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Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Our differing approaches to terror

The word ‘racist’ is overused, but when dealing with terrorists it is all too accurate

Israel "is not a country about aggression and targeted assassination, it's a country about science, hi-tech and shopping malls". This arresting definition was proposed on Channel 4 News on Thursday evening by Rami Igra, a former Mossad agent, although he rather spoiled the effect by what he said later.

In fact, everyone assumes that Mossad did it. The authorities in Dubai believe the Israeli secret service assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas official, last month. The British Government agrees that it was Mossad, or at least wagged a finger at the Israeli ambassador because British citizens' passports stolen in Israel had been used by the hit squad.

And most Israelis, with varying degrees of approval, agree. Igra contradicted himself by adding that the battle line nowadays wasn't the Maginot Line or Stalingrad (not an argument one had recently heard) but the streets of London and Jerusalem, and that in this great conflict "Western civilisation" was obliged to find new methods – "including targeted assassinations".

Not that this was a revelation. For years Israel has openly proclaimed that it will take revenge on those who kill its citizens. Those responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre were all hunted down and killed, along with the odd bystander. The "targeted killing" of suspected terrorists has long been avowed policy. A few years ago, the then deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said he did not exclude the option of assassinating the elected president of the Palestinian Authority.

All of which highlights a blatant double standard, between the treatment of terrorists of different nationalities and hues. The word "racist" is overused, but in this context it applies all too accurately.

Tomorrow evening we can watch the remarkable spectacle of a television programme about Jesus presented by Gerry Adams, the impenitent former leader of the IRA who was responsible for some of its worst atrocities. This is one more case where television companies as well as politicians weigh with two weights and judge with two measures.

Some years ago, the contrarian Belfast journalist John O'Farrell (not a Protestant unionist) was writing about the career of Martin McGuinness, which had taken him from head of the IRA to minister of education. As O'Farrell said, thanks to the Belfast agreement and settlement, "the children of Northern Ireland will have their futures in the hands of a man who, if he were a Serb, would be indicted at The Hague".

Or try another comparison, the respective fate of two terrorist leaders. One is a white Catholic Irishman, the other a dark-skinned Muslim Palestinian; one is asked to present a programme on Jesus, the other is brutally bumped off – an assassination which, like all such by Mossad, will never be publicly condemned by the US. Suppose that, at the height of the IRA violence, Adams and McGuinness had been the objects of "targeted killing" by MI6. It's interesting to speculate what the American reaction would have been.

The British media are sometimes accused of a bias against Israel. But would Channel 4 ask an unrepentant Islamist terrorist who had killed ordinary Israelis to present a programme on the Prophet Mohamed? Or, for that matter, Ratko Mladic to talk about Orthodox Christianity and the Serbian monastic tradition?

This comparison – the question of why some terrorists are more terrorist than others – has indeed been addressed before, by Tony Blair. It was highly pertinent at the time he was doing everything he could to appease the IRA with one hand while the other was waging a savage "war on terror" in the Middle East.

And he addressed it with his usual glib speciousness concealing a feeble case. "I don't think," he said, "you can compare the political demands of republicanism with the political demands of this terrorist ideology we are facing now." Why not? Why is there any difference in kind between the ideologies, as well as the methods, of Adams and al-Mabhouh?

Compare and contrast, as exam papers say. The IRA and its front organisation Sinn Fein want to undo the partition of Ireland that was effected by the creation of a separate province of Northern Ireland in 1920. To that end the IRA deliberately murdered many people, including ordinary Protestants, and that end, if not the means, "is shared by many of our citizens", Blair says, as well as by millions of Irish Americans.

Hamas wants to undo the partition of Palestine that was effected by the creation of a separate state of Israel in 1948. To that end it has deliberately murdered many people, including ordinary Jews. And that end, if not the means, is shared by hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims as well as others in Asia and Africa. Why does their support not equally validate the objective?

When Blair spoke he was still prime minister. He has since gone on to highly paid fresh fields and lucrative pastures new. One of his supposed jobs is as envoy to "to promote an end to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict in conformity with the road-map", which was one of the justifications with which he previously sold the Iraq war to his deluded followers.

He has totally failed in that role, as the eminent Israeli historian Avi Shlaim observes, not least because of "his own personal limitations; his inability to grasp that the fundamental issue in this tragic conflict is not Israeli security but Palestinian national rights". Shlaim adds that this is precisely what has endeared Blair to the Israeli establishment, so that at the very time, a year ago when the people of Gaza were mourning their dead, Blair received an award from Tel Aviv university as "laureate for the present time dimension in the field of leadership", accompanied by a modest cheque for $1m.

As Shlaim says, the award was absurd in view of Blair's "silent complicity in Israel's continuing crimes against the Palestinian people" – but it was no less so in view of his indulgence towards Adams and McGuinness.

But then perhaps all this is too elaborate. It might be that the shade of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, and for that matter of any of the Taliban men recently extirpated by CIA drones, could contemplate tomorrow night's repulsive programme and simply ask, like Ali G: "Is it 'cos I is black?"