How the spectacle of Palestinian terrorism changed the world

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Terrorism feels like such a part of our lives it’s hard to believe that we can actually pinpoint when it took on its modern form. 

The face of modern terrorism was born on July 22, 1968, when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of the smaller member groups within the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization, hijacked an Israeli El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv. 

While hijackings had happened before this event, they weren’t specifically focused on creating a media spectacle. The symbolic power of taking over an Israeli aircraft and the media coverage that followed was much more important to how the rest of the world would subsequently experience terrorism than the 16 terrorists that Israel released in return for 12 Israeli passengers and crew of 10 that were being held in Algeria. 

This triggered a wave of Palestinian hijackings that catapulted their cause into the global consciousness. Prior to this, global sympathy tilted towards tiny Israel, which experienced invasions by its neighbor’s armies seeking to destroy the nascent state in 1948, 1967, and 1973.  

The hijackings began to change that, but it was the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre that really moved the Palestinian cause forward. Challenged by the PFLP’s growing popularity and influence, the PLO and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, calculated that attacking Israel’s elite athletes in a forum where the global media had gathered offered a chance to create a huge spectacle and draw even greater attention to its cause.  

The hostage crisis famously turned into a debacle, with an ill-conceived rescue attempt by the West German police resulting in the deaths of all the hostages and terrorists. But while the PLO failed this time in freeing its imprisoned comrades, and was widely condemned for its action, it had forced itself onto the center of the global stage. An estimated 900 million people in over 100 countries watched the drama unfold on television.  

The PLO’s violent actions were rewarded in several ways. Eighteen months later Arafat was invited to address the United Nations, further raising the profile of the Palestinian cause. 

Enjoying its newfound celebrity and eager to keep doing what seemed to be working, Palestinian terrorist groups accounted for more attacks between 1968 and 1980 than any other international organizations. Rather than violence hurting their cause, it led to a strange moment in the late 1970s when the PLO, a nonstate actor, had formal diplomatic relations with 88 countries while the actual nation-state of Israel had only 72.  

Other groups with grievances took note. According to RAND’s Chronology of International Terrorism, the number of organizations engaged in international terrorism rose from 11 in 1968 to 55 by 1978. At the heart of this were efforts by the Palestinians to network and spread their methods and ideas. By the early 1980s, over 40 different terrorist groups from around the world had been trained by the PLO at its camps in Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere.  

When Arafat left President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000 after a failed peace agreement that would have established a Palestinian state, he kicked off what is known as the second intifada. Palestinian terrorists again innovated and changed the world with a method of terrorism that they didn’t invent but did popularize: the suicide bombing.  

About 130 suicide bombings took place in Israel between 2000 and 2005 with some 400 deaths as the result. Hamas started to truly make a name for itself and not only established its calling card of fanatical followers killing themselves and as many civilians as possible, but also acting strategically.

 Just as the Oct. 7 attacks seemed to put a stop, at least temporarily, to the Muslim nations willing to consider relations with Israel, the infamous Passover bombing — in which dozens of elderly Jews were blown up by a suicide bomber while they were sitting at their Seder table at the Hotel Netanya — scuttled a 2002 peace effort by the Saudis.  

Which leads us to the current moment, and yet another terrorist innovation from the world’s leaders in the area. On Oct. 7, In less than 24 hours, Hamas killed three times as many Israelis as it had during its 2000-2005 campaign of suicide bombings. 

The Oct. 7 attacks were not only about bringing the Palestinian cause back to the forefront of international attention after it had been fading for some time. It was about turning Israel into an international pariah by sacrificing Palestinian civilians for their cause.  

Hamas knew that Israel would respond forcefully to the events of Oct. 7, and the heinous attacks that they committed — the slaughter of families, the brutal rapes — were calculated to provoke a devastating response. Hamas bet on Israeli’s retribution and was prepared to scurry down into their tunnels as an enraged Israel sought revenge. 

The Palestinians have learned that terrorism works, at least for their cause. Nearly all the groups that the PLO trained in the past are no longer operating. Most saw their societies recoil in horror at the death of civilians, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and rejected the cult of martyrdom that epitomized that tragic day. That same concept, however, remains intrinsic to Hamas’s admitted strategy of deliberately placing Palestinian civilians in harm’s way. 

The recently killed Hamas leader, Saleh al-Arouri, was completely open about this when he explained to an audience at England’s famed Chatham House that, “Our job is to keep Palestinians radicalized. Most of them would settle in a moment for peace . . . We need to keep them angry.” 

You don’t need to be a terrorism expert to read the tea leaves about this. Hamas welcomes the high number of dead civilians to create international condemnation of Israel. That same calculus is at work when Hamas fires rockets from hospitals, schools and apartment buildings inviting devastating Israeli responses.  

The violence of the Palestinian case is thus one the world seems to find consistent sympathy for, despite the utter barbarism of Hamas’s strategy and tactics. A far better approach would be to actively help the Palestinian people resist Hamas’s cynical strategy to use Israel to continually “keep Palestinians radicalized . . . [and] angry.” 

Supporting efforts that embrace that hitherto elusive “moment for peace” for both Israelis as well as Palestinians would achieve more than excusing terrorism and promoting further polarization.  

Bruce Hoffman is a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council of Foreign Relations, a professor at Georgetown University, the author of “Inside Terrorism,” and a member of Interfor Academy. Don Aviv CPP, PSP, PCI, is president of Interfor International. 

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