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.)