Was the truck driver who murdered four soldiers and wounded another 17 in Jerusalem a terrorist? Does the fact that he attacked soldiers make any difference to the way the attack should be described?
How acts and people are labeled is important. It won’t bring back any of the victims, but whether or not the media identify such incidents as terrorism has an impact on how the world views Israel. Fighting terrorism is viewed differently than simply fighting a conflict. Far fewer people will have sympathy with those labelled “terrorists” than with those who may be people trying to fight “an occupation.”
The reason there is any question is that the target of the attack were uniformed, on-duty soldiers. One foreign journalist told me that he is hesitant to use the term “terrorism” when soldiers are involved. But are the media using a consistent approach?
Legally, there is no one single definition of terrorism. But the different versions are close in that they all include the use of violence for the sake of terrorizing a population in order to bring ideological change.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary has a very clear definition: “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.”
The question is: Does the identity of the people being attacked matter?
More importantly, are attacks in Israel covered with the same standards as other similar acts abroad?
The Jerusalem Truck Attack
In the case of the Jerusalem truck attack, the soldiers were not involved in combat or any other military activity. They were about to take a tour.
The think tank Trends Research and Advisory has this to say in their brief “The usefulness of the civilian vs military targeting distinction in defining terrorism“:
Some distinguish terrorism from other forms of political violence based on the targets of the violence. That is, a terrorist attack targets civilians, and not military personnel.
This targeting distinction has many advantages as a starting point for defining terrorism. But, how well does it fare in practice? Unfortunately, not especially well.
Some would dispute whether or not focusing on the target of an attack is an especially sound way conceptually to distinguish terrorist violence. The target of an attack is inconsequential in discriminating whether it is terrorism. What really matters is the strategic logic underlying an act of violence and whether it exhibits the features of terrorism as a form of armed conflict.
The problem is that just because a victim is a member of the armed forces does not mean he or she is actually involved in a particular conflict, at least in any meaningful sense.
In the case in Jerusalem, the soldiers were not involved in combat. The fact that they are soldiers is inconsequential. Killing these soldiers had nothing to do with achieving a military goal and everything to do with terrorizing Israelis.
The case is similar to an attack on two military offices in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2015. Mohammad Abdulazeez opened fire on a military recruiting center, then drove seven miles away to a Navy reserve facility, where he shot and killed four US Marines and a sailor. He claimed to be acting on behalf of the Islamic State.
(the) shooting spree was the type of attack – on military personnel and police officers – that has been promoted by the so-called Islamic State.
Attacking military targets, Schanzer (David Schanzer, Duke University professor and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security) said, is “a hallmark of terrorism.”
Seth Jones, director of the RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center, said that the Charleston shooting also “meets any basic definition of terrorism.”
“There was the intent and the use of violence for political purposes,” Jones said.
Clearly, if attacks on soldiers in the U.S. can be considered terrorism, why not attacks such as what we witnessed in Jerusalem?
While in the Israeli media, the attacks was immediately labeled terrorism, none of the major foreign media used the term. The articles had all the specifics, but the terrorist was called simply a “Palestinian” or a “Driver.”
In the September 11 attacks, no one in the major media makes a distinction between the attack against the Trade Towers in New York and the one against the Pentagon. The media described both attacks as terrorism, even though the Pentagon is a military target filled with uniformed soldiers. Once could even argue that some of those soldiers were actively supporting operations against Al-Quada.
Yet it does not matter. Any attacks that are motivated by a political or religious ideology that are designed to spread fear among the populace are acts of terrorism. It is one thing if an attacker is trying to achieve a military objective. But that is rarely the case in Israel. Almost all attacks are motivated by hatred and the desire to terrorize.
So yes, he was a terrorist and that is how he should be identified by the media.