Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Firecrackers in Nazareth: Terrorism or “Prank”?

A few days ago, an Israeli couple and their adult daughter entered Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation disguised as Christian pilgrims and proceeded to throw firecrackers. The three attackers were themselves set upon by a mob, and eventually had to be smuggled out dressed in police uniforms. More than two dozen police officers and protesters were injured in rioting after the incident.

The firecrackers as well as small gas tanks (presumably containing pressurized propane gas) were hidden in a baby carriage the couple wheeled into the church. Assuming that the gas tanks were full and the couple had planned some way of detonating them, it’s entirely possible that the incident could have caused serious injuries or deaths.

Haim and Violet Habibi, the couple that carried out the attack, are of mixed religion: Haim is Jewish and Violet is Christian. (Odelia, the daughter who accompanied them even though she opposed the planned attack, is the child of Haim’s previous marriage; I haven’t seen any clear report of her religious affiliation.) The family has a long history of involvement with Israeli child-welfare authorities: Violet Habibi has threatened at least once to kill her children, and the couple’s younger children have been removed from parental custody and placed in foster homes. The Habibis lived for a time under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction in Jericho, at one point traveled to Ramallah to petition Yasser Arafat for asylum, and later barricaded themselves inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and threatened to set off explosives (which turned out to be firecrackers); according to one report, Haim Habibi at some point attempted an attack on Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well. The Habibis and others familiar with their situation claim that the Nazareth attack was an attempt to call attention to their situation and obtain more favorable treatment from the Israeli government.

Despite accusations made by some Israeli-Arab Knesset members such as Mohammad Barakeh and Azmi Bishara, there is no evidence of any right-wing, nationalist, or racial motive for the attack on the Church of the Annunciation. Haim Habibi has a documented history of mental illness, and Violet Habibi sounds to me like someone who could use a little counseling as well. The couple’s statements after their rescue and arrest have consistently highlighted their economic and family difficulties, and they have repeatedly denied any racial or religious motive for the Nazareth attack.

And now, the Sixty-Four Shekel Question: Was the incident in Nazareth a terror attack?

Many voices in the Arab world have decried the Habibis’ attack on the Church of the Annunciation as a “Jewish terror attack” or an “Israeli terror attack”; these voices generally neglect to mention that one of the perpetrators was a non-Jew, and some have even cast all three as Jewish religious extremists. Defenders of Israel have dismissed the incident as the “random senseless act of a couple of malicious pranksters” (as opposed to terrorists who are trained, sponsored, equipped, and dispatched by terror groups) and complain that “the anti-Israel media is all over this as a ‘terrorist’ attack”. Now it’s clear enough that the Nazareth incident cannot be accurately labeled a “Jewish terror attack”, since its perpetrators were not all Jewish and appear not to have been religiously motivated. It’s equally clear that no terror organization was behind the incident. Does that mean it wasn’t a terror attack after all?

I’m afraid not. Terrorism is best defined as politically motivated violence against civilian targets – where “political” motivations often include ideology and religion, and the perpetrators are normally understood to be sub-state entities. In categorizing the Habibis’ attack on the Church of the Annunciation, we need to consider several points:

  • The attack was intended to influence the actions of the Israeli government, and thus had a political motive – even if the goal was only to change government policy regarding the couple’s own children.

  • The definition of terrorism doesn’t require that a terror attack be carried out or supported by a terrorist organization. This is important to remember, as the “leaderless resistance” phenomenon encourages individual terrorist action; in coming years, it’s entirely possible that an increasing number of terror attacks worldwide will be “organizationless” attacks.

  • There is no “sanity test” for terrorism. As long as the perpetrator of an attack has a political/ideological/religious motive, s/he can be as crazy as s/he likes. If there is a political motive, even an irrational one, the attack is not a “random senseless act” by a “prankster”.

  • There is no defined “minimum severity” threshold for terror attacks. Even assuming the church had been empty (which it wasn’t – it was packed with worshippers when the Habibis came in) the attack would have qualified: Property attacks, especially when the target has religious, economic, cultural, political, or symbolic significance, fall under the definition of terrorism.
Clearly, then, the Habibis’ attack on the Church of the Annunciation was a terror attack – albeit not a terribly successful one. But it certainly wasn’t a “Jewish terror attack”, and (considering that the government whose policies the Habibis wanted to change was our own) it was an “Israeli terror attack” only in the most tenuous sense.

*          *          *

Hat tip: My research for this segment was considerably aided by this post at Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion. Erudite blogger Richard Bartholomew seems to be a little left-of-center for my taste – for example, he makes the rather dangerous mistake of thinking that the Guardian has anything useful to say about the Arab-Israeli conflict – but his posts are clear, thorough, well-written, and well-documented.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Wed Mar 08, 05:30:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Eyal said...

I'm not sure it's proper to label an act intended to change something only as it's relevant to yourself (or a very small group) as a "political" act. If these idiots had intended to change Israeli child welfare policies in general (rather than only as they applied to them), that might be considered a political act.

At Wed Mar 08, 05:49:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Eyal, you raise an interesting point - which I considered as I was writing the piece, and which Vaguely Sinister Wife (who, unlike me, is a full-time expert on terrorism) was concerned about as well.

I decided to class the Nazareth attack as political - albeit just barely - since (A) the Habibis were clearly attempting to gain public attention and thus create political leverage against the Israeli government; and (B) the Habibis had already engaged in such highly politicized moves as trying to play the Palestinian Authority off against the Israeli government. In other words, the Habibis seemed to see their struggle against the government in political, rather than (or in addition to) legal terms. Further, if the Nazareth incident wasn't terrorism, what exactly was it? It wasn't criminal in the sense of having a financial motive. It wasn't simple "pay attention to me" vandalism. It wasn't a crime of passion. It seems to me that the "terrorism" label fits better than any other one that I can think of.

Here's a question for you: If something that affects only a single family or small group is not properly considered "political", where do we draw the line? For example, if the Habibis' attack is disqualified because it was too specific, what about a hypothetical attack perpetrated on behalf of a particular Bedouin tribe? At what point does a collective become large enough for its interests to be "political"?

Of course, there is no single correct way to answer questions like this. Any set of definitions we adopt is going to be either a little fuzzy around the edges, or else rely on some essentially arbitrary decisions regarding boundary conditions.

At Wed Mar 08, 06:57:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Eyal said...

I think the term "criminal" quite adequately covers this incident. In order to qualify to be terrorism, I think the end has to be political, rather than just the means.

As to where to draw the line, that's a question I wrestled with before making my previous post. While I agree that any determination will be arbitrary, and will likely depend on the situation, I don't think it's a problem in this case, since a family is pretty close to the "private" extreme of the spectrum.

At Wed Mar 08, 10:45:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Savtadotty said...

I'm with Eyal on this one: think there are accepted legal distinctions between immediate family ("first-degree relatives") and larger collectives that would make it simple to draw the line between individual acts of criminality and terrorism.

And then there are the criminally insane, who could be considered ideologically motivated but aren't insane; I'm thinking of the Oklahoma City unabomber, for example.

At Wed Mar 08, 10:46:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Savtadotty said...

I meant aren't terrorists, not aren't insane. (I'm in jet lag at the moment, which is another kind of temporarily insanity.)

At Wed Mar 08, 11:17:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi (and welcome back) Dorothy!

The Oklahoma City bomber was Timothy McVeigh, and he was definitely a terrorist - according to every expert in the subject. The Unabomber (about whom I don't actually know that much) is considered a borderline case (a bit like the Habibis), in that he's (A) more or less a nutcase, and (B) still has something of a political motive, even if his politics aren't very well thought out.

Vaguely Sinister Wife tends to agree with you and Eyal, at least to some degree, since there is no indication that the Habibis were attempting to force the Israeli government to make a general shift in policy; she thinks that their case (and others like it) represents a sort of hybrid, in that a terrorist-like modus operandi is being used to promote an individual agenda. In this sense, we would need a whole new category for the Nazareth attack, one that would encompass cases where terrorist-style attacks are carried out for motives that are not truly political/ideological/religious.

My personal inclination is still to consider the Nazareth attack as a borderline instance of a terror attack, although I certainly see the logic in your position (and Eyal's, and V.S.W.'s). It seems to me that the uncertainty about the "appropriateness" of the Habibis' motivations for carrying out the attack isn't sufficient to require creating yet another category in a world that's already complex enough. And quite apart from the philosophical side of the question (which could be argued infinitely), I believe that politically we are better off dealing with the incident as a terror attack rather than attaching a different label to it. If we deny that the Nazareth attack was even a borderline case of terrorism, I fear that we make Israel look worse by appearing to be engaged in a cover-up.

Vaguely Sinister Wife, on the other hand, doesn't find my argument fully convincing. Hmph. No backrub for her tonight.

Dear, why are you pointing that pistol at me? OK, OK, you get your backrub. See what I have to put up with?

At Thu Mar 09, 08:49:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger westbankmama said...

Don - so according to your definition a high-schooler who wants to change the policies of his school would be guilty of terrorism if he "shaving creams" and causes property damage to the principals house? Let's say, to add a religious element, he wants only kosher food in the school cafeteria.

Criminal - yes, terrorism, no. Let's not belittle the word.

At Thu Mar 09, 10:52:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi WBM -

I suppose the dividing line - and remember, any dividing line is perforce an arbitrary one - would have to involve whom the perpetrator is trying to influence, and by what means. Influencing a school administration would not, I think, qualify as terrorism; but attempting to influence a national government, particularly through actions that could cause significant economic damage, trigger rioting, and so on, might well qualify even if the goals are not very sweeping ones.

As I've said, the Habibi case is a borderline one; clearly it's not a classic textbook terror attack. OTOH, I think that when we look at the incident in its broader context (including Israel's international image) we harm ourselves by applying an overly restrictive definition of terrorism to an attack on a Christian church in an Arab town in Israel.

I can certainly understand not wanting to categorize the Nazareth incident as a terror attack; I'm not completely happy with the classification either, even though I advocate it. But if you think that the Nazareth attack wasn't terrorism, where exactly would you draw the line? The only controversial criterion is the "political motive" one, so the question is, how do we decide exactly what is "political"?

At Thu Mar 09, 05:01:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Eyal said...

I'm not clear why you think a new catagory - beyond "crime" - is needed for an attack such as this; it seems to me to fit very well.

Consider the following analogy. A legislature is scheduled to vote on a bill which gives the police increased funding and powers for fighting organized crime. A mob boss decides to derail this by bribing several legislators to vote against it. Would you describe this as a political (or politically-motivated) crime?

At Thu Mar 09, 05:36:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

I would say that bribing legislators to change their vote is indeed a politically-motivated crime - albeit not a violent one.

The line between political and criminal motivations is very difficult to delineate; in reality, I don't really think there is a line in the sense we ordinarily recognize the word. For example, how do we classify an organization like FARC in Colombia? They are normally considered a terror organization, but at the same time most of what they actually do is more criminal in nature - such as growing and selling cocaine. And a lot of local Islamist terrorist cells finance themselves by activities such as credit-card fraud. My personal opininion is that even ideological terror organizations are likely eventually to become more and more like mafias - ETA being my favorite example.

Was the Nazareth incident the world's greatest example of a terror attack? No, of course not. Was the "political motivation" aspect weak? Yes, definitely. But the nature of the incident itself was so strongly typical of a terror attack that I think we would look silly trying to "downgrade" the thing to a "merely criminal" matter. Criminals don't generally attack churches filled with worshippers.


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