The Wrong Martyr

Human Rights Watch, Palestine / Joe Stork

April 13, 2010

The Palestinian Authority and the Fatah movement made a terrible mistake when they decided several months ago to name a public square in Al-Bireh, the West Bank city that abuts Ramallah, in honor of Dalal Mughrabi, a Palestinian woman who led a Fatah commando raid from Lebanon in 1978 that killed at least 35 Israeli civilians, including 13 children.

Commemorating as heroes and martyrs persons who give up their lives in a national struggle is commonplace around the world, of course, even if some of their exploits crossed the boundaries of legitimate warfare by violating the prohibition against attacks that target civilians. But in the case of Dalal Mughrabi, the only accomplishment for which she is honored is the attack that Israelis call the "coastal road massacre" and Fatah refers to as the "coastal operation."

The PA "postponed" for unspecified "technical reasons" the official dedication ceremony scheduled for March 11, the anniversary of the 1978 attack, apparently because it was just one day after the visit to Ramallah of US Vice-President Joe Biden. Later that day dozens of Fatah activists nonetheless gathered at the square, which is just outside the headquarters of the PA's National Political Guidance office, for an informal commemoration. The head of that office, Gen. Adnan Damiri, declined to participate but in comments to a reporter referred to the episode as "part of our heritage that led to the peace process and agreements" between Israel and the PA. Tawfiq Tirawi, security adviser to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, a member of the Fatah Central Committee, and former head of PA General Intelligence in the West Bank, did join the young activists, reportedly declaring that "we are all Dalal Mughrabi."

"Bad timing" apologies and postponements avoid the real issues - in this Palestinian case, a failure at the highest levels to provide "political guidance" that includes respect for the core laws-of-war obligation of fighters, whether they are part of a national army or an armed resistance movement,  to never target or indiscriminately attack civilians, and to take all feasible measures in conducting military operations to avoid harming civilians and civilian property. At issue is not whether Palestinians can or should resort to armed struggle, but how they conduct themselves when they do so.

Dalal Mughrabi's appeal as a heroine no doubt stems in part from her being a woman and her youth - she was 18 or 19 years old at the time of the attack in March 1978. The attack took place at a time when then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin were conducting negotiations that many Palestinians feared would undermine their interests.

Whatever Mughrabi's own motivations and intentions, she led an attack that began by shooting to death several Israeli civilians (and one American woman visitor) and then took hostage some 70 bus passengers, many of whom were also killed. According to survivors at the time, the Palestinians shot some of the hostages and others died as a result of explosions and fires caused by grenades the Palestinians dropped inside the bus when a security roadblock finally brought it to a halt north of Tel Aviv and an hours-long gun battle ensued. News accounts at the time reported that the Palestinians killed at least 35 civilians and one policeman; at least six of the 11 or 12-person Palestinian commando team also died.

Israeli commentator Gershon Gorenberg, after the PA's January announcement of its intent to honor Mughrabi, pointed out that Israeli officials had sometime earlier named a street in the mixed Jewish-Palestinian Arab city of Akko after Shlomo Ben-Yousef, who in 1938 with two Irgun comrades attacked a bus full of Arab civilians on a mountain road, intending to kill them. Ben-Yousef's attack failed - British Mandatory forces captured, tried, and hung him - but the intended targets were civilians. Prime Minister Netanyahu in early March of this year spoke at a Knesset event honoring Ben-Yousef, among others..  His actions are as shameful as those of the people who honor Dalal Mughrabi, but indifference by one side of the conflict to the fundamental prohibition against targeting civilians is no excuse for similar indifference by the other side.

The prohibition against targeting or indiscriminately attacking civilians is absolute: neither a just cause nor reprisal for an adversary's attacks changes the fact that they are always serious violations of international humanitarian law, and often constitute war crimes. In 2010, when accountability for such violations by Israeli forces in the Gaza fighting of December 2008 - January 2009 is prominent on the international agenda, the Palestinian Authority should have the good sense to cancel rather than merely postpone plans to memorialize Dalal Mughrabi, and to state clearly its intention going ahead to reserve such public honors for persons whose exploits do not flagrantly violate international law.