How I became a terrorist

Adrian Kreutz

Mondoweiss  /  July 30, 2023

Adrian Kreutz reflects on his visit to Palestine to join in Al-Haq’s International Law Summer Program.

It is early morning at Luton Airport. I am being dragged into a conversation. His round, dark eyes peek behind small oval glasses. The brim of his black hat throws a harsh shadow on his thought-wrinkled forehead. The plane hasn’t yet departed. My answers are curt. I am tired. 

It feels like an interrogation. I am being quizzed about my family’s history. Many of his questions I don’t have answers to — I know very little about my family’s past. He, on the other hand, guides me through decades of nephews and nieces and their whereabouts. I recognize a familiar topography: Vienna, Berlin, Dachau. We bond over our shared Austro-Germanic origins — the strange intimacies of geographical proximity. 

“I understand German!” he says triumphantly in a language that sounds familiar to my Teutonic ears. He speaks Yiddish. I respond in German. Our German-Yiddish exchange flows smoothly. “Ikh hob lib der eydisher humor (I love the Yiddish humor),” he says. “Only the Germans share this sense of humor,” he adds. “The Brits don’t get it. They laugh at Chaplin, imagine.” He wants to test his hypothesis. I listen. But clearly, despite all linguistic commonalities, we don’t share a sense of humor — my courtesy laughs reveal as much. He jokes about “killing Turks.” I don’t know how to respond. We sit in silence. The plane lands in Tel Aviv.

“What’s your purpose of traveling to Israel?” my Yiddish-speaking neighbor asks in plain, virtually punitive English. I was well-prepared to answer — in fact, I had rehearsed an entire monologue before departing. And there I was, uttering a nicely constructed half-truth without batting an eyelid: “Just seeing friends…” 

I couldn’t have told him the whole truth, after all, because the truth was that I was about to become a terrorist — in other words, I was about to join Al-Haq for their International Law Summer Program in Ramallah. Al-Haq and five other Palestinian human rights organizations were designated as “terrorist” organizations by Israel in 2021, despite no credible evidence to prove it. 

Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport was built on the remains of Al-Lydd, a Palestinian town occupied by paramilitary forces on July 11, 1948. On the orders of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, the entire population of nearly 20,000 Palestinians was expelled. Zionist forces massacred more than one hundred people in the city’s Dahmash Mosque, where they sought protection . History books don’t talk about the corpses that were left for months to bake in the summer sun. Only scant forensic traces remain. Many families from Al-Lydd escaped to Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem — that I would learn two weeks after touching down, on a rooftop in Aida overlooking military watchtowers and olive trees. The residents of Aida are classified by the UNRWA as refugees with a right to return, but a return to where exactly? The runways of Ben Gurion Airport? I leave the airport in oblivion, not knowing yet about the blood and tears on which it was built.

I approach a taxi with a yellow number plate arranged for my pick-up. Fahed, the driver, sends me a selfie to help me identify him among the many taxi drivers waiting outside TLV. Most drivers will shuttle Americans to Israel’s holiday destinations. Fahed will drive me to an opening, a crack, in the Apartheid wall, somewhere northwest of Jerusalem. The barrier was built following the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000. Preceding it, in 1994, Yasser Arafat signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement and the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations, creating the Palestinian Authority and a customs union and tax clearing system with the occupying force. Many today think that in signing those agreements, Arafat sealed the fate of Palestine once and for all. 

Fahed smokes Capital cigarettes: “Insanely strong, insanely good,” he says (or at least that’s what I infer from his facial expression — my Arabic is virtually non-existent). 

He offers me one of his “Palestinian cigarettes.” I can confirm immediately — those immediate-headache-inducing cigarettes are “insanely strong.” Despite a sticker identifying the cigarettes as a product of Palestine, they aren’t, strictly speaking, a Palestinian product. Capital cigarettes are manufactured by Tutun CTC, a cigarette maker based in the Republic of Moldova. Google says that Tutun is part of the Altria Group, Inc. (previously known as Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), an American corporation and one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco. Capital cigarettes enter the Palestinian market through Israeli ports. The Paris Protocol is the reason why Fahed was paying for his cigarettes in Israeli Shekel. 

We wait for Maah-Noor under the watchful eyes of Israeli security guards. I know Maah-Noor from Oxford. She will take the Bar this summer. We are meant to share a taxi to Ramallah, but Maah-Noor is kept at immigration. Fahed asks me to close the doors and windows. Once the car is sealed, he calls Maah-Noor, whose Arabic is better than mine. Fahed is impatient. He wants to go fishing in Jaffa this evening. Fishing conditions are good these days, he explains. We leave the airport without Maah-Noor. She will be interrogated for several hours. 

Fahed is a reckless but confident driver. After twenty minutes of racing up and down the hills of the West Bank, and preoccupied by another Capital cigarette, he misses the highway exit. He pulls over on the hard shoulder, punches the gear stick into reverse, and casually bumps the car into the guardrail — “Welcome to Falastin!” he says jovially. We approach concrete blocks and an unmanned barrier. A taxi with a green number plate pulls up on the other side of the hilltop: “This is your Falastini taxi. Goodbye, my friend!” 

Perplexed, I thank Fahed for the ride. I scramble over the concrete blocks and piles of Capital cigarette boxes. No border guards, no harassment, no passports: the smoothest entrance into a military occupation I could have imagined.

I arrive late in Ramallah. I am welcomed by a group of law students, practicing human-rights lawyers, and activists. Wessam, a human-rights coordinator at Al-Haq, greets us. Wessam welcomes us not with inflammatory rhetoric but by advocating adherence: “Stop reading manifestos, and do an LL.M,” that’s the credo here at Al-Haq, says Wessam. “We fight the occupation with pen and paper, law books, and political analyses.” I will stay with Al-Haq for another two weeks, racing up and down the occupied territory to meet human rights activists and local civilian heroes creatively fighting occupation in their very unique ways. We will also meet aggressive settlers, the parents of martyrs, and middle-class Europeans (like us) on their humanitarian missions (unlike us). 

Prior to my arrival, Wessam sent out a copy of Fayez Sayegh’s 1965 report on the Palestinian situation. Sayegh might have been the first to use the terminology of settler-colonialism to describe the Zionist project. The report focuses on the Absentee Property Law 1951, regulating the property of Palestinian refugees. Sayegh describes the Absentee regulations as one of the first entrenchments of the settler colonial project in Israeli law. Two Intifadas later, almost everything Sayegh said sixty years ago is still valid today. Where UNRWA maintains a right of return to Palestinian refugees, inside and outside the occupied territories, the Absentee Law makes this virtually impossible. Like in the case of Al-Lydd, Palestinian property is now, sixty years later, thoroughly part of Israeli infrastructure. 

When Israel declared Al-Haq a terrorist organization alongside five other Palestinian human rights NGOs in 2021, it was big news even in Germany. The terrorist designation has hampered international funding. Stemming the money stream seems to have been Israel’s objective. However, Israel is yet to implement the full repercussions of this designation. Anyone associated with a terrorist organization may be kept in administrative detention at any time (one of Israel’s custodial practices deemed unlawful by the 4th Geneva Convention of 1978). “It is psychological torture to me when I know that my colleagues are getting arrested. I try not to think about the fact that I could get arrested for my work,” says Milena Ansari, international advocacy officer at Addameer:

“Every day I think, I hope, today is not the day they lock me up and take me away. Every time I travel through the airport, I am forced to live in constant anxiety. But at the end of the day, I put that aside. We try our best to remember the people that we serve. The work that we do is important work — our main priority is the protection of our people.” 

A secret dossier revealed by The Intercept showed that Israel hasn’t presented a single piece of credible evidence for the designation. Several European Union states have rejected the designation. An official statement concerning the terrorist designation by the Union itself is overdue. 

The “terroristic” pact between me and the Al-Haq Centre for Applied International Law is officialized with the sharing of cardamom coffee and Capital cigarettes.

Later that week, on a field trip to Hebron, Lillian, an Australian international criminal lawyer residing in Geneva, notices the phantom-like presence of the European Union. Abandoned houses surrounding military checkpoints are preserved through European initiatives. The Spanish government keeps up several houses around the famous Mosque-Synagogue-compound devoted to Abraham. German money, aggressively advertised around the old city, sustains a dying market street. Since arson attacks on Palestinian shoppers, the historic center of Hebron has experienced a ghost-creep. Walking on segregated Shuhada street means not being able to escape Apartheid reality. Whatever the outcome of the, euphemistically put, “conflict” between Israel and Palestine, says Lillian, the EU wants to be on the right side of history. 

The EU wants to have its cake, and it eat it too: maintain friendly relations with “a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East,” as Ursula Von der Leyen has reiterated recently, and keep up the pretense of protecting civil liberties and human rights. And how better to leave a mark than on the built environment itself? Elsewhere in the occupied territory, every second construction is embellished with a big European Union sticker. The most dangerous word in English, says a Bedouin man on our visit to the hills of Jericho, is “help.” Israel cuts off the Bedouin community’s water supply, and the EU builds the Bedouins a bathtub — the satire of humanitarian aid. An awkward silence fills the bus on our way back to Ramallah. 

Our usual discussions on the bus, in hotel lobbies, and over falafel for dinner oscillate between the affirmation and rejection of political power. We like to think that the law will “fix it” that brute violence can be met with talk of rights and obligations. In that spirit, we leave Ramallah behind and drive southwards. In Bethlehem, we meet the representative of Badil, an assertive Palestinian woman with an American accent, wearing French loafers on the cobblestones of the Old City. She calls for the dismantling of the occupation regime through something like a repeated Nürnberg Trial. This all sounds very good on paper: equal rights in a one-state structure, unconditional right to return, post-hoc accountability mechanisms, and a complete dismantlement of the settler colonial regime. If we take the settler colonial framework seriously, she says, our political inferences must go beyond the Oslo Accords, beyond the ‘67 borders, beyond the ‘48 Partition Plan, and beyond the Balfour Declaration — for arguably, it was Balfour who translated Herzl’s utopia into geopolitics. Wishful thinking? I found myself nodding along. 

But Israel insists on the rule of law, too. The much-scolded Oslo Accords have turned the occupied territories into a Swiss cheese-shaped geography, and it was based on an assumption that challenging political power through the infinitely patient legal process would pacify the “enemy” and guarantee security on both sides of the wall. Arafat thought it would establish a governable situation for the Palestinian Authority. 

The Palestinian reality today looks different, more like a suffocation by means of the law. The Israeli Supreme Court judges are masters of the craft of justifying contravention of international standards and conventions. There is the law, the law of international treaties and statutes, and then there is Israeli law — two completely different disciplines, or so it might seem. Israeli law destroys homes by court order and makes Palestinians disappear in detention centers without charge for months on end. Meanwhile, the custodians of the liberal rule of law — that is, the norms and practices of international jurisdiction — fantasize about the New Jerusalem of post-apartheid international rule of law, catalyzed through imaginary intuitions, such as post-Nürnberg criminal trials. Wishful thinking? I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

A great example of the ingenuity of Israeli law is Military Order No. 3, 1967. This masterpiece of colonialist law-making cuts out major parts of the Geneva Convention of 1949, ratifying only the humanitarian provisions. Those humanitarian provisions, under some very creative interpretation, play a strategic role in the custodial practices in Israeli military prisons and the ongoing expansion of settlements — both are justified on the grounds of “safety and order,” as set out in International Humanitarian Law. According to Israel, banana-bound Palestinian prisoners (banana-biding is a torture practice that doesn’t leave identifiable marks on the tortured bodies) are “safe” in torture cells

Ironically, returning a detainee to their territory, as required by international conventions, is considered an unacceptable infringement of the detainee’s welfare and safety. As for the settlements, they usually expand from strategic military zones, slowly annexing the occupied territories under the guise of order and safety. 

What Israeli order and safety look like, in practice, can be seen in the example of Nabi Saleh, a small village near Ramallah. Nabi Saleh made news in 2009 after attacks from the nearby settlement of Halamish. Since then, the villagers have resisted persistent harassment from the settlers. Nabi Saleh has had its water cut off repeatedly. The settlers took over large parts of Nabi Saleh’s agricultural land. Since 2009, ten Salehites have been killed by the IDF, and almost every other resident has either been severely injured or detained at least once. The village made headlines again in 2017 when Ahed Tamimi, a teenager, slapped a soldier’s face after they had shot her cousin in the head with a rubber-coated metal bullet. The entire incident was live-streamed on social media. Ahed and her mother were sentenced to eight months in military prison. The report on Ahed’s imprisonment mentions the “welfare and safety” of the detainees as grounds for the unlawful imprisonment of an underaged on foreign territory — another example of “Israeli law.” 

In June 2023, on the day of my arrival in Ramallah, Nabi Saleh made the news again. The two-year-old Hamoudi Tamimi died after he was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers near the entrance to his home. I read the +972 Magazine report on the attacks on my flight to Tel Aviv under the careful eyes of the Yiddish traveler. The report quotes the heart-breaking words of Marwa Tamimi, the mother of the two-year-old: “I heard shooting. I went out and saw that my husband’s whole shirt was covered in blood. He didn’t notice that he was wounded because he was focused on Hamoudi, who had been shot in the head. When I saw him, I said: ‘Hamoudi’s gone’.” 

One afternoon, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, our bus takes an unexpected turn. A member of the Al-Haq team has arranged for us to meet the parents of a martyr — a particularly famous one, at that. Siham sits on the balcony of their home, surrounded by settlement projects, peacefully practicing Palestinian embroidery. Siham is the mother of Basil al-Araj, the writer and activist killed by Israeli special forces in 2017. Dark clouds ascend over East Jerusalem hilltops, turning the desert heat into a chilly ocean of saltwater-soaked clouds. Basil’s father, Mahmoud, is unbothered by the sudden shift in temperature. Proudly, he tells us about Basil’s childhood. Basil was a curious, attentive boy, he says. ‘They tried to silence him because he knew how to speak, but he remained steadfast until the end,’ adds Siham.

During a nine-day hunger strike in a Palestinian Authority-administered prison, Basil managed to communicate with the outside world via his lawyers, writing a sentence on a scrap of paper: “We are required to choose one of the two: battle or humiliation. We are far from accepting humiliation.” The line he wrote is a saying attributed to Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Almost a year earlier, Basil swapped the pen for the gun in 2015, and was captured by the PA with his comrades and imprisoned for the better part of a year, before they won their freedom during their hunger strike. That’s when Basil went into hiding, and in March 2017, he was assassinated by the Israeli army’s Yamam special forces unit. Carefully placed in a black, rectangular frame in the al-Araj living room is Basil’s farewell note, hastily written on a dirty piece of paper. He was shot twenty-one times. Wessam translates from the Arabic until his voice cracks. Mahmoud smiles and says: “I have so much sorrow since Basil’s gone. I want to feel some happiness again. I want to think he died for something, for our liberation.” Mahmoud jumps off his plastic chair, puffs out his chest, and raises his hand for a military salute. 

Some of Basil’s books are piled in a corner. I recognize the covers of Franz Fanon, Lenin, and Edward Said between Islamic texts. I have taught these authors to countless undergraduates at Oxford’s prestigious PPE (Philosophy, Politics, Economics) program. I wonder what Basil found in those thinkers that perhaps I will never find — a call to arms, not simply an intellectual exercise. Or a justification for resistance, may it be violent, may it be painful. 

The academic literature on political violence either wholly ignores Fanon or references his work in passing only. Ted Honderich’s popular work on political violence goes as far as suggesting that Fanon offered no interesting defense of anti-colonial violence. Some commentators have paid attention to the intellectual sources of Fanon’s work — in Hegel, Sartre, and Marx — but typically have little to nothing to say about Fanon’s original and intriguing account of political violence, or worse tend to write off his theory of violence as a “glorification.” Most of my Oxford students take this latter view. I wish I could have talked about all this with Basil.

The following day, Palestine’s social media hero and comedy talent, Adnan Barq, teaches me how to eat falafel and hummus, but properly. You take the pita, wrap it around the falafel ball, dip it in hummus, and most importantly, the lemon-garlic-pepper dressing. Adnan’s videos went viral after he recorded falling into a bomb hole in the village of Lifta — an abandoned Palestinian town outside West Jerusalem, famous for attracting the Israeli porn industry for “Oriental kink” shots. I notice that Adnan, unlike many other Palestinians, doesn’t play the “numbers game.” Diaspora Palestinians, particularly those from the United States, tend to refer to Israel as “’48 Palestine,” or simply “48,” highlighting the settler colonial project that is Zionism — a boycott with words. 

I am hesitant. I have never heard anyone refer to the U.S.A as “’76 native land,” or similar. I understand the importance of shaping the discourse. Words are powerful, as the story of Basil al-Araj has proven. I wonder, however, what is being denied, what is being escaped, when the word “Israel” is removed from our vocabulary. Isn’t it Israel through which I will be leaving on my way back to London? I dare not mention that I hesitate to deny the existence of Israel by means of linguistic re-description. I simply don’t think we can wish away a state. And undeniably, Israel is a state, and the occupied territories are not, and have never been, and most likely will never be. The Palestinian Authority knows as much.

After two challenging and equally rewarding weeks, I take my bags and jump off the bus in Jerusalem. At Jerusalem’s Sira Café, a lefty hot spot, littered with radically chic Antifa stickers, I meet a group of law students from the Hebrew University. Sira Café has been copy-pasted into West Jerusalem from Kreuzberg or Friedrichshain: the same tropes, the same aesthetic markers of middle-class radicalism, the same music, the same #freepalestine scribbles on the toilet walls, the same drinks, the same under-frothed cappuccinos. I like it. But something about it is terribly fake. Jacob, one of the organizers of the Jerusalem Antifa, tells me how “Inshalla, soon enough this day comes where the apartheid regime will change dramatically.”

Against the “Neo-Zionist regime,” he tells me smugly, they have placed a banner on Jerusalem Day earlier this year — “a great success in the eyes of the Israeli Antifa,” he says. Jacob, who spent his last year of studies on exchange at the Humboldt University in Berlin, emphasized that being in Germany, and engaging with the local radicals, taught him how commemorating the fight against Nazi Germany “isn’t just about memory and history, but a look at present fascist Israel.” Sadly, he adds, the resistance to fascism isn’t very high up on the agenda of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. Palestine hasn’t yet understood that its liberation depends on winning the class struggle. The discussion soon deteriorates into disagreements about historical materialism. Palestine remains unmentioned for the remainder of the evening. I decide to leave Jerusalem and spend my last night in Tel Aviv, the Hebrew metropole within its own Palestinian colony.

Of course, Tel Aviv knows what is happening on the other side of the wall and chooses to escape from this reality. I feel oddly humiliated by Tel Aviv. I am European, and Tel Aviv is its outpost — the dream of a Nouveau Berlin on the Mediterranean coast. I feel guilty for liking it a bit too much — that’s something I dare not mention to my friends at Al-Haq. Our WhatsApp group chat is constantly flooded with messages as is. 

The next morning, a Deutsche Bahn train rapidly transports me from Ha’haganah to Ben Gurion Airport. Once again, I am being quizzed about my reasons for visiting Israel. Again, I answer with a well-rehearsed half-truth: ‘Just visiting friends…’ 

They make me list my Israeli contacts. “But then why did you visit the West Bank?” asks the security guard. I am surprised they even know I visited the occupied territory. Had I not squeezed through a hole in the wall? 

“I was simply curious,” I answer politely. 

“Why would you be curious about an Arab country?”

“I don’t know, I just wanted to know what it’s like over there.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know why…” 

“You must know why you were curious about visiting Hebron, and Nablus, and Ramallah, and Jericho!” 

I admit, I start to sweat, and my heart pumps a little faster. “I just wanted to see those places, what’s wrong with that?”

“Do you hate Israel?”

“No, clearly not, I just visited Israel, why would I hate it?” 

“Then why did you visit Palestine?”

Once again, I am speechless. I don’t know how to answer this onslaught of historical and conceptual revisionism. We stand in silence. The security officer punches a yellow stamp on the back of my passport. They unpack my luggage, go through every little thing, open every single book, and assess every single sock. One of the officers notices a Suhrkamp copy of Gershom Scholem’s On the Kabballah and its Symbolism, a book I found at a Vintage Bookshop in Jerusalem. He flicks through the book and shakes it violently as if something might be hiding between its pages. 

“This is confiscated!”

I dare not ask why. 

Adrian Kreutz is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Amsterdam; he is finishing a PhD in Politics at the University of Oxford on the legitimacy of non-state actors