Lessons in comparative terrorism

March 16, 1996|By Daniel Berger

THE IRA and Hamas have shown the enormous power of a few focused and violent zealots to overcome great forces and mighty governments.

The world of civil societies has a great stake in the defeat of each. As terrorists they are role models for zealots for other causes elsewhere.

What they show is that a handful of ostensibly powerless people can impose their will on the vast but passive majority unless it is shown that they cannot.

So it made sense for President Clinton to fling himself at the Middle East problem and then rush back for the St. Patrick's Day rituals of Irish-Washington.

In each he is trying to save a peace in which he has invested U.S. prestige. Each process is derailed by a small coterie of terrorists, a rump of the larger movement that had opted for the peace.

In each case the terrorism is to provoke counter-measures that would alienate the non-terrorists and break the process.

Virtually all Ireland benefited from the 17-month IRA cease-fire in Northern Ireland. People there felt safe for the first time in a generation. Investment and trade in the Irish Republic soared. Cross-border visiting resumed.

In Gaza and the West Bank, after the Israel-PLO accord, Palestinians saw the Israeli soldiers depart and government taken over by their own people.

Israel gained trade and investment with countries that previously shunned it. Israelis flocked to Jordan as tourists.

Peace wins votes

When the peace appeared to be on track, Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres led substantially in opinion polls and called an election for May. When it went off track, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu pulled roughly even.

In the area governed by the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat overwhelmingly won a fair election, as the peace-bringer.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, receives about one-tenth of the vote. It says that voting should be Ireland-wide, on which basis, its support is more like 3 or 4 percent.

Gerry Adams as president of Sinn Fein persuaded the IRA to cease fire so he could operate in the political arena. The PLO, the umbrella group of Palestinian opponents to Israel, decided on peace to gain some of its national aspiration rather than none.

It was reasonable to expect an IRA remnant to repudiate the cease-fire, as has continually happened since 1921. New IRA leadership resumed terrorism in Great Britain, but so far not in Northern Ireland, where it continues other activities. This takes Sinn Fein out of the peace without initially provoking reprisals from Loyalist terrorists.

In Palestine, Hamas had come into existence as an Islamic alternative to the secular PLO. Its growth provoked Palestinian Christian emigration. It performs social services where the PLO has not. When the PLO moderated on the national question, Hamas took on a new reason for being, its intransigence.

The IRA's violence keeps Sinn Fein out of a process that will go ahead without it, which would become a rationale for denying legitimacy of the outcome.

Hamas' violence brings fierce Israeli responses that reassure Israelis while punishing Palestinians who did not commit it. This reneges on the accord with the PLO.

Israelis react to terrorism as part of historic persecution of Jews. Critics of Israel do not understand this. Hamas does, which allows Hamas to manipulate Israeli behavior and politics.

The groups carrying on the violence are transgressing the majority will of the peoples they purport to represent. If they can accomplish their political goals this way, terrorists for every cause everywhere will be emboldened.

If you are looking for the U.S. national interest in overcoming these terrorisms, that's it.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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