August 15, 1997
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Isn't "terrorist" a relative term? What sort of values do terrorists teach their children? How much popular support exists for terrorists in their homelands? What's the difference between American and Middle Eastern terrorism? Could anyone be capable of a terrorist act? Viewer comments on Middle Eastern terrorism.
August 1, 1997:
A report on the attempted bombing of a Brooklyn subway.
July 30, 1997:
Clinton reacts to the Jerusalem bombing my militant Islamic group Hamas.
March 13, 1996:
A report on the international summit on terrorism.
March 12, 1996:
A report on terrorism and how to prevent it.
An Online backgrounder on terrorism.
A question from the Online NewsHour:
How much popular support exists for these groups? Are their actions considered extreme and unacceptable by their own people? As more innocent civilians die, is terrorist activity facing increasing condemnation from Middle Easterners?
Hala Jaber responds:
While it is not possible to exactly gauge the level of support for these groups, it would be wrong to think that they lack support. During my time researching the book "Hezbollah," I never ceased to be amazed at the general support that the group had managed to rally behind it over the years. I recalled when Hezbollah first began how many of us believed that religious radical groups were merely a phase that would disappear as quickly as they came to being. Hezbollah, we insisted, was no different.
More than a decade later and in the course of my research I realized how wrong our assessment was. More importantly I realised that perhaps it was simpler for us to make believe that this was the case rather than to try and understand the reasons for their emergence. By ignoring these reasons we in effect made believe that these groups would not survive let alone rally the support of followers. If anything, Hezbollah proved us wrong, and if one should go by its example, then perhaps we should not dismiss others such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
These groups represent the grievances of a sector of people, which in cases like Lebanon and the formerly occupied Palestinian territories, form a reasonable number of the community. In the case of Lebanon's Hezbollah for example, the group first started with little popular support outside its immediate circle of followers. It was seen by many as a threat to secularism and the Christians of the country. Its initial methods and preaching added to this fear and reservation. But Hezbollah also proved itself to be apt in learning from its errors and more apt in changing with the political environment. While some of this fear is still present, its change of tone and attempts to participate in the political system of the country has reduced that shroud of fear and distrust, More importantly perhaps is its persistent battle against the Israeli soldiers occupying south Lebanon. It is that determination which gradually brought the group a flow of public support.
While many openly admit that Hezbollah can never beat the might of the Israeli occupiers, they agree that the group's resolve has succeeded in undermining the myth of the undefeatable Israeli army. Hezbollah's action, even when it draws retaliation, are no longer seen as unacceptable. On the contrary, even at the height of Israel's blitz against South Lebanon last year, Lebanese from all walks of life and sects were united, if for the first time, in the fact that the group was right in retaliating with the Katyushas. The more Israel shelled, destroyed and displaced Lebanese in an attempt to alienate them against Hezbollah, the more the group gained public sympathy.
In the case of Hamas, even if people disagree with the methods that the group might use, many sympathize with its ends. Those who condemn the means are usually limited to the officials who have to be seen to be doing so. The large majority refrain from such public condemnation if only not to give satisfaction to their enemy.
It is also very important to remember the vast social service that such organizations establish within their communities. Today, Hezbollah's welfare and social service system vie with those provided by the Lebanese government to the Shiites. Such services while important in providing the essential needs of the community, also work as an important source of support for these groups. Hamas is another such group which is slowly following in the footsteps of Hezbollah. It too now has a widespread social service system from which thousands of Palestinians benefit. One should not minimize the level of support and gratitude that such services also bring to the group.
The viewer asks whether terrorist activities is facing increasing condemnation from Middle Easterners, as more civilians die. What we must remember here is perhaps the answer to the first question. Many do not see these groups' activities as terroristic. They are seen as revengeful acts to Israel's harsh measures against Middle Easterners. The latest punitive measures by Israel against the Palestinian people can only serve the radical groups in rallying more support for them. These measures will eventually brew further frustration and hatred that would demand revenge and further acts of violence. Lebanon as an example should not be dismissed here. The more attacks the Israelis carried against the civilians and the more punitive measures it undertook against the population as a whole, the more the people rallied behind Hezbollah and encouraged it to seek revenge.
Perhaps one should not fall into the trap of legitimizing Israeli actions simply because they are being carried out by the country's official milita arm - the army in contrast to Hezbollah or Hamas who are mere groups within their states. Suicide bombers or warplanes, both bring about the same result and demand similar revenge from either side. One should not also underestimate the punitive measures being used by Israel against the people. The demolition of Palestinian homes or the siege of a whole people do not necessary make them morally better than say a bomb or a suicide attacker.
Prof. Martha Crenshaw responds:
It is impossible to gauge accurately the degree of general popular support for extremism. The mainstream Palestinian nationalist movement has officially rejected terrorism, but we do not know how representative it is. Arafat does not seem to be very popular at the moment. Public opinion polls conducted in the middle of a violent conflict are unlikely to reflect real attitudes.
Members of an ethnic community may often sympathize with the ends of the radical groups who speak in their name. While they condemn the means in principle, they are often reluctant to do so in public and they may also be tempted to rationalize their position by thinking "it is the violence and oppression of the government that drives otherwise peaceful people to such extremes." These sorts of attitudes are characteristic not only of the Palestinian community but also, for example, of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, or Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is not an unusual phenomenon where there is profound mistrust of government.
Another point to remember is that organizations such as Hamas provide valuable social functions for a community that lacks essential support services. Its activities extend beyond terrorism against Israel. People who see this face of the organization are likely to approve its activities. It is possible, even, for them to believe that the terrorist bombings in Israel are not the work of Palestinians but provocations. People seek psychological consistency, and they tend to reject information that refutes strongly-held beliefs.
At the same time, one should never underestimate the power of vengeance. It is one of the strongest emotions that drives terrorism. Punitive measures by Israel reinforce the demand for revenge. It is certainly true, as Secretary of State Albright has said, that bulldozers are not the moral equivalent of bombs, but they can certainly stimulate support for violent resistance. In addition, the leaders of organizations such as Hamas or Islamic Jihad are adept at manipulating the emotions of their followers. There is no doubt that the bombs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have generated enthusiasm among some supporters of the extremist groups.
It is possible, however, that terrorism will bring about its own end. As killings mount, as they are increasingly senseless and counterproductive, the public may begin to feel a sense of revulsion. Members of the extremist groups may become demoralized. Yet, on the discouraging side, when we look at the conflicts in Northern Ireland and in the Basque region of Spain, we see that public disapproval of terrorism appears to have little effect on the behavior of the IRA and ETA. Organizations exist to maintain themselves, after all.
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