The Siege of Gaza: A Palestinian Liberation Theology Perspective

Mike Rivage-Seul
Thursday, December 1, 2016

Summary: According to liberation theologians in Palestine, there are four types of violence at work in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. Three of them are employed by Israel's leadership against the Palestinians. In fact, only one level of violence can ever be excused. And that happens to be the very type our media uniformly designates as "terroristic" -- the violence of Palestinian self-defense.


In 2006 I caused a stir in San Miguel de Allende,  Mexico, by publishing a talk I had delivered at a Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) meeting there about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. (I had just returned from three weeks visiting the region.)

My appearance at the U.U. was on behalf of San Miguel's Center for Global Justice (CGJ) where I was working at the time. My article appeared in the local English-speaking newspaper, Atencion . I submitted it at the request of the CGJ director.

The thesis of my article was clear and unambiguous. "The real terrorists in Israel, I said, "are the Jewish Zionists who run the country." I didn't consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. Chomsky and others had been making it for years.

Following the article's publication all hell broke loose. Someone even phoned the provost at BereaCollege where I had taught for 36 years reporting me for my inflammatory essay, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.

Now to my surprise, the CGJ has invited me back for a reprise. The organization is running a conference in San Miguel on "Moving beyond Capitalism." In that context, I'm honored to appear on a panel with Rabbi Michael Lerner to present the Palestinian side of the current conflict.

In my presentation, I'll say that the ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza only confirms my original thesis. So let me repeat it here: the real terrorists in Israel are the Jewish Zionists. I'll go even further and argue that in the present phase of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians, the Jews have little or no right to claim they are acting in self-defense. They are clearly the aggressors guilty of extreme war crimes.

This time I base that argument on helpful analytic distinctions concerning "violence" commonly made be liberation theologians in general and by Palestinian liberation theologians in particular. I interviewed the latter back in 2006 at the SabeelEcumenicalCenter for Liberation Theology in Jerusalem.

Like liberation theologians everywhere, those at the SabeelCenter attempt to analyze their context (and the Judeo-Christian tradition) from the viewpoint of those without public power or voice. Of course, in Palestine that viewpoint belongs to the Palestinians not the Jews.

According to Sabeel analysts, there are really four types of violence at work in the Zionist-Palestinian conflict. Three of them are employed by Israel's leadership against the Palestinians. None of the three is justified. In fact, according to liberation theologians, only one level of violence can ever be excused -- in very limited circumstances. And that violence happens to be the very type our media uniformly designates as "terroristic" -- ironically, the crime of Palestinians defending themselves against criminal Jewish aggression.

Let me explain by reviewing each level of violence identified in liberation theology, connecting each to the conflict under discussion here:

1. Institutionalized Violence: This refers to the destructive social, political and economic "structures" that shape human activity. For instance, the maintenance of a global economic system that unnecessarily kills 35,000 children each day is a form of institutionalized violence. It kills children, the sick and elderly as predictably as if each victim were shot in the head with a .45.

In Palestine, the wall snaking through the region is a violent structure. So is the Israeli Army (IDF). Meanwhile Palestinians have no army. So laws preventing Palestinians from arming themselves also represent violent structures depriving them of their right to self-defense. Even legal arrangements which have prevented Palestinian authorities from paying 40,000 workers (because of alleged connections with Hamas) represent structural violence. In Palestine the primary victims of structural violence by far are Palestinians, not Jews.  Structural violence kills Palestinian children every day.

2. The Violence of Self-Defense: Institutionalized violence inevitably gives rise to a response. In the case of Palestine, blowback first took the form of non-violent protests. In 1947 general strikes and demonstrations by Palestinians were so effective that they led the United Nations to suspend its "Partition Plan," which had awarded 55% of Palestine to Jews, even though they represented only 30% of the area's population. But when Jewish settlers responded with heavy-handed military measures, violent resistance on the part of Palestinians became more frequent. It eventually culminated in the Six Day War in 1967 and in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

Later, Palestinian children threw rocks at soldiers illegally occupying their neighborhoods during the First and Second Intifadas in 1982 and 2000. Then in 2009 Palestinian insurgents began firing rudimentary homemade rockets into Israeli neighborhoods. (I will address suicide bombers below.)

Because the first (institutionalized) level of violence goes unidentified as such, this second level of violence typically appears unprovoked. It is therefore identified as "terrorism" pure and simple -- an act of evil people who for some reason (e.g. self-interest, racism or sadism) enjoy killing the innocent. This is how Palestinian rocket attacks are portrayed in the U.S. mainstream media to justify Israel's third level response.

3. Reactionary Violence: Reactionary violence is the response of the defenders of violent structures to revolutionary, second level violence. This third level violence is routinely overwhelming and shocking in its disproportionality. It is what we are currently witnessing in Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian casualties dwarf Israeli deaths (currently 1200 to 53). The victims of third level response are overwhelmingly civilian -- 20% of them children. Third level violence destroys houses, schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly, playgrounds and refugee shelters.

Regardless of such disproportionality and direct attacks on civilians, the media portray this level of violence as justified and therefore not really "violence" in the negative sense. Such portrayal leads many to think that the resisters have merely gotten or are getting what they have asked for and deserve. After all, the police and military are merely upholding the law.

4. Terrorist Violence: This category is complicated -- again by bias (on the part of governments, police, media and academia) favoring violent structures and their defense. Though more aptly applied to what has here been termed "reactionary violence," the term "terrorism" is usually (and erroneously) applied indiscriminately to category two (above), the violence of self-defense. In the official or popular mind, it almost never finds application to categories one or three.

Such error is rendered nearly inevitable by official definitions of "terrorism" For instance, the F.B.I. defines  terroristic violence as "The unlawful (emphasis added) use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

This definition is noteworthy for its emphasis on law (or legal structures). Terrorism, it says, is "unlawful" use of force and violence. That is, following this definition, the possibility of unjust legal structures is rendered completely invisible and ruled out of consideration.

Yet is it is clear that the enforcement of law itself (by the British in colonial America, the Nazis in the 1930s, the Afrikaners in South Africa, by State governments in the Jim Crow South, or by Zionists in Palestine) can intimidate or coerce entire "civilian populations or segments thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

In other words, state terrorism is not only possible, but has arguably been far more destructive than non-state terrorism. Chomsky and Herman recognized this in their classic The Real Terror Network. There they call state terrorism (such as that directed towards Palestinians by the Zionist state) "wholesale terrorism," and responses to it (even like suicide bombers) as "retail" terror.

[That raises the question of Palestinian suicide bombers, who first appeared in 1995. For most, this is correctly identified as a quintessential act of terrorism. However distinctions made here suggest the following question: In terms of terrorism, what is the difference between suicide bombers and the Israeli response we are now witnessing in Gaza? To begin with, the suicide bombing was not "original" violence but a response to first-level (structural) and third level (reactionary) violence. Moreover the Zionist response on average takes ten to twenty times the number of Palestinian civilian lives as the original attack -- just as indiscriminately as any suicide bombing.

Such figures describe state "terrorism" writ large. They illustrate Chomsky and Herman's distinction between wholesale and retail terrorism.]

With all of this in mind, the distinctions offered by liberation theologians in Latin America and in Palestine lead the following conclusions:

  *   Since it is defending the structural violence of illegal occupation (in violation, for instance, of UN Resolution 242,  Israel has no justifiable claim to self-defense.

  *   Its present offensive in Gaza does not even qualify as (unjustifiable) "reactionary violence."

  *   Rather, it represents an act of wholesale terrorism in its indiscriminate attacks on civilians, homes, schools, playgrounds, power plants, and refugee centers.

  *   Meanwhile Palestinians have the right to self-defense. As Chris Hedges has recently pointed out,  this is supported by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter and by Article III of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

  *   Nevertheless suicide bombing is an act of terrorism and cannot be morally justified.

  *   But Zionist response is no different in moral terms and far more destructive as an act of wholesale terrorism.

  *   In comparison to Israel's structural, reactionary, and terroristic violence, Hamas' rocket fire into Israel turns out to be more symbolic than destructive. Its nearly victimless effect is to keep the Jewish population aware of the ongoing injustice of illegal occupation, of the illegal separation wall, and the seven year siege of Gaza, the largest prison camp on the face of the earth.

My conclusion to all of this is the following: It is time for media coverage (from The New York Times to Atencion ) to abandon their pro-Israel coverage which is itself part of the structural violence destroying Palestinian lives. Even more, it is time for activists like those in San Miguel's Center for Global Justice to find their voices on behalf of the voiceless.

Regardless of threats to our organizations and careers, we must all bravely speak out on behalf of Palestinians and condemn Zionist ethnic cleansing.


Mike Rivage-Seul is a liberation theologian and former Roman Catholic priest. Recently retired, he taught at Berea College in Kentucky for 36 years where he directed Berea's Peace and Social Justice Studies Program.Mike blogs at