Does Terrorism Work? The Palestinian Story, 1939-47

Bruce Hoffman

ABSTRACT: Does terrorism work? Its targets and victims steadfastly maintain that it does not; its practitioners and apologists that it does. Scholars and analysts are divided. But, if terrorism is as ineffective as many claim, why has it persisted for at least the past two millennia and indeed become an increasingly popular means of violent political expression in the twenty-first century? Using the Jewish terrorist campaign against the British in Palestine during the 1940s, this article attempts to shed light on this question.

“The establishment of the state of Israel was of course the product of other powerful forces in addition to terrorism. At the same time, however, it is indisputable that, at the very least, the successes won through violence by the Irgun clearly demonstrated that, notwithstanding the repeated denials of governments, terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, indeed ‘work’. Even if the Irgun’s success did not manifest itself in terms of the actual acquisition of power in government (Begin and his Herut Party remained in opposition for some 30 years), the meetings accorded to terrorist organizations hitherto branded as ‘thugs’ and ‘bandits’ in being granted audiences before the United Nations Special Committee, their success in attracting attention to themselves and their cause, and most significantly both hastening and affecting government decision-making, cannot be disregarded.

“The Irgun’s terrorism campaign is thus critical to understanding the evolution and development of modern, contemporary terrorism. They were the first to recognize the publicity value inherent in terrorism and to choreograph their violence for an audience far beyond the immediate geographical locus of their struggle. The Irgun directed its message to New York and Washington, DC, Paris and Moscow as much as to London and Jerusalem. The group’s ability to mobilize sympathy and support outside the narrow confines of its actual theatre of operation thus taught a powerful lesson to similarly aggrieved peoples elsewhere, who saw in terrorism an effective means of transforming hitherto local conflicts into international issues…

“ …when US military forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001 they found a copy of Begin’s seminal work, The Revolt, in the well-stocked library that al Qaeda maintained at one of its training facilities in that country.”

ARTICLE = “The rationality of terrorism and other forms of political violence: lessons from the Jewish campaign in Palestine, 1939–1947″ in Small Wars & Insurgencies … Published online: 20 Jun 2011.

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JERUSALEM, GAZA: Members of Haganah, the Jewish self-defence force, wave their arms 24 April 1948 after they have broken the Allied Arab forces blockade of Jerusalem, during heavy clashes between Jewish population of Palestine and Allied Arab forces. The state of Israel was founded 14 May 1948. (Photo credit should read AFP/Getty Images)

ALSO SEE articles by Michael Roberts

2005b “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict  & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

2005 “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites”, Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social  Analysis  50: 73-102.

2006 “Understanding Zealotry and Questions for Post-Orientalism, I” Lines May-August 2006,vol.5, 1 & 2, in

2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 30:  857-88.

200c “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today, June 2008,    24/3: 22-23.

2010  “Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s Metamorphosis in Death?” South Asian History and Culture Vol 1, No. 1, pp.25-41.

2010 “Self Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in  Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics. Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 161-201.


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