The controversy over how to define the attack on the American consulate in Libya is not the first time the U.S. government has raised eyebrows by refusing to use the word “terrorism.” A similar dispute in 1989 sparked a major row between George H. W. Bush’s administration and Israel.
American officials initially traced the Sept. 11 Libya attack, which took the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other diplomats, to “spontaneous reaction” during protests against the film “Innocence of Muslims.” It was not until Sept. 28 that Shawn Turner, director of public affairs for the Director of National Intelligence, conceded in a statement that the U.S. “revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists” linked to al-Qaeda.
On July 6, 1989, a Palestinian terrorist named Abd al-Hadi Ghneim grabbed the steering wheel of a bus traveling on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” (Allah is great), Ghneim drove the bus off the road and into a steep ravine. As it careened down the rocky slope, the bus caught fire and exploded.
It was the first recorded instance of Palestinian suicide terrorism. Sixteen passengers were killed, including 39 year-old Rita Levine, of Philadelphia, and two Canadians, Winnipeg teenager Fern Rykiss and Dr. Shelley Volokov Halpenny, of Vancouver. Among the 27 injured passengers were six Americans, including a woman on her way to see her daughter, a gymnast, compete in the Maccabiah games in Jerusalem.
Ironically, the terrorist survived.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the attack a “senseless, tragic incident,” but declined to use the word “terrorism.”
Defining the attack posed a political problem for the Bush administration. Seven months earlier, the U.S. had initiated contacts with Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, claiming the PLO had renounced terrorism. If the PLO was involved in the attack and the U.S. verified that it was terrorism, the administration might have to end its dealings with Arafat.
New York Times op-ed columnist William Safire was blunter. He wrote that the State Department was “worried about upsetting Mr. Arafat’s followers.”
As it turned out, Ghneim, a 25 year-old Gaza Strip resident, was not a member of Arafat’s PLO, but rather of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But PLO spokesman Bassam Abu Sharif complicated matters by praising the terrorist attack as “a human reaction” to “desperate conditions.” Sharif said, “He who protects his rights and opposes occupation is not a terrorist. If it were so, George Washington himself would be a terrorist.”
The State Department ignored Sharif’s statement, but praised Arafat for telling an interviewer, “It is painful for me to witness the loss of all these civilian lives.” Arafat did not directly condemn the attack.
Some prominent journalists likewise seemed reluctant to use the “T-word.” Washington Post correspondent Nora Boustany described Ghneim as an “activist.” New York Times reporter Joel Brinkley called him an “assailant.” In his first dispatch on subject, Brinkley characterized the massacre as an “attack,” an “accident,” and a “bus crash.” In his second article, however, he did call it a “terrorist attack.”
Israeli officials were shocked and disappointed by Washington’s position. Baruch Binah, spokesman for the Israeli Consulate in New York, said Sharif’s statements represented “the true feelings of the PLO,” and a letter circulated by the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Yochanan Bein, said Sharif’s remarks “provide clear evidence that the PLO never had any intention of renouncing terrorism and violence.” An Israeli official in Washington said the episode showed that the PLO’s alleged renunciation of terrorism, in order to begin talks with the United States, was “meaningless.”
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alon Liel minced no words. He said at a press conference that, “If the United States does not call it terrorism, in fact it gives a license to kill to every Palestinian individual or organization.”