The Arabs' Definition of Terror

The Arab League, a moribund institution that usually convenes only when it feels the need to publicly flay Israel, made headlines recently for adopting the first Arab antiterrorism agreement. Of course, for the Arabs, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder, and in their eyes, no one attacking Jews can be a terrorist.

On April 22, 1998, the members of the Arab League agreed to the first regional antiterrorism pact. The agreement calls on Arab countries to deny refuge, training and financial or military support to groups that launch attacks on other Arab nations. It says attacks on ruling Arab regimes or the families of rulers should be considered terrorism and that Islam rejects “all forms of violence and terror.” The signatories also promised to exchange information on terrorist groups.

Arab countries and organizations have typically defined terrorism in such a way that groups attacking Israel are excluded. The new agreement does the same thing by exempting “resistance movements” because efforts to secure “liberation and self-determination” are not considered terrorism by the League (unless it is a liberation effort directed at an Arab government). Not surprisingly, Syria and Lebanon were the countries maintaining that individuals "resisting occupation" in Southern Lebanon, the Golan Heights and the West Bank should not be labeled as terrorists.

Even this was too much for Al-Jihad al-Islami - Fatah, one of the targets of the agreement. The group, which assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, immediately denounced the pact for serving the "interests of the Zionist enemy."

As Boaz Ganor of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism observes, the Arab states prefer to distinguish "between the goals of violent action, and the means used to achieve these goals." Therefore, the objective of "national liberation" justifies attacks against civilians, including women and children.

As Ganor notes, this rationalization leads to the notion that one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. But terrorism is possible to define. Here's how the FBI defines the word:

"Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Removing the subjectivity from the question makes clear the Arabs seeking "liberation" from the Jews are terrorists.

Ironically, as Ed Blanche, the editor of Lebanon's Daily Star noted (April 23, 1998), some of the governments voting for the pact “had at one time or another engaged in terrorist attacks on each other in the myriad feuds that wracked the Arab world in the not-too-distant past."

Blanche also observed that the agreement, first discussed eight years ago, was aimed primarily at Islamic fundamentalists seeking to topple the governments in Egypt, Algeria and the Persian Gulf. Though the accord calls for the extradition of terrorists, it also provided the loophole of exempting fugitives who are being sought for what a sheltering nation considers political reasons.

Blanche concludes that even though “several Arab states have abysmal records” in the area of human rights, the pact still “marks a significant step forward for the Arab world, underlining as it does that militant Islamic extremism is now considered the primary threat.”

Translated, the agreement is not really meant to signal a change in Arab morality or a newfound concern over terrorism. It is merely an act of self-preservation taken by autocrats who recognize that Israel is not as great a threat to them as their own disaffected citizens.