109 definitions of ‘terrorism’

The World Summit on Counter Terrorism in Herzliya, through the eyes of the only person in the room who has sat down with the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

By Paula Schmitt

109 definitions of 'terrorism'
Panelists at the World Summit on Counter Terrorism in Herzelia, September 2013 (photo: Paula Schmitt)

One type of person you can be sure to find at a conference on counter-terrorism is terrorists. I just attended a four-day long counter-terrorism masturbathon in Israel and the place was full of them. They don’t call themselves that, of course, they like to be called counter-terrorists. Tomato, tomah-to. I couldn’t care less for semantics, but if that’s your thing you may want to attend the next ICT’s World Summit in Herzliya.

In this year’s edition, one panel was called “Defining Terrorism – A Fundamental Counter-Terrorist Measure,” and among the panelists was a member of a so-called “Jewish Diplomatic Corps’ Task Force on the Definition of Terrorism.” The official count is at 109 definitions of the word – I kid you not. Yet among all those versions of terrorism, my favorite one was not even close to making an appearance at the conference. It’s alleged to have been penned by Peter Ustinov, and it’s a masterpiece on the taxonomy of power:

Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is terrorism of the rich.

You’d think those counter-terrrrrorrrrists should have more relevant things to do, but do not belittle the exercise – determining what terrorism is (and what it isn’t) is extremely important. By properly defining it, The Definer makes sure his own extrajudicial assassinations, occupation, torture and killing of civilians are not included in the category. It’s a tricky thing: on one hand the definition cannot be so broad to include The Definer, but on the other it should be broad enough to include as many perpetrators as possible – the more you seem to be attacked, the better. There are great returns on terrorism for those claiming to be fighting it. For one, it allows the government an incredibly large margin of (il)legal maneuvers, repression and surveillance, while it also increases foreign aid and allows for a lot of unsupervised budget earmarking. But the biggest reward yet is that terrorism helps garner that most precious and elusive of assets – the sympathy of public opinion. When it comes to being a victim of terror, a few lives will go a long way. Even the ex-director of Mossad I interviewed agreed that PR is crucial for their survival. More on that later).

The list of this year’s speakers seemed to gather the crème de la crème of counter-terrorism – or the crap de la crap of morality, depending how you see it. In journalistic terms, it was a dream. I was particularly interested on all the intelligence and security agents, including two former heads of the Mossad and one from the Shin Bet. But I was just not sure the organizers were going to allow me to participate.

I lived in the Middle East for a long time, and covered the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, a period when my TV network got several complaints from idiots accusing me of being an anti-Semite. I am also the only Latin American journalist to have interviewed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general. Throughout the Middle East, that interview has served me as my little badge certifying to the average paranoid that I could not possibly be a Mossad agent (though the very paranoid ones would think I was simply the best agent ever. You just never win with those people.) It is, indeed, quite a feat not to become a paranoiac here. This corner of the world is where Burroughs’ designation really applies: “A paranoid is someone who knows what’s going on.” So, I feared that in Israel that same badge would perhaps have the opposite effect – it would probably indicate I had dangerous connections.

Thus, it was with great surprise, and then some suspicion, that I received ICT’s email accepting my request to attend the conference. Okay, I thought, so they didn’t think that having interviewed Nasrallah made me a sympathizer or a Hezbollah agent. But what about my novel? I’ve written a book, Eudemonia, about a female journalist who defends the morality of assassination and dreams of killing the CEO of Bechtel with her stockings and the chairman of Goldman Sachs with a paperknife. She then starts to seriously entertain the idea of murdering one of her interviewees, and eventually focuses on giving a taste of war to the would-never-be-veteran and war-monger Duck Chainy, the vice-president of the Pale House. She also believes the State of Israel is a bonafide motivation for acts of terror. How could they accept my registration with that background?

But alas, I should have known better: my novel is widely unread. And as it turned out, having interviewed Israel’s Number One Enemy didn’t make me unwanted – it actually gave me quite a clout. Those Mossad guys have a real hard-on for Hassan. Instead of my having to run after them, it was the Mossad, and the Israel Police who kept coming after me — to offer me interviews, they said.

Don’t get me wrong – I’d love to have an interview with a high-level Mossad official, and indeed I had one, with former director Shabtai Shavit. But I was pretty sure the questions I wanted to ask would never be answered. Not without some sodium pentothal. I’ve had a list of questions for the agency for many years: Was it the Mossad who killed Elie Hobeika in a car bomb in Beirut before he could testify against Ariel Sharon in Belgium? Was it the Mossad who shot dead Michael Nassar less than two months later in Brazil, killing him and his wife before Nassar could take part in the same Belgium trial? Did the Mossad kill Jorg Heider? I also wanted to know if Ben Zygier knew something about the Bali Bombings (Zygier is the Mossad agent who allegedly committed suicide in a high-security jail in Israel, and whose family has just been paid $1 million to drop any ideas of a lawsuit.) I also would like to ask about some of the false-flag operations we know of, from the Lavon Affair to the USS Liberty.

Damn right I had questions. But I wouldn’t waste them on answers I knew would never go beyond utter silence or a categorical “no.” I had to posit ideological, philosophical problems that could perhaps allow for the possibility that things may not, after all, be so clearly cut. And I think I was getting there, until, to use an appropriate metaphor, my car swerved in the curve.

109 definitions of 'terrorism'
Former Head of Mossad Shabtai Shavit speaks at the ICT’s World Summit on Counter Terrorism, Herzelia 2013 (photo: Paula Schmitt)

I waited for the plenary session to end. Shabtai Shavit was the first to speak, and he chose to leave the stage right after his turn. But he sat in the audience and courteously waited for everyone else to speak, included retired U.S. general John Abizaid. Like that, he managed to avoid photos and questions, while still being present. He didn’t manage to avoid me, though. Reminding him of his promise the previous day, we walked to the empty restaurant of the Israel Air Force House, where the conference had just taken place.

As I prepared my digital recorder and my phone, Shavit told me the interview could not be recorded. I was shocked. He noticed. I said that was going to be very difficult. He was adamant. I insisted: “If I record, it is safer for you, too. That way you can guarantee I will quote you verbatim”. But that was precisely his problem. He didn’t want his answers registered. “Ok, then” I said. “But if you don’t like it afterwards, it will be your word against mine.”

You’ve said there should be two prerequisites for proper counter-terrorism: certainty of guilt and no collateral damage. So, is counter-terrorism what Israel is actually doing?

I said that in a certain context. Certainly Israel keeps that in mind. We are the most humane country in the world. The constraints we are putting on ourselves… I don’t know of any other country with the same constraints.

Morality. You said yesterday that you would be left as the only moral country on earth. What do you mean by that?

I said that we are fighting an asymmetrical struggle between those who have zero moral considerations and those who don’t stop adding constraint after constraint [to deal with] the bad guys.

Terrorism is said to be the outcome of a very simple formula: motivation plus operational capability. If that is the case, isn’t Israel’s occupation a big cause of terrorism?

The occupation of what, whom? More than half of the Israeli people accept the two-state solution. There’s real willingness to give back the territory based on the ’67 borders.

But what about the illegal settlements? How do you explain them?

I don’t have an explanation for it. I personally accept two states based on ’67 borders and I accept that because I consider myself a moral person ready to accept the other. I am prepared to share with the other, but I expect reciprocity.

What would you say to the theory that the big problem is not, in fact, between Muslims, Christians and Jews, but between extremists and moderates? Wouldn’t you say you perhaps have more in common with a moderate Muslim than you have with a haredi Jew?

I disagree with that statement because I am Jewish and a haredi is a Jewish and Judaism is our common religion. I can argue with his translation of Judaism but he is Jewish. I will never appreciate a Muslim more than a haredi Jew.

Is there such a thing as being an ex-agent? Do you see any difference in how much you can say now and how much you could say before?

I am the sole judge of what I speak. But I was born a very weak speaker. I never regretted something I didn’t say, but the opposite, though… More than once did I regret something I said.

Is not having the interview recorded a way you have of keeping ‘plausible deniability’?

I’ve been burned more than once for recorded interviews.

What do you think is the main difference between someone who kills from the safety of his cockpit and a man who uses his own body to kill other people? We know that both of them – army soldier and suicide-bomber – kill civilians. [He interrupts me before I finish]

Look, I’ve never been in the position of a fighter pilot. Let me rephrase the question for you: what’s the difference between a suicide-bomber and a guy who pushed a drone button? The difference is that a suicide bomber sanctifies death, trying to kill as many civilians without any… he sanctifies death according to his religion. Suicide-bombers kill civilians on purpose.

Peter Ustinov is supposed to have said that “terrorism is war of the poor, and war is terrorism of the rich.” Why do you believe you are entitled to fight a perceived threat with death? By the same token, isn’t their retaliation legitimate? Jewish terrorists bombed the King David Hotel and this has been celebrated… [He interrupts]

I don’t agree with that statement. You cannot distinguish how people are killed? I propose you go learn the history of the Jewish people since the 19th century. We made compromises. We were ready to give, to coexist. Each time when such compromise was proposed to the other side, they refused.

Do you think PR is important? Do you think it matters?

I believe in PR. I am not a PR person, but we don’t have another choice, PR is one of the pillars of our existence.

So, considering this, would you say that every time there is a suicide attack on Israeli civilians, does that make Israel look better on the international stage? I mean, could this — [He interrupts me, holds my hand and says, slowly and without inflection:]

I think you’re going down a slippery slope now. Let’s stop this. How long are you staying here?

“Two more weeks,” I say. “Why? Are you going to assassinate me?”

He stares at me, livid.

“I’m kidding,” I say. “Or am I? Am I kidding?”

“I have never assassinated a beautiful lady,” he answers, a smile showing on his face for the first and last time.


Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.