Some Arabs did criticize last week's assassination of the far-right Israeli cabinet minister Rehavim Zeevi by the left-wing Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But not because it was an act of terrorism.
They simply shared the apprehensions of all those, from Yasser Arafat to the US State Department, who worried about its impact on the hoped-for renewal of the peace process, about the opportunity it would furnish the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to step up his campaign of repression and obstruct the growing international pressure to adapt himself to the diplomatic requirements of the global war against terror. For there could hardly, these critics conceded, have been a more legitimate target for any act of terror than Zeevi.
It was, as the PFLP said, straightforward retaliation for Israel's assassination of its own leader, Ali Abu Mustafa, not to mention the scores of other Palestinians who have died in the course of its "targeted killings." It was precise; there was no collateral damage, no accidental death of uninvolved civilians, as there often has been in Israeli assassinations. If terrorism is a message, it was about as symbolically appropriate as one could get.
An advocate of the "transfer" of all Palestinians out of Palestine, who used words like lice, vermin or a cancer to describe them, Zeevi was the very incarnation of all that is most extreme, bellicose and racist in Israeli society, and had just resigned from the Cabinet because he did not think that Sharon was extreme enough.
Yet Israel reacted to the killing with greater ferocity than it has to any previous acts of terror, including even Hamas suicide bombings in which tens of innocents died.
From its point of view, the fact that Zeevi was not merely a civilian, but a minister and elected representative of a democratic country, put it, morally, in an entirely different category from Israel's own assassination of Palestinian leaders.
But probably the real cause of Mr Sharon's ferocity was less moral outrage than the fact that, as one newspaper said, it was such an effective "blow to the head of the Israeli political system." It also gave him the pretext to further his political agenda, which some Israelis see as nothing less than eliminating any need to make peace by eliminating the only party, Arafat and the Palestine Authority, with which it could be made.
He first issued an ultimatum to the Authority that is virtually impossible for it to fulfill. Unless it handed over immediately "the murderers. . .and those that sent them". . And outlawed "all terrorist groups", Israel would "view it as a state that supports terrorism and act against it."
He then mounted the biggest military operation of its kind undertaken, re-entering six towns in the Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank, killing almost 50 Palestinians so far, and wounding scores of others. This has been accompanied by a barrage of semi-official, right-wing propaganda that seeks to persuade the world that the Authority has exactly the same relationship with Palestinian terror as the Taliban do with Osama bin Laden, and Israel the same right to destroy the one as the Americans do the other.
Yet it is hardly debatable: in method - individual assassination - and target - a key advocate of the other side - what the PFLP did was the equivalent of what Israel has done countless times. As one of the franker Israeli columnists put it: "We execute theirs, they execute ours."
So why is it, asked Arabs everywhere, that what Israel does is called self-defense, and when Palestinians do exactly the same thing it is terrorism, or a flagrant breach of the ceasefire? And why does Israel have the right to demand the extradition of culprits while the Palestinians don't? And, more to the point, why does the US essentially endorse the Israeli outrage, condemning the killing as a "shocking and despicable" act?
Why is that, while it may often have deplored Israeli assassinations, it has never used that kind of language in doing so, or called them terrorism too?
Rarely have such contrary viewpoints, when taken together with the vastly disproportionate Israeli retaliation which the assassination supposedly justified, so starkly illustrated the cliché that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter - or, in Arab eyes, the imperative need for an internationally recognized, UN-promulgated definition of just what terrorism is.
They don't have their own unified stance on the matter, but, broadly speaking, they want such a definition to cover state as well as non-state agents, and to take into account both the nature of the violence and its motives and aims. Their contention is that Israel is a practitioner of "state terrorism."
Its violence may indeed be carried out by the armed forces of an internationally recognized, lawfully constituted entity, and it may not be deliberately directed at non-combatant civilians in the way that some acts of Palestinian terror clearly are, but, in practice, it ends up as a form of terrorism.
Indeed, a violence that deploys such disproportionate firepower, tanks, helicopters and F-16s in civilian neighborhoods is inherently bound to do so.
But more important, in the Arab view, is the cause. Leave aside all the controversies about the peace process, and who was chiefly responsible for its breakdown, the fact is that, at bottom, Israel is using the consequent violence for what is internationally recognized as an illegitimate purpose, the maintenance of its occupation, and the Palestinians are using it for what is recognized as a legitimate one, the ending of the occupation. This does not mean that their resistance cannot constitute pure, unbridled terrorism. But it does, or should, mean it is much harder for the world to condemn the resistance when it confines its targets to the soldiers and settlers who are the instruments and symbols of occupation.
Soon after September 11th, the US seemed to realize that of all the possible impediments to its war on terror the Palestine question was the most serious and potentially disastrous.
As a result, after Sharon's latest excess in his war on terror, it once again finds itself at loggerheads with him, demanding his army's immediate withdrawal from the six Palestinian towns it has re-entered.
In Arab eyes, the US is quite simply hoist with the petard of its traditional, institutionalized indulgence of its Israeli protégé - and of a definition of terrorism which, till now, has entirely suited Israel's purposes. It is a complaisance, said Egypt's leading state-owned newspaper, al-Ahram, which must come to an end once and for all; otherwise all the Anglo-American talk about a new drive for peace, and a Palestinian state at the end of it, will be so much political bombast.
David Hirst is a Middle East commentator
© 2001 ireland.com