence for the sake of violence and those who have sought to defend themselves against Israel or to free themselves from Israel’s territorial-strategic expansion and physical subjugation.

This form of terrorism has a long history in the Middle East. It began with the founders of Israel, led by David Ben-Gurion, who showed no moral qualms about forming the first subnational terrorist groups, such as the Stern Gang and Irgun, in the early 1940s to terrorise the British out of Palestine and create the state of Israel in 1948 on what had traditionally been recognised as Palestinian land.

Since then, this aspect has continued to be an important function of the state of Israel in terms of what it has called self-defence. This aspect has received persistent backing from Israel’s international supporters, including Australia.

These supporters either tacitly backed or conspicuously remained silent on Israel’s targeted assassination of Palestinian figures inside and outside the Middle East, which peaked from the 1970s, either as retaliation or as acts of pre-emptive elimination.

One of the most prominent Mossad operations was its bungled attempt in September 1997 to kill the current spiritual head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, in Jordan, which invited the ire of the late King Hussein, who threatened to cancel the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty unless Israel provided the antidote that cured Mashal. The right-wing Benjamin Netanyahu was then Israel’s prime minister, as he has been since early last year.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who came from the same conservative side of politics as Netanyahu, took full advantage of America’s ”war on terror” to accelerate targeted assassination of Palestinian leaders and activists, especially those of Hamas.

In the process, Israel killed dozens of such figures, along with hundreds of innocent Palestinians in what Israel called ”collateral damage”. Mossad was given carte blanche in this respect.

Israel has justified all this and related activities, including sealing off and punishing 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and suppressing their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, in the name of self-defence, but against all international legal and humanitarian norms and standards.

It has totally disregarded the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and rejected any ruling of the International Court of Justice. It has even stood up to pressure from the Obama administration on expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

If indeed Israel is responsible for the killing of Mabhouh, the state may have gone too far. It may not only have grossly violated the position of several of Israel’s international supporters by forging their passports, but also enacted a trans-national operation in Dubai, well away from the theatre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in total violation of the sovereignty of the United Arab Emirates.

It has acted in no less condemnable a fashion than the very forces that it has accused of being terrorist groups or of supporting these groups, such as Iran and Syria.

Its actions can only embolden these forces to justify further operations against Israel and its backers.

It is time for the international community, specifically those states friendly to Israel (Australia included) to condemn Israeli state terrorism, as they should any state terrorism, and put pressure on it to behave within international norms and laws. And thus stop being a delinquent actor, but one with a claim of being democratic, in world politics.


Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.

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