PLO Terrorism Is the PLO’s Albatross:

Self-Control Must precede Self-Determination


Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1988


Palestinians bristle at the demand that the Palestine Liberation Organization re­nounce terrorism. Understandably, they counter: Didn’t Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir himself engage in terrorism as a leader of the Stern Gang in the 1940s? Haven’t more innocent Palestinians died at the hands of Israelis than vice versa? What about the massacres at Sabra and Chatilla and Deir Yassein?

            Yet, for all that, in their own interest the Palestinians must face the terrorism issue. The hijacking of an Israeli bus and the killing of three passengers in the Negev two weeks ago demonstrate, objectively, that the terrorist is the enemy of the Palestinian cause.

            For Yasser Arafat the Negev incident was a setback. For months he had been waging a campaign to be admitted as an equal player in negotiations on the occu­pied territories. When three Palestinian officials were assassinated in Cyprus last month he successfully prevented retalia­tion on European soil. In the occupied territories he issued orders that guns were not to be used against Israeli soldiers. In following this directive, the Palestinians gained a new measure of respect world­wide. Then came the Negev bus hijacking, and all Israelis were one in denouncing the PLO as incapable of being a partner in peace negotiations.       

            The PLO aspires to be a government. It must start acting the part. One reason the Negev incident occurred is that the PLO position on terrorism is ambiguous. The current policy was articulated by Ararat in 1985 in the so-called Cairo Declaration on Terrorism. The declaration starts off right: “The PLO announces its condemnation of all acts of terrorism.” This is as it should be—a blanket condemnation.

            The declaration continues on the high ground: “Beginning today, the PLO will take all measures to deter violators.” This was excellent; Arafat was proclaiming a commitment to the implementation of the policy. 

            Then the declaration goes on to affirm “the right of the Palestinian people to resist the Israeli occupation.” This is tricky; but still firm ground. A right to resist occupa­tion is universally recognized; our own Declaration of Independence is a justifica­tion for armed struggle. Palestinians do not have to be pacifists.

            But then the Cairo declaration goes astray. Having affirmed the right to resist, it adds the words “by all available means.” This makes no sense. If all acts of terrorism are condemned, then terrorism is ruled out as a means. If all means are valid, then terrorism is sometimes admissible. The declaration is self-contradictory.

            Finally, the text makes things worse by asserting, “Events underline the certainty that terrorist operations committed out­side [Palestine] hurt the cause of the Palestinian people and distort its legitimate struggle for freedom.” By making the dis­tinction between “inside” and “outside” Palestine, the declaration can be interpret­ed as saying that terrorism in Europe is bad but terrorism in Israel is acceptable. It is doubtful that this was the intention, but the Negev bus incident occurred within this context of confusion as to what the official PLO policy actually is.

            U.S. law says that “no employee of the United States government may recognize or negotiate with the PLO until the PLO…renounces the use of terrorism.” The legislation does not provide a definition of terrorism. While the term is notoriously hard to define, for practical purposes the civilian/military distinction is the key. Terrorism may be defined as the purposeful targeting or putting at risk of civilian populations. Thus if PLO commandos attack Israeli soldiers it is not terrorism; if they attack Israeli athletes it is.

            Two small but useful steps can be taken. Arafat can come forward and clarify the Cairo declaration. He can specifically say that the PLO opposes all attacks on ordinary civilians; terrorism is banned everywhere, period. In response the United States can come forward and accept such a statement as the required PLO renunciation of terrorism, in word and in deed, unless proved otherwise.

            If we can get that far, a basis will be laid for undoing what George Shultz described as one of the dumber acts of Congress: the law requiring the closure of the two PLO offices in the United States. With small steps of this sort we may be able to reverse the downward spiral.