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November 21, 2012

Tel Aviv Bus Explosion: Characterizing It as a Terrorist Attack in the Midst of Warfare

Posted in: US Foreign Policy

Scene right after Tel Aviv bus explosion (Flickr Photo by The Israel Project)

UPDATE – 12:20 PM EST Reports of ceasefire now – here, here, here and here.

UPDATE – 11:45 PM EST Sky News reports Israeli intelligence thinks the Tel Aviv bus bombing was result of a “lone operator” with no ties to any major Palestinian groups.

Original Post

A bus explosion occurred in Tel Aviv, Israel, wounding at least twenty-seven people. None were reported killed, although one was seriously injured. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a Palestinian nationalist militia in the West Bank that is considered a terrorist organization to Israel and the United States, claimed responsibility.

The explosion was immediately characterized and condemned as a “terrorist attack.” Israel’s Police Chief Yohanan Danino reacted, “As far as we are concerned, this is a terror attack. All of the signs point to this being a terrorist bombing.” Ofir Gendelman, spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “A bomb exploded on a bus in central Tel Aviv. This was a terrorist attack. Most of the injured suffered only mild injuries.”

Jay Carney, spokesperson for the Obama administration, said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those injured, and with the people of Israel…These attacks against innocent Israeli civilians are outrageous.” He added, “The United States will stand with our Israeli allies, and provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack. The United States reaffirms our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security and our deep friendship and solidarity with the Israeli people.”

The attack targeted a bus used by civilians. That would make the attack a war crime and condemnable. However, as war rages between Hamas’ military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and the Israeli Defense Forces, the military wing of the Israeli government, isn’t this an attack not so different from the shelling of civilian infrastructure and buildings, which Israel has routinely engaged in over the past days?

Spokesman for Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum told Al Jazeera, ”This is a natural result for the Israeli aggression on our people. If the Israel continues its aggression then all options are open.” Another Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters, “Hamas blesses the attack in Tel Aviv and sees it as a natural response to the Israeli massacres…in Gaza.” He added, “Palestinian factions will resort to all means in order to protect our Palestinian civilians in the absence of a world effort to stop the Israeli aggression.”

Denouncing the bus explosion as a terrorist attack does nothing to bring an end to the latest cycle of violence. It does, however, give Israel and the United States the ability to, once again, reset the clock and retool messaging for why bombarding Gaza is justified.

Throughout the past eight days of air and navy strikes from Israel and projectile attacks from Hamas and Palestinian militants, Israel and the United States have told the world that what precipitated the conflict was Hamas rocket attacks. The two countries have ignored how Israeli forces shot and killed a twenty-three year-old Palestinian, who was mentally ill, as he approached the border fence because he was not responding to them on November 5. They’ve ignored how a thirteen year-old Palestinian boy was shot in the head by Israeli forces in a military helicopter while he was playing football with friends—a killing that reportedly took place as forces were exchanging fire with Palestinian militants on the border of Gaza. (Israeli Military Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich told CNN there was “no information that the IDF targeted a person” and would not take responsibility for the death.)

On November 13, Reuters reported that Israel and the Palestinians had “stepped back from the brink of a new war in the Gaza Strip.” A “tacit truce” had been established. Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of Gaza’s Hamas government, “praised the main armed factions in the enclave for agreeing on Monday night to a truce” and said, “They showed a high sense of responsibility by saying they would respect calm should the Israeli occupation also abide by it.” The next day Hamas military chief, Ahmed Jabari, who had actually been negotiating a longer term ceasefire with Egyptian intermediaries, was assassinated by Israel.

Israel and the United States have not acknowledged that any of these events could have inspired Hamas and Palestinian militants to retaliate. To the two countries, there is no continuum. The bus explosion is another act in an array of many violent acts committed by militants because militants simply want violence with Israel. All other acts, especially ones by Israel, bear little responsibility for the course of conflict.

Now, most of the news reports will suggest it is Hamas or Palestinian militants that have jeopardized truce talks now by exploding a bus. Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israel’s minister of internal security, said, “What does it say about the future of the (truce) talks? I leave it to (the senior officials), but this doesn’t add anything.”  But, what about Israel? Do the deaths of children and women each day not jeopardize truce talks? Does the decimation of police stations, government buildings and other civilian sites not contribute to the escalated violence and complicate negotiations over a truce?

There is also a deeper context. Both Israel and the United States recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization. Israel and the US have refused to accept Hamas’ political wing won democratically elected elections in 2006 (even going so far as to foment a military coup against Hamas in 2007).

Additionally, 136 Palestinians have been killed. Ninety-one of them have been civilians. Nine hundred and forty-one have been wounded. Nine hundred and twenty-two of them have been civilians. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire. Hundreds of Israelis have suffered light wounds from projectiles fired, however, many have been protected by an Iron Dome defense system that has intercepted a significant percentage of projectiles launched by Palestinian militants. Israel’s shelling has obliterated homes and targeted civilian infrastructure that it claims (perhaps, illegitimately) is being used by Hamas while militants in Gaza have been able to do very little to inflict damage on Israel’s military forces.

Add this all together. Gaza residents are suffering disproportionate attacks. Their elected leaders have a military wing that will respond, but their military is regarded as a terrorist organization. That effectively transforms all people fighting back against Israeli attacks into “terrorists” or “terror operatives.”

Catherine Charratt, a PhD candidate in international politics at the UK’s Aberystwyth University, recently wrote:

According to the Geneva Conventions, a people under occupation have the legal right to resist their occupation; Article 1 (4) of Protocol 1 stresses that force may be used to pursue the right of self-determination.

(However,) according to Western news media, all resistance fighters in Palestine are illegitimate militants, while Israel — as a Western-favored state — is allowed to target and assassinate Hamas government and military officials… So, Palestinian military and political leaders can be legitimately targeted but they are not allowed to legitimately retaliate.

This also makes it much harder for there to be peace negotiations because Israel—with the support of the United States—will not recognize the popular will of the Palestinians and accept Hamas leaders are legitimate governors. When Egypt tries to broker a truce that is evenhanded or attempts to recognize how an Israeli naval blockade in violation of international humanitarian law and targeted assassinations in violation of humanitarian law are fueling conflict, it is denounced for wanting “Hamas gains.”

Former IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland told Haaretz on November 18 that Israel should recognize Gaza as a “state under Hamas’ rule.”

“This is a country ruled by an elected government and I expect that this government will act in a responsible manner, like a state would,” Eiland said. He added, “It’s not enough to say ‘Hamas will surrender. We need to give something, if not to Hamas, then to others. It’s impossible to reach a point where one side will surrender. Sometimes we become captive to slogans like ‘We won’t talk with Hamas.’ I say the opposite. It’s a fact that Hamas rules Gaza and that Gaza is a state. We need to recognize this and utilize the advantages this situation presents.”

If the Tel Aviv bus explosion is considered a terrorist attack, then Israel bears no responsibility for the current climate of warfare inspiring such acts. If leaders, however, can see it as a war crime that was a pure act of retaliation on the part of a militant faction—an attempt to strike a blow in response to many, many blows and war crimes which Israel has committed in Gaza these past days, then Israel cannot be excused for the escalating violence. There is no justification for going ahead with a ground invasion. There is no reason for Israel to be obstinate as Egypt and Hamas try to broker a cooling off period that can give parties space to develop a long-term ceasefire agreement. Yet, if Israel wants this war, it will take full advantage of the Tel Aviv bus explosion and exploit it to beat back global anger and anxiety around civilian deaths and try to buy more time for its forces to kill people in Gaza.

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