Terrorism Is Terrorism

On war and conflict in the Middle East, we need nuanced explanations and prudent prescriptions but without compromising on essential truths.
Family and friends of May Naim, 24, who was murdered by Palestinians militants at the "Supernova" festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza strip, react during her funeral on October 11, 2023 in Gan Haim, Israel. Family and friends of May Naim, 24, who was murdered by Palestinian militants at the "Supernova" festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza strip, react during her funeral on October 11, 2023 in Gan Haim, Israel.

Last week, Hamas carried out horrific, barbaric acts of terrorism against innocent Israeli civilians, resulting in over a thousand killed, including 22 American citizens. The brutality and scale of their slaughter – including killing grandmothers and babies – was shocking. No previous injustice, prior wrong, or longstanding grievance justifies these heinous actions. Hamas launched its terrorist attacks knowing very well that Israel would retaliate, deliberately triggering more suffering for the people they claim to defend. As an act of self-defense, the democratically elected government has the responsibility to protect its citizens and the legitimate right to use force for self-defense, first and foremost against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but also in response to other actors in the region – Hezbollah and their Iranian backers – if they try to expand the scope of this war.

In waging its military offensive, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) must abide by international law and minimize civilian casualties and civilian suffering. Hamas must do the same and stop using Palestinian civilians as human shields to protect their terrorists and military supplies. That is both immoral and illegal. International organizations and the international community also need to work together to reduce civilian suffering in this war, including working with Egypt and Israel to allow safe passage for Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egypt temporarily.

Hamas has consolidated a ruthless dictatorship to maintain power in Gaza. While polls show that Hamas is popular in Gaza, no citizen there voted for last week’s grotesque massacre, and obviously, Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Israel had no voice either. Even while watching with horror as some Palestinians celebrate these terrorist acts, analysts must be careful not to conflate Hamas with all Palestinians.

Palestinians deserve democratic governance, self-rule, sovereignty, and protection of their human rights and their property. The strategy of neglect of these issues has failed. In the book "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can" which I published in 2010, I identified “help[ing] to negotiate a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine” (p. 203) as a key U.S. policy objective for promoting democracy and fighting terrorism in the Middle East. I still believe that today. But we must have the moral clarity to denounce Hamas’s horrific terrorism without qualification and at the same time give greater attention to protecting Palestinians’ human rights, including the right to self-determination. Passion for the latter is no excuse for the former.

As a professor at Stanford University who leads a major research institute of international studies, I personally and we collectively as an academic community have a responsibility to study and explain this conflict, both the short-term precipitants and the long-term causes. At the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, we have the Center for International Security and Cooperation which has worked on the Middle East for decades, as well as programs both on Israel Studies and Arab Reform and Democracy. We also collaborate closely with the Program in Iranian Studies. Academic research is our paramount mission. Follow their work in the coming days and weeks. Read my colleague Amy Zegart’s essay on “Israel’s Intelligence Disaster” in Foreign Affairs published today. 

Tune in to our webinar, open to all, on the Middle East this Friday at 2pm Pacific Time - register here. All scholars at FSI speak for themselves, do their own independent research, and follow no institutional guidance from me. No doubt, some will disagree with this essay. Academic freedom and diversity of views are positive features of our institution, our university, and hopefully all universities.

As a former policymaker still engaged in U.S. foreign policy debates, I also feel obliged to make recommendations that advance American interests and values. At this moment in history, charting a successful U.S. foreign policy course in the Middle East is not simple or obvious. Untangling complexity, accurately weighing tradeoffs, and anticipating second and third-order consequences of immediate policy actions is essential.

But one can do all these things – nuanced explanation and prudent prescription – without compromising on essential truths. Terrorism is terrorism. It must be identified clearly and denounced forcefully. It is never justified.