The comparison between the pre-state underground militias Etzel and Lehi and Palestinian terror first became popular in the 1970s following terror attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization. The attitude in the Zionist left to that comparison is bound up in a historical paradox: Even leaders of the Labor movement in the pre-state period, who also defined Etzel and Lehi as “terrorists,” rejected the comparison.
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The issue came up recently once again following the condemnation of Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul after he compared the actions of Eztel to Palestinian terror. Former Defense Minister Moshe Arens wrote in Haaretz (April 26) that Etzel had not harmed innocent civilians, while B. Michael (Haaretz, May 1) enumerated attacks by Etzel in a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced Palestinian terror at an event marking the establishment of Etzel. The fact is, the militias did hit Arabs indiscriminately.
However, a deeper historical comparison should persuade even Israelis who show understanding for the Palestinian struggle that there is a difference, which places the Palestinian approach to terror in a more problematic light.
First of all, B. Michael noted a variety of actions without relating to the date or context of their occurrence. Most of the terror attacks he mentions happened between 1936 and 1939 – that is, during the Arab Revolt – and after November 29, 1947, when neither of the national movements had official armies. That is different from a situation in which one group commits one-way terror against civilians.
In addition, historically speaking it is difficult to speak of Etzel as a unified phenomenon, because the organization underwent transformations after it was established in 1931. At its height, after Menachem Begin became its commander in early 1944, the organization tried to avoid harming innocent Arabs, not only out of moral considerations but because of Begin’s (mistaken) assessment that efforts should best be focused on getting rid of the British because the Arabs would not dare rise up after the state was established.
The main difference between the Jews and the Arabs regarding terror as a means of national liberation is in the fact that the issue raised moral and utilitarian debates in the Jewish community of Palestine, which usually ended in a decision in favor of restraint, even in the face of terror attacks. Debates to such an extent against terrorists did not take place in Palestinian society.
It may be said that Palestinian terror has deeper reasons, because from their point of view it is directed not only against an occupier but against an occupier who claims ownership of the land. In contrast, the Jews were fighting for their independence mainly against the British, who did not lay claim to the land and in principle even encouraged the establishment of a national home for the Jews. Hence, the pre-state Jewish community could be judicious in their response toward the Arabs. And still, the bottom line is that the extent of terror and willingness to use it is greater among the Palestinians than among the Jews.
But precisely recognition of this fact raises a more basic question regarding our own times: Why, before the state was established, when the Jews lacked sovereignty and an army, did most of them agree to use restraint – while now, when they are at the height of their power, most Israelis cannot restrain themselves, to the point where they support the killing of a wounded terrorist?