Palestine’s Use of Terrorism as a Revolutionary Strategy


By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University

Terrorism is a political tactic to engineer radical change. It is a violent weapon to achieve a political agenda that its practitioners surmise isn’t attainable through other means. The trend began in Palestine after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Britain gained control of Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, and initially showed no signs of giving up its hold despite some Arab rebellions and small terrorist attacks in the postwar years.

Man with a bomb against the Palestinian flag
Palestinian factions rose up in arms to fight for their cause. Revolutionary terrorism was their means to establish the Palestinian state. (Image:

The Rise of Irgun

In 1942, a Polish Jew by the name of Menachem Begin moved to Palestine as part of the Polish army in exile during World War II. He joined a national movement known as Irgun, which was committed to creating a Jewish state along the Jordan River and he galvanized resistance against the British occupation.

Begin planned to attack British government agencies in Palestine. He believed the British would conclude that the cost of contending with terrorist violence exceeded any benefit of staying in Palestine.

The Attack on King David Hotel

Irgun’s attack came in July 1946 at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Explosives were planted in the British wing of the hotel. The group issued evacuation warnings prior to detonating the explosives, ostensibly to limit the bloodshed. Ninety-one people were killed and 45 more were injured.

The casualties inflamed local anxieties and attracted worldwide media coverage. Irgun wanted to unnerve the British while simultaneously calling global attention to the Palestine situation. Bombing the King David Hotel was Irgun’s attempt to choreograph political violence for an international audience. It was one thing to challenge Great Britain locally and another to embarrass the English on the world stage.

As Britain weighed its options, the attacks continued. And on May 15, 1948, it capitulated. In less than two years, revolutionary terrorism had achieved its aim in Palestine. Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine didn’t end violence. Instead, unresolved disputes would initiate a new era of terrorism in the years ahead.

Arab-Israeli War

After the Israeli state was declared in May 1948, Arabs attacked Jewish positions and the first Arab-Israeli war began. But Jewish forces seized the upper hand and emerged victorious in 1949.

The United Nations-brokered armistice between the combatants in 1949 recognized the newly formed Israeli state, and allowed Israel to significantly expand its territory from what it had been under the Partition Plan.

Two-thirds of what had been Palestine now comprised the Jewish state of Israel. The other third came under the control of Egypt and Jordan.

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The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah

In 1964, at an Arab League Summit in Cairo, Palestinians resolved to reclaim the lost territory and united to form a single group: the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to work toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But a growing faction of young revolutionaries believed that only armed struggle would free Palestine from Israel. Breaking with more moderate voices, these men formed a guerrilla group called Fatah.

Over the next several years, Fatah carried out a series of strikes inside Israel. Israel retaliated. As the violence escalated, the Palestinians seemed to move no closer toward their goal. Then in June 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike, claiming Egyptian and Syrian aggression.

In six days, Israel defeated the military forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. This enabled it to occupy the portion of Palestine it didn’t already control and to seize additional lands from Egypt and Syria.

Hijacking to Make a Political Statement

Later, Fatah and Arafat pulled back to Jordan and Syria, where they set up training camps to prepare for eventual military action against Israel. Another Palestinian faction, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, now injected a new tactic into the terror toolbox.

Three members of the group hijacked an Israeli El Al commercial flight from Rome to Tel Aviv in 1968. This hijacking was a political statement with political demands. After diverting the plane to Algiers, the hijackers demanded the release of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. Finally, a swap of the hostages for 16 Palestinian prisoners was arranged. The hijacking of the El Al flight captured the world’s attention.

Terror Strike at the 1972 Olympic Games

The next year, Arafat became chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And on September 5, 1972, the Olympic Games underway in Munich, West Germany, saw a deadly standoff over the fate of Palestine and Israel on TV screens around the world with the lives of a group of Olympic athletes hanging in the balance.

Terrorist holding a hostage
With the West German authorities initiating a shootout, the hostage-held athletes lost their lives among many other people. (Image: Kittirat roekburi/Shutterstock)

Palestinian terrorists shot dead a wrestling coach and a weightlifter. Nine athletes were taken, hostage. Within hours, a Palestinian liberation group called Black September issued its demands. Unless 236 Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails were released, one hostage would be executed every two hours.

Finally, the hostage-takers would be flown to Tunisia and the hostages let go. West German authorities botched a planned rescue at the airport. All nine hostages were killed, along with five terrorists, and a West German police officer.

Political Outcome of Terrorism

An estimated 900 million people worldwide followed the tragic events. Many observers believed that the murder of the Israeli athletes had irrevocably tarnished the Palestinians’ cause. But the men who’d directed the operation for Fatah and the PLO considered it a great success.

The PLO was granted special observer status. Even without a formal state, the Palestinians had proven themselves to be a significant factor in geopolitics.

The horror with which many in the West had greeted the Palestinian attack against Israeli athletes was countered with sympathy in other parts of the where the West was resented. Terrorism seemed to offer an opportunity to invert the paradigms of power, turning terrorism into a revolutionary methodology.

Common Questions about Palestine’s Use of Terrorism as a Revolutionary Strategy

Q: How did Menachem Begin contribute to the cause of Palestine?

Menachem Begin was part of a national movement known as Irgun and planned to attack British government agencies in Palestine. He believed the British would conclude that the cost of contending with terrorist violence exceeded any benefit of staying in Palestine.

Q: What was the motive behind hijacking the El Al commercial flight from Rome to Tel Aviv?

The hijacking was a political statement with political demands aimed at demanding the release of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel.

Q: What happened during the 1972 Olympic Games?

Palestinian terrorists shot dead a weightlifter and a wrestling coach, while 9 other athletes were held, hostage.

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